Symbols and Motifs

You’ll remember: High school English class. You’re reading a work by a so-called master: Malamud or Steinbeck or Golding, perhaps. It’s an allegory, but who really cares what that means. The teacher is making you go through the usual motions of picking apart symbols, motifs, and themes, but it doesn’t make any sense. All the examples of it seem so contrived. Surely the author didn’t actually intend for the book to be read this way. All of this can’t be intentional. At best you’re connecting nonexistent dots. The teacher is probably just making all this up to pass the time until the year ends and you can be someone else’s pain in the neck.

Well, surprise! You were patently incorrect! It was all intentional! Perhaps rose and moons are just flowers and spheres in your trite teenage romance novels, written in two days by an uninspired ghost writer, but guess what? These are allegories! Of course it was all intentional! And I really do mean all of it. The fact that the moon keeps popping up with Memo in The Natural? IT’S A SYMBOL. The way Lenny is described as animalistic in Of Mice and Men? IT’S A SYMBOL. The fact that the boar’s head in The Lord of the Flies is represented as the titular Beelzebub? It’s not just a plot thing! IT’S A SYMBOL.

Oh, by the way, this isn’t speculation. Writers do use symbols, motifs, themes…liberally. Take it from someone who knows. Motifs are a staple, and fun as heck to incorporate. Symbols, too. The subtler, the better. Symbols are no fun to put into a piece of writing if they just jump out at you like a mugger from the stereotypical alleyway, shouting, “Hey, look at me! I’m a metaphor for the protagonist’s father issues!” That’s just stupid. Of course the symbols aren’t going to look as such at first glace. Of course they’re going to be hidden. But they’re there. Weaving literary devices like motifs into books is the writing equivalent of hiding your Easter candy in your lunch bag to be surprised with later that day, or keeping a record of inside jokes with yourself. They’re fun, useful, and most importantly, they exist.

Let me follow this up with one last example. When The Hunger Games movie came out last year, I (naturally) found myself irritated with the eternal teenage fangirl pastime I saw occurring, of dividing up into teams based on which male love interest one prefers. You know the ones: Team Peeta, Team Gale, Team Who Gives a Crap. Anyway, I naturally placed myself on my preferred team: Team Roman Allegory/Social Commentary, because seriously: The Hunger Games is absolutely bursting with meaning. However, some people were irritated with this (and not just because I was being superior about not drooling over fairly unoriginal fictional characters)(Yes, I’m aware I was being pretentious and I refuse to apologize), because they thought The Hunger Games was “just a story”, apparently implying that if a novel has a double meaning it’s somehow …. worse? Or that I was just reading into it and finding meaning where there was none.

The thing is though, they were wrong. It’s not just a story. It is, I’ll concede, a compelling narrative and an excellent novel, but it is not just a story. There are layers upon layers of hidden meaning. For instance, if you know anything about Ancient Rome and the fall of Caesar, the allegory is blindingly obvious. President Snow is Caesar. The Capitol is Rome. The Districts are the various conquered states of the empire. Even the name of the country, Panem, is related: It’s derived from the Latin phrase panem et circuses, which translates as bread and circuses and was the Roman’s way of keeping the public happy with their increasingly poor governance. They provided the people with food and entertainment (the gladiator fights in the coliseum) so they wouldn’t revolt or question them. Oh hey, look at that, gladiator fights, between slaves or foreigners of the various conquered territories – I wonder if that’s in any way related to the fact that the central premise of the book is a bunch of kids from conquered territories fighting to the death. I can continue on about the minor details, too: Cinna the Conspirator who was killed for, surprise, conspiring against Caesar (hey, isn’t there a character named Cinna? Look at that), the presence of a Plutarch and a Portia, the fact that the rebels happen to be from the untamed North…

We can also go on about the themes of the usurpation of tyranny, and there is an excellent essay hiding somewhere in the relation between how the murder of Caesar was seen as a terrible thing at the time (regicide), while nowadays, we glorify those who would overthrow unjust rulers, and how that ties into the fact that Panem is formerly America, a country that was founded on and praises revolution. And don’t even get me started on the social commentary on reality television. Gorgeous, intricate, thought-provoking, and, oh hey look at that: entirely real.

Obviously there are layers. It is not just a story. Symbolism is real. Writers use it. Your teachers were right.

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On Songs, Stories, Psychology

An interesting thought just occurred to me: songs are short stories. Very short stories, occasionally incoherent stories, and often stories that are not narrative or chronological, but stories. They describe scenes, events, and emotions in ways that rely on empathy for the listener to derive the tale. The listener gets impressions of feeling from the music (which is a setting, of sorts), and bits and snippets of the story that is unfolding from the verse. The story may be out of order and metaphorical, but it’s there in an inchoate form. 

I say this because I was thinking about one of my songs, the one uncreatively titled “Maybe”. It’s an angry break-up song, one with a scene, a narrative, and quite a lot of emotion in it – and it is totally fictional. None of the events in the song are from my life. Some general feelings, yes, but not derived from an event of the same category or caliber. It is made up. It is a story.

Therefore, I was hesitating to post it, because for some reason I (we?) have this notion that songs must be, in some form, autobiographical. Some ballads obviously aren’t, but those with vague lyrics or those not explicitly stated to be otherwise are assumed to be taken from the artist’s life, or influenced heavily by it, and therefore the artist’s mind can be extrapolated from the work.  

And this is not completely true. Many things can be inspired by empathy and poetic liberty, and it is uncomfortable when someone picks a strange or dark line from one of my works and attempts to tie it to some portion of my psyche. It is not that none of my writing comes from my own experiences and feelings (that would be impossible), but that not all of it does, and which is mine and which is not is purely for me to know. 

What I mean is, my work should be a body of its own. It is its own thing once I release it, its own entity to be analyzed. Of course it can be viewed through the context of the time and my stated philosophy, but I also say things I don’t mean and write things that aren’t real for the sake of pure storytelling effect. Feel free to analyze things, but I do not think it should be a study in my psychology, nor assumed to be autobiography.

At any rate, I should have a new song up soon. Everyone say “hooray!”