I remember studying symbolism in high school after reading a short story called “The White Heron” by Sarah Orne Jewett. The story is filled with symbolism, and to be honest, it bored me, but I absolutely loved the idea that literature could be bubbling over with these mini riddles called symbols.
Shortly after studying “The White Heron,” I began inundating my own stories with hit-you-over-the-head symbolism that I thought for sure made my writing more deep. I might include, for example, a main character who was watching a bird escape from her cage. (Look! That means my character wants to escape, too!)
In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King says, “Symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create an artificial sense of profundity.” Unfortunately, I learned that lesson the hard way, through a lot of pretentious writing.
But learn it I did, and now I know not to manufacture symbols just to make my writing seem deeper or more profound. I learned to write with honesty and abandon.
And wouldn’t you know? As a side effect of writing from my gut, I discovered symbols in my writing.
After my sister read my novel, A Work of Art, she asked me: “Is there some kind of symbolism with dogs?” My initial response was: “No.” But then I got to thinking: Dogs crop up over and over in A Work of Art… and every time a dog is mentioned, it’s somehow connected to the main character’s subservience—either her need to be protected or her desire to please.
And the cool thing is: I didn’t do it on purpose. I have no doubt that if I had deliberately set out to turn dogs into a symbol, I would have failed miserably. Instead, the symbolism came naturally, as a direct result of writing from my heart.
Writing from my heart means opening up and laying it out there for the world to see, not caring what my mom might think or my grandma or my friends. It means using my own experiences, because those unique experiences are the secret ingredient—the magic, if you will—that turn good writing into powerful writing.