In college, I had a creative writing course that almost turned me off of the pursuit.
Safeguarding my 4.0 grade point average, I read the assigned short story collection before class began. These were award winning pieces; charming, clever, and oozing with emotion. When the professor saw my paperback copy, with it’s folded pages and well worn spine, my “A” would be a foregone conclusion, that was until he told us to ignore the syllabus. He was going off book, bringing in photocopies of stories from his personal collection. He felt they were better representations of what we should aspire to be writing.
As thick as these shorts were, they were uneventful, over stuffed with poetic language. If they were interpreted as films they’d be five minutes of awkward silences. If they were turned into plays, the director would have nothing to block out. The cast would stare off in opposite directions, while the audience waited for something to happen. The characters rarely moved, they made small talk to conceal larger conversations. The stories rarely came to conclusions, they just sort of ended.
Believing the absence of entertainment value signified some deeper meaning, I found myself rereading. It all went over my head. I felt illiterate. I kept looking, but I couldn’t see what the professor saw in these clips. I hoped our discussions would shed some light on his reasoning.
Rather than dwell on characters or plot points, we discussed the stories like we were interpreting dreams. Our conversations began with questions like:
“What did the color of the drapes represent?”
“How does the spiral staircase parallel the couple’s relationship?”
“When Gerald says, ‘The tree should have blossomed by now,’ what does he really mean?”
The professor preferred narratives that read like portraits. Paintings of couples frozen in time. These weren’t stories about changes, but explorations in the characters’ routines. If we wanted signs of development, we’d have to search for hints.
We were told to look for the iconography in the scenery, to search for symbolism in the humdrum, to find mosaics in the prosaic. It felt like we were learning valuable skills for critiquing another medium.
While I struggled to understand these stories, the rest of the class set out to find the invisible hand of the author, and they saw it everywhere. They were in on a joke that I didn’t get. They observed the feelings evoked by the sight of blue, red, and yellow, while I felt colorblind. Their fine toothed combs were finer than mine. Their enigma machines were in perfect working order, while I tried to break these codes with a crayon and a piece of paper.
This is not an exaggeration: I considered the possibility that I had an attention deficiency. I couldn’t focus long enough to read between the lines. I kept thinking, if I can’t see the value in these stories, who’s going to see the value in mine?
I thought that I might have poor taste, that Stephen King was what we peasants drank, with our beer bottle pockets, and these shorts were the Champagne of the literary world. My palate wasn’t refined enough to appreciate the difference.
When it came time for peer revue, our intentions were lost in translation. The authors were told they couldn’t chime in until the end, they had to soak in their audience’s confusion. Each short was an inkblot, open to interpretation. Every observation said more about the reader than the author of the words.
Scanning flat surfaces for signs of dimension, we saw sexual tension where there was none. We saw plot threads as thin as fishing lines, that told us the players were on borrowed time. Our subliminal searches led us to better stories than the author’s intended.
Relying on the Socratic method, the professor tried to direct us to conclusions using questions. This only added to the confusion. We came away with the wrong lessons.
The students got defensive. It wasn’t their fault that we lost the plot, we should’ve seen the signs. It wasn’t that they weren’t writing well, it was that we didn’t know how to read it right.
Imagine being told you didn’t get the job only to counter with, “You just didn’t get the symbolism in my cover letter.”
I couldn’t see the point of interjecting dual meanings, of making everything Freudian. I had a story to tell that involved police corruption, crooked lawyers, and demons. I couldn’t waste time languishing in any one location.
When I turned in my noir thriller, the professor was not a fan, but my peers had a different reaction. In their written feedback, they kept calling it “Fun.” There was a word we weren’t slinging around in our quest for deeper meaning, but “fun” was my intention.
I wanted to put something enticing on the surface before drawing my readers in. My popcorn prose weren’t completely on the nose. I didn’t prefer telling to showing, but it was clear what was happening.
I used symbols, but I took care not to make them the stars of the show. Clever characters, and an original premise were my big draws. Students thanked me for bringing action to my fiction. What I lacked in hidden meanings I made up in entertainment value.
I learned that symbols can be fascinating, tools to add layers to your writing, but you have to have a compelling story before anyone will feel the need to open it to interpretation.