Tag Archives: Symbolism

Why as writers, we strive to make sense of the world

Stephen Rayburn → in Plants & trees

I’m a reader, teacher, and (intrinsic) writer of literature. I’ve been trained to make meaning from the meaningless. To spot symbolism. To recognize “patterns.” For example, in Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening bird references run rampant. First there is the notion of the ‘caged bird,’ hence, the life of the Victorian woman, but as Edna Pontellier’s story moves forward, and she both physically and mentally escapes her bounds, the bird becomes an emblem for freedom—well, sort of.

This post is not an analysis of The Awakening. Instead, it’s an examination of both the reader’s and writer’s minds. As a student of literature, I would have been expected to pick up on Chopin’s bird motif. As a teacher of literature, I might expect my students to do the same.

I’ll always attest to the fact that my extensive reading of the classics and beyond has forever changed the way my brain functions. For years, my search for the significant went beyond the page. Those crocuses sprouting from the dusty snow became a personal “sign.” Hard times are over; transformation is possible. The stray cat in my backyard became an omen for an unexpected visitor. The tenuously shaped heart in the foam of my beer meant love was on its way. It was as though my life were a novel.

Recently, however, I discovered that science can explain this need to make sense of one’s surroundings. In the July issue of Psychology Today magazine, author Matthew Hudson says in his article “Your Sixth Sense:”

“Pattern-finding is so central to survival and success that we see patterns everywhere, even in random data—a phenomenon called apophenia. We spot faces in clouds and hear messages in records played backward. And while we expect some level of order in the world, on occasion our pattern-spotting gets away from us and makes a connection we wouldn’t expect. When that happens, we demand, at least subconsciously, an explanation.”

For the full article click here:http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201206/your-sixth-sense

Hudson says (and I paraphrase) that since our early schooling days, we are taught to recognize patterns. For example, we learn the alphabet and to count—all pedagogical pattern-finding practices. We are shown that the American Flag signifies liberty, and thus, our minds begin to associate stars and stripes with pursuing our dreams.

I believe we writers…we intrinsic writers are quite the experts on this practice. To us, everything is figurative. I’ve gotten so adept at this system that it happens naturally as I write. For anyone who has ever seethed in skepticism, “Did the author really mean to do that? Did she really intend for the road kill on the boulevard to mean that Mrs. Bumblestick’s dreams of becoming a model were ‘squashed?’”

My answer? Maybe. But more likely, with consistent practice, the author has simply gotten good at creating a web of connotation.



Filed under The Writing Life


“[The writer] has to be the kind of man who turns the world upside down and says, lookit, it looks different, doesn’t it?”
—Morris West

I like to look for signs. In fact, I ask for signs. As an intrinsic writer, I believe the world overlaps with itself. I believe that cues are sent to me constantly, as if to remind me of my purpose. Writers do this sort of thing–make sense of hints, harbingers, and omens–because often, our work and our stories are filled with these kinds of notions. Good stories foreshadow, symbolize, represent, etc. Well, I think in life, it’s the same thing. As a writer, I’m just programmed to notice it.

One afternoon I drove to the mall and parked next to a minivan that was sporting a bumper sticker with the title of my novel splashed across it. It isn’t a common phrase, really. And I’d never seen it on a bumper sticker. Haven’t since either. Another time, my brother was watching a recap of a football game on television, and in a screen shot of the facts and stats of two players, I noticed that they shared the names of two of my male characters.

Last week, when meeting with my thesis adviser, she asked me if my novel is written in the first person. I said that yes, it is. Then later on while driving home, I wound up behind a car with a vanity license plate that said (I kid you not) “1 POV.” Very strange. I followed this car almost all the way to my house. I’d never seen it before that night. I haven’t seen it since.

One of the best essays I wrote as an undergrad was titled “Empathy and Intuition Among the Characters of Mrs. Dalloway.” I picked out scenes in the novel where the characters seemed to have unspoken communication. Where they read the minds of one another, and seemed to understand what each was going through. My husband-to-be and I often text each other throughout the day, just to say hi. Last week at precisely 12:30 p.m. I thought to myself: haven’t checked my phone in a while. I bet he sent me a message. Sure enough, a text came through at almost the exact same time. I found out last Sunday that an old neighbor had passed away. This morning I woke up thinking about the last time I had spoken to her. She had told me that she liked to practice Reiki healing. An hour or so later, while visiting a the blog of a fellow blogger, I saw that she too, mentioned using Reiki on sick animals.

There are many more where this came from. In writing, our characters pick up on these kind of cues both as a means of plot structure, and significance for the overall story. But I’m convinced, that if one pays attention, this kind of stuff happens in real life…all the time.

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Filed under Characters, Inspiration, The Writing Life, Why We Write, Writing Details, Writing Process