Friday, April 23, 2010

Why Your Brain is Smarter than You

Greetings, blogsphere! I'm taking a moment to run away from the encroaching horror that is next week. It's not even finals week - it's just projects-are-all-due-NOW week. *sigh*

Anyway, I've been pondering things lately (in my copious amounts of spare time, of course). This pondering has led to some thoughts on symbolism. I've always been sort of skeptical about it. Going through AP literature in high school does make one wonder exactly how much of the symbolism your teacher's pointing out was actually put in there by the author. Sometimes, you know it's really there. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is so completely FILLED with symbