You, Too, Can Be A Literary Snob!

That’s right, folks, in just five easy steps – count them: five easy step! – you can be a literary snob just like the person who sells you coffee everyday!

In honor of the AP test score release (prayer circle for all you still waiting; get a VPN, it’s worth it), we’re going to talk today about something that baffles people the world over: literary symbolism and what it can do for you.

Before my Literature class this year, I will admit that I thought people who analyzed literature for “symbolism to find the deeper meaning” were full of it. Deeper meaning came from how the story impacted you, personally, and how you interacted with the text, not what the color of the drapes in the third chapter were. But that’s the beauty of it, the link that not many people uncover to connect: the color of the drapes in the third chapter (among other things) is what makes the story have impact.

Since the beginning of storytelling, with the Odyssey and even older, there have been things that act as a shorthand to convey what the author wants the reader to know. The biggest tragedy to befall literary analysis was the mistaken belief that symbolism can only be singular objects, or colors, or other, small things. This is so far beyond true. Yes, those things can and are useful symbols (Gatsby’s green light being the most famous of them) but we are not limited to just that. Anything can be a symbol. Actions, the way a character talks, characters themselves, or even entire scenes.

For example, scenes where characters eat together are riddled with symbolism. Yes, sometimes they can be a stand-in for sex. But sex isn’t the only type of intimacy that eating can portray – or even betray. As something that all humans have to do to survive, eating becomes sacred in text. In both Western and Eastern cultures, there is something almost religious about eating. As a general rule, people don’t eat with people they aren’t comfortable with. Would you go out to grab a bite with your rude coworker? Not typically, because meals are a time of recharging and trust. Nothing bad can happen at the dinner table, as it were, even if that dinner table is a McDonalds or as you’re driving or the floor of an abandoned warehouse. This is the same mindset that is applied in literature. If you, as a writer, need to show the strength of your characters’ bond, or you want to bring them closer together, or if you want a betrayal to sting just that much more: consider having them eat together.

In Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, throughout the entirety of the novel, Grover and Percy’s friendship is marked with one boy offering the other when they’re upset. When Percy first comes to Camp Half Blood, eating supper with the Hermes Cabin is when he starts to feel accepted into this strange world; when he’s moved to the Poseidon Cabin and forced to eat alone, he feels acutely cut-off.

In Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World, after Bernard brings John back to the “civilized World,” he parades him around at society dinners and other functions. The meals that the perfect people eat with John the Savage are encroaching, humiliating, and rude. They are forcing this intimacy by forcing his presence at meals, and John suffers for it. It’s intimate, yes, with John discussing the Reservation he comes from and the cultures that still survive there and his way of life, but it’s non-consensual – both John’s presence at the meal, and the “relationships” he forms.

Yes, one is YA lit and one is a classic English author; but that’s the beauty of using these tropes. They can be utilized by anyone, and in any circumstance, and there’s a depth of history and connection that nearly all readers will pick up on, usually without realizing it. When people talk about the magic of words, they either mean the literal rhetoric of the words and how they sound together, or they mean the ability to capture incredibly complex human emotion and experience in simple scenes. This is how they do it. Using symbolism is something a win-win, from a writer’s point of view: it’s faster to use a common human experience to show the depth of emotion that you mean to portray rather than to spell every inch of it out, but also, it creates a deeper connection than explicit storytelling ever could. It encourages the reader to draw on their own experiences – when they were told their grandmother was sick over dinner, or when they laughed so hard at a friend’s birthday party that water came out their nose, or even their wedding reception and the warmth of sharing a meal with their closest friends and family.

It’s would be a little conceited of me to pretend that I could make the whole sum of every possible literary symbol ever to explain what it is, how it’s used, how it could be used, how it could be subverted or inverted or combined with another symbol to create a new meaning, et cetera. Through this explanation, I relied heavily on the symbolism of eating, because it’s one of my personal favorites. But anything can be symbolic. And not everything in your story should be symbolic lest you end up like James Joyce, but having a few in your back pocket, ones that you’re comfortable with, that reinforce the theme and feeling of your story, is something that every writer ought to consider. So reread your favorite books, and look a little closer at them. How does it speak to the human experience? Make lists of things that you think are universal, and what sort of emotion they invoke in you. Remember, good writers borrow – we don’t steal.

