Clarity is Cool

1. Lifting the Blur

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.

2. Blur Man

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.

3. Looking at the Blur

13 thoughts on “Clarity is Cool”

  1. YES! I agree with this wholeheartedly! I like to think of things that I read as they are what they are, nothing more, nothing less. If I see a deeper meaning, than that is fantastic for myself, but doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone else will get the same meaning out of a sentence, a scene or a book.

    I think this is what makes writing and reading so fantastic.

    There are too many stories in this world to be interpreting what they all mean and finding symbolism where it was perhaps accidental or intentional (‘I know what he was meaning here!’).

    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

      So many of my stories revolve around mysteries, so if I want my audience looking for anything it’s the evidence of a twist. I don’t want to bog those scenes down with excess baggage.

      I love using symbolism in poetry, but I’ve had limited success with bring it into narratives.

      I agree, so many of my favorite instances of symbolism are accidental.

  2. Drew, you have just brought my A-Level English Literature lessons come crashing back into my brain!
    I should love Tess of the D’urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, because it is a good, solid story, but I got so sick of the teacher I had then being (quite creepily) obsessed with the supposed rape scene (it is implied Tess is raped and apparently there is a whole load of symbolism and imagery to suggest this is the case, eg a wooden stake thrust into the cart horse, the red tip of Alec’s cigarette (really, it’s dark) etc etc…. We spent months unpicking this instead of just enjoying the story. Now I know I’m going slightly off your point and no doubt there was symbolism of this kind here as there are notes and notes published on it, but at 18 years old, all I could think was: It’s quite obvious she’s been raped,. Could it not just be that perhaps Thomas Hardy had these other details just incidentally, accidentally?. Not as some intentional hidden imagery. I found the whole process of pulling apart narrative soul destroying (we did enough of that in poetry).

    Besides, I can’t stand it when people try to be so damn clever with their words that there’s no meaning to be discerned in them, because you’e so busy trying to work out what the hell they’e on about. I mean I like to stretch my brain and I like beautiful words but I want to enjoy a story for the story. I often feel ‘thick’ too as I don’t always understand ‘flowery’ language. You know my style is straight and to the point, whatever I’m writing!

    Great post Drew. You as always make a very good point.

    1. Thank you so much for commenting. More and more people on Facebook are telling me that they had similar experiences in English literature, where they were corralled into accepting a symbolic interpretation, when perhaps it was nothing.

      I think about this whenever I’m deep into writing fiction. There’s a fear that what I’m writing is coming too easily, like I’m supposed to be slaving over something for some reason, that my story is lacking. Then I realize subliminal symbolism and I keep right on going.

  3. Thank goodness for this post, Drew. Amidst the rejections that have begun to pile up for my novel, the most detailed response (i.e. not a form letter) opined that the agent liked the premise and loved the main character but did not care for the narrative style in that they felt there was not enough description. I’ve never been good at going into copious detail about the atmosphere, the smell of the dust in the room, the shimmer in the curtains as the breeze blows through the window, etc. etc. I prefer to just get the characters talking and go on with the story, which tends to unfold largely through dialogue. As a result my prose ends up being a lot more straightforward, and if this work sees the light of day at some future date there probably won’t be much to talk about in classrooms. Of course if invited as a guest lecturer I could make a lot of it up.

    Like Joanne says I think if you dug up any of these guys and asked them about the symbolism in a particular scene they’d offer back a blank stare and say “No such thing, mate, I just scribbled that out on a late Friday night after a few pints with the lads down the pub.” John Lennon admitted he used to put vague imagery in his lyrics just to mess with obsessive Beatles fans. It’s all a big con.

  4. One of the reasons I hated English lessons in High School and University was pretty much for the same reason; I felt I just didn’t get it! I enjoyed the stories (for the most part) but I was often stumped by the symbolism and therefore felt a little dumb. Thanks for this:)

  5. Sometimes I read your articles and I’m at a total and complete loss for words, but I don’t mean that in a bad way. I barely passed English in high school because I just didn’t care. I was lucky to scrape by with a 3.0 GPA because I was too lazy to study. The only thing that was ever expected of me was that I graduate high school, and I did. Between you and and a few other writers in the Twitter circles, I feel very small sometimes.

    Then I read articles like this one, and I feel as though maybe missing out on that education -albeit by my own design- wasn’t such a bad thing. Everything I draw from reading any author’s work – every emotion, any ideas, all of it – comes straight from my head with no pre-existing intellectual conditioning or expectations. My interpretation of the written word is my own, and always has been. It’s one thing, to simply be this way. People like you who’ve had to reach beyond what you’re taught, to question and overcome, to forge your own path against everything you’ve learned, are truly impressive.

    I feel very fortunate that what I learn comes from within, through my own personal search for answers and not guided by anyone’s preferences but my own. I’m lucky that I came into this at a time when I can learn from writers like you. A post like this is a sort of personal affirmation for me, a reminder that I don’t need to be the next Einstein or have a Master’s degree to reach people through writing. All I have to do is “speak” clearly. Preferably with as few typos as possible. 😉

    1. I’m still working on the typos myself 😉

      That and maintaining the same point of view and tense.

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Just scroll through the comments and you’ll find a few people who feel the same thing.

      One point I want to be clear on, I don’t want to add my voice to the choir vilifying education or intellectualism. I had to two very different experiences studying fiction: one in literature classes and one in screenwriting. My approach for writing fiction is modeled after the tools I learned in screenwriting. Though they’re different mediums, I learned much more about story telling in screenwriting.

      My problem with the professor in this example is that he through out the text, thinking that his tastes were more universal. The short stories he shared made me feel stupid, but in reality I just wasn’t very engaged.

  6. Sadly, this is precisely the reason I didn’t become an English major – I hated the search for symbolism at the expense of plot. I too worried I wasn’t “getting” something, figured I wasn’t “artsy” enough to be that kind of writer, and instead went into television. Not a mistake (TV has been good to me), but my first love is novels and I’m only just returning to them now. Though, I did have one English prof in university whose class I loved! Too bad they all didn’t engage the students with the stories as well as she did.

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