Final Paper

I have acquired the strangest sensation of wanting to murder an immaterial object… yet a sensation that is not exactly unfamiliar. I think we have all wished to stab a computer and have it bleed. The trouble with that, of course, is that we simultaneously desire to punish the offending object, and also have it work afterward, which represents quite the unfortunate conflict of interest.

This is even more challenging when one desires to viciously vivisect a piece of writing. Not the record of it, either, but the writing itself. However, to reach in to extract the viscera of the writing would … be challenging, not to mention futile. Not much you can do with a handful of jumbled letters.

Spent sometime staring at the spotted ceiling tiles of the library, contemplating just how, precisely, would you go about thoroughly disemvoweling a piece of writing. Burning, perhaps? Satisfying, but technically ineffective. Also, I still had to hand the damned thing in. Figured that a pile of ashes would get a poor mark.

Had to wonder that with all my exasperated upward staring if the other library denizens thought I was praying to Thoth or something. It would probably be more accurate to say I was praying to Sekhmet.

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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.

Ficlets: Not children anymore but we still wonder at snow

I was lamenting not writing more, so Dave encouraged me to write. This is always a good piece of advice, and one I really need to follow more. One I would follow, if I wasn’t so distracted with the other many facets of life, which are all very important, of course, but frequently beg me to examine my priorities. Which is more important to me, straight As or the crafting of tales? Which is more important, keeping up perfect attendance for frisbee, or spinning stories from the ether of dreams? Which is more important, knowledge and glory and science, or performing and completing the work I love and always return to?

None of these are easy questions with obvious answers, but yet I return to them day after day. I lament not writing, so I say, “so write”! And then when I write, I think, oh, I should really be studying for that preliminary exam on Thursday…

As I said, no easy answers.

Recently (in the past 1.5 years), I have come to pride myself as a dilettante, one with many interests and skill sets. I’ll think, oh, yes, I can be a scholar and a scientist and a pianist and a consumer of media and still be a writer, of course I can. Yet, the caveat of being a jack of all trades is that second line of the saying, “master of none.” It brings to mind a statement made by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, that true mastery of a skill comes only after the magic ten thousand hours of practice. It’s ultimately a matter of time, the accursed thing. You can only master so many things.

Here is the writing I dashed off in twenty minutes when Dave advised me to write. It has only been marginally revised. It’s nothing I consider particularly amazing, but it has its good bits. Tell me what you think. I figure that if I’m ever going to be an author*, I had better start letting people read my creative pieces occasionally.

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Not children any more but we still wonder at the snow

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“So. Important questions. Have you ever been ice skating?”

The tree leaned above us, spreading its branches like lace over the sky. Milky moonlight dripped through onto our thick gloves and warm jackets. When we breathed, the mist of our air hung in the beams of light.

“No,” I said.

“What?” he said. He gripped a branch and placed a brown boot on the bark of the tree. “You haven’t? How is that even possible?”

I shrugged, clasping my woolen hands together in front of my mouth. “Never got around to it, I guess. My family doesn’t really do outdoorsy things.”

“Well. Looks like I’m going to have to remedy that,” he said with a grunt as he hoisted himself into the tree. “You have missed out on so much, Alison. Seriously.”

I took off my mittens, despite the bitter chill. The night was clear, and the meager heat of the day had long since dissipated into the stars and velvet black. I grasped at the branches. The bark of the old apple was biting.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “I know. Rub it in, Mr. I-climbed-Kilimanjaro-at-age-eight. And-have-a-black-belt-in-four-disciplines.”

“Five,” he said, sheepish.

“Precisely,” I said. I wedged my foot into the place where the branches met, and swung myself into the lower branches. As I steadied myself, I noted that he didn’t offer me a hand. Good. He was learning.

“Do you still want to learn how to throw people?” he asked.

“Hell yes. Teach me about pressure points, too.”

A car drove by slowly on the road beyond. We watched as it grew brighter and farther, taillights fading east.

“Do you ever think,” he said slowly, chewing on his thoughts. “Do you ever think about how everyone else is the center of their own existence, and they have this internal narrative running constantly and they’re the hero of it, for good or bad. And you’re nothing but a minor character. Maybe one of the people at the coffee shop, or the innocent bystander that’s killed by the villain or whatever.”

“Hm.”

“My point is, that everyone has this massively complex and colorful world that we never even get a glimpse of. Maybe that’s what it’s like to be a god. You get to see all of the colors of everyone’s lives.”

“In all their average glory.”

“Yes.”

My hands felt like ice to the bone, and I tried to put my mittens back on. The moon made his hair the color of quarters as he watched the stars in their slow revolutions.

“Don’t you wish,” he said, and I wondered how his bare hands didn’t feel the cold. “Don’t you wish that you could see those people’s lives?”

I paused before responding. “Yes. Then you would know precisely what to say when you ran into them on the street, or you could drop by with flowers when they were having a bad day.”

He was quiet for a minute. “Oh.”

“What?”

“I don’t wish.”

“Why?”

He looked at me, and bit his lip. “There would be a lot of pain.”

I considered this. “You could make it better.”

He twisted his lips, and dropped into the snow beneath us, sinking into the layers of it. “I could,” he said. “But I don’t want that much responsibility.”

I swung down from my branch, and dropped gracelessly. He caught me as I stumbled.

“Aren’t your hands cold?” I asked.

He grinned. “It’s so cold, my teeth hurt when I smile. But that’s not stopping me. C’mon, let’s run.”

I groaned. “I’m terrible at running.”

“Slow poke!” he said, taking off through the field. I followed more slowly, but relished the thick snow and hunger moon and the starkness of the cold that reminded me that I was real.

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*I was originally going to say “be a writer” here, but then I realized that it’s stupid to aspire to be a writer. Being a writer is defined by what you do, not what you accomplish.

Addendum: The word “ficlets” in the title comes from a writing site of the same name of which I was a part a few years back. A ficlet was a piece of very short fiction, 1,024 characters, and was meant to be whatever you could write in those constraints, prose or poetry or running mini-stories and the like. It was a great little site with a lovely commenting community, and I was very disappointed when it shut down. It was a lot of fun.  At any rate, this is basically what I’m doing here: writing ficlets.