If you want a little more in-depth guidance on symbolism, I’d suggest How To Read Literature Like A Professor by Thomas Foster. It’s thoroughly entertaining, and, ahem, I’m not telling you that you can find a PDF online of it but I will say that high school students dislike buying books almost as much as college students do. But if you have a few bucks to spare, it’s worth getting a copy to mark up. It’s a guide for students who need to read symbolism, but it’s very easy to reverse-engineer as a way to write it as well. Additionally, TVTropes is an online wiki that is both dangerously addictive and really interesting to look through for situations that just seem to keep popping up in literature, movies, and television. I’d recommend starting on the Older Than Dirt index or the Older Than Feudalism index.

Writing symbolism with intention doesn’t have to be scary. Just remember, we’re all making it up as we go. Your story is yours to tell. Use your experiences, the things you love, and remember that the rest of us – from me, to Rowling, to Shakespeare, to Homer, and even further – are using the same collective of stories that you are. Don’t be afraid to lean on it.

Next Thursday, we’ll talk about three forms of narrative structures and how they can be useful in your life. If it’s starting to feel like English class, good. You probably didn’t pay enough attention in English. It’s impossible to pay too much attention in English. See you then!

Amanda.

(And before you get too attached to the romance of living in an abandoned lighthouse – they’re almost always phallic.)

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The Asexual: Literary Journal Spotlight

Being a good writer is more than just writing, it’s being a good reader, too! And some of the most innovative stories being told right now aren’t published in big publishing houses; they’re told through the Internet, through YouTube, and through (my particular favorite) online literary journals. The Internet revolutionized the industry, making it easier for communities of writers to submit and get their work published and seen by a bigger audience. Disseminating work that might not do well in “traditional” market has never been easier.

Which is why the first journal I want to highlight is The Asexual, a journal for asexual writers and poets, with the purpose of amplifying ace voices that have always been silenced. Published on a quarterly basis, it’s edited by the wonderful Michael Paramo and their second issue was released just Saturday!

Full disclosure, I was apart of the first issue, so this isn’t an unbiased endorsement, but it’s a wonderful and supportive community that allows people to see and understand what asexuality is, that allows ace people to find others like them, and that allows creators who feel silenced to finally let their words be seen and read.

As a journal with only two issues, it is predominantly poetry; however, the poets it features use all types of form and meter, and are all great poets in and of their own right. The second issue features several essays about discovering asexuality or coming to terms with asexuality or even coming out. If you’re looking for personal stories about asexuality and what it means or people’s experiences with it, the second issue is a great resource for that.

This journal is a healthy, thriving community for asexual writers and I am proud to have been apart of the first issue, and I plan on continuing to submit as the journal grows and evolves. Member and allies of the LGBT community alike will enjoy this journal, particularly those with an interest in marginalized identities even within the LGBT community. Don’t let the pride end because it’s July; support ace writers and read The Asexual. There’s some really great poetry there, too.

Read both issues here: http://theasexual.com/
Follow the journal on twitter at @asexualjournal

Worldbuilding the Vegan Way

Full disclosure: I am easily the most impatient person I know. I flip my grilled cheeses four or five times before they’re actually done. I skip the three seconds of silence at the end of songs. I fast forward through commercials, show theme songs, and the “that’s what you missed on Glee” parts of episodes. Anything that takes up more time than is strictly necessary will only be sort of tolerated.

Because of this, worldbuilding (which is easily my favorite part of writing) can be somewhat difficult.

I want to know every aspect of a world and I want to know it now. I want the religion, the magic system, the political spectrum, all of it, to come to me in the same flash of inspiration that the world concept initially came from. But the hard reality of crafting good worlds with meaning and heart is that they need to be given time to grow on their own. Just as characters need time to breathe and speak before they can be considered fully-fleshed people, worlds need to same (if not more!) consideration.

Personally, I’ve been working on my own project, the Retreat of the Gods, since middle school – about six years now. I would say that the world is pretty well fleshed out. But there are always things to add! For example, just a few months ago, I realized that even though the forest of the Retreat universe is a major source of setting characterization, as well as a plot device, the actual forest had very little detailing behind it. This is a fantasy story; who lives there? What does their society look like? How do they interact with the main characters? I had no answers. So I had to find them. I made new characters; nymphs and satyrs and other forest spirits. I developed a political atmosphere for them and how each community interacts with each other. There are rivalries and alliances, banter and romance, history and tension. This is still a work in progress, and it comes in drips and drabs. The Senate delays a crucial vote again? Just like how the satyrs hold up any sort of progress toward integrating other societies into the forest society. Reading Greek poetry and literary/linguistic analysis thereof becomes contemplation of forest literacy. Even the wind blowing through trees as I walk by on the way to class, or through wind chimes on the way home, can become the struggle between the dryads, the aurae, the satyrs, and the naiads. I was able to add a whole new plot point to my admittedly skimpy beginning-of-the-middle part of the story because of this. By rushing that part of the worldbuilding process, I could have missed a whole new subplot that has honestly been some of the most fun writing I’ve had in a while. 

Of course everything is inspiration; but just like writers should listen for character inspiration in the people around us, writers should look for worldbuilding inspiration in the world around us. So often, worldbuilding is rushed and there are holes that are overlooked until some overzealous fan raises their hand in the back of class and say, “But what about-?” The best way to spar with this fan, as beloved as they are, is to allow your worldbuilding to have the same process as a character. Allow it time to grow and mature and love and grieve. We can talk more about specific aspects of worldbuilding later, and there are plenty of good resources out there as of now! But before you start to pull things together, know that building a good world takes time, and it takes work. Your setting is one of the most important parts of a story. It’s what people remember, and it’s what envelopes the plot and the characters and everything else that makes your story worthwhile. Stop rushing it. Let it come naturally. My vegan friends tell me that they went vegan to help prevent animal abuse. Well, I’m a worldbuilding vegan, then: only natural worldbuilding for me, please, because I can’t stand to see another perfectly good world get neglected and abused by rushed development. (If you could just donate one dollar a day while Sarah McLaughlin plays in the background…)

Next Thursday, we’ll talk about symbolism and imagery and all sorts of fun pretentious literary analysis things that make people just sort of turn their head and go “huh?” It’s way easier than you think, I promise. See you then!

Amanda.

Among Other Things; Socialism

There’s an official report of most of the things that brought me to this point under the “About” tab, and I would love it if you would read that, but it’s also kind of stuffy. So let’s start here. Hey! I’m Amanda, and I’m so glad you’re here today.

I’m a recent high school graduate and soon to be a History major. My birthday is September 23rd. I’m asexual, I enjoy androgynous suit fashion, I’m a socialist, and a feminist killjoy. We should get along great, right?

I’m definitely not joking about any of the above, but don’t worry – I’m not going to get my communist germs or anything on you. The intention of this site is to talk about writing, because, above anything, I believe that literature (and art in general, but writing is where I’ve been blessed) is the great uniter, divider, informer, and social mover. So let’s all make some good art together, yeah?

In honor of my favorite method of making characters, which may be more controversial than the 2nd paragraph, here’s a brief character sheet about myself:

Name: Amanda Grace
Alignment: Chaotic Good
Hogwarts House: Ravenclaw
Meyer-Briggs Personality Type: INFP
Temperament: Choleric
Favorite Book: The Chronicles of Narnia
Favorite Movie: Same as above; alternatively, the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice
Favorite Color: Purple
Favorite Band: Mumford and Sons
Last Book I Read: The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan
Last Movie I Watched: Doctor Strange which was better than I thought it was going to be?
If you got to have dinner with one historical figure, who would it be and why? FDR, hands down. First, so I could hit him for Japanese internment, but then second so we could discuss just how the New Deal got through Congress. I am glad for it, but I don’t understand how in the thirties, amid all the fear of Communism, Roosevelt got the closest thing to socialism that the American economy has ever seen through a legislative body. We can’t even federally fund public education properly. Did he blackmail all of Congress? Were Americans that desperate? Was FDR just so gosh darn charming? I need answers and there really are none.

First up on the agenda, organic worldbuilding and why it’s important. See you then!

Amanda.