This weekend, instead of joining in the traditional American July 4th rituals of barbeque, beer, and shopping, I have undertaken to replace the toilet and floor in our guest bathroom. This is, of course, only the beginning. Replacing the mirror and light fixtures, regrouting the shower, and painting the bathroom will come later. Replacing the linoleum flooring with tile and the standard toilet with an elliptical one isn’t that big a job and should be finished by the time I return to work on Tuesday barring any unforeseen complications.
Well that’s very interesting you say, but what does this have to do with writing? The physical work has nothing to do with writing, however as I removed the toilet and stared down the drain pipe that leads to the septic tank I was struck with the strange significance that orifice represents for fiction. For instance, two Stephen King novels immediately come to mind, Dreamcatcher and It.
In Dreamcatcher, who can forget the terrifying toilet scene where Jonesy and the Beaver discover why Rick McCarthy spent so much time in ‘Lamar’s Thinkin Place’. Jesus-Christ-Bananas.
In It, what’s better than a sewer for the home of a pathological clown named Pennywise?
But why a toilet and a sewer? Wouldn’t the stories have been equally effective say, in a tub or a forest? I don’t think so.
The toilet speaks to vulnerability. There are few places other than at the moment of orgasm where humans are more completely vulnerable than on the toilet. After all, what defense do you have against something attacking from the dark depths down below?
The sewer speaks to the instinctual human fear of the darkness and unknown. Sewers are dark, damp, nasty, often maze-like places that give sanctuary to all sorts of evil, even clowns. But, of course, Pennywise was more than a clown wasn’t he?
So in the end we come to that bane of English class, symbolism. I’m sure you remember the pain of dissecting Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (one of my favorites), and Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. All these were tales that could stand alone with just the story, but look deeper and the symbology transforms the readers experience from just reading to understanding.
While I don’t want to go into this too far, I would like to approach one other aspect of symbolism, intentionality.
Was the symbolism intentional? Did the author consciously choose a character, place, or activity to represent something specific? Or was the symbolism unintentional, a product of the author’s subconscious. The character, place, or activity may have “just happened” during the book’s development without the author even being aware of it. It can happen. I’ve experienced this phenomenon and chances are you have, too. Look back at what you’ve written with a critical eye. You may find that it reveals more about you than you thought.
The mind is wonderfully complex and capable of taking us to places we could never consciously even conceive of. Writing is about giving the mind expression in a form that can be communicated to others. Our words reveal who we are even more than what we intend to say. Symbolism is just one tool we can use to make that intellectual connection with our readers.
With that said, I have to return to my primary job this weekend, installing a new tile floor and a new toilet. I certainly hope your weekend will be as much fun as mine.
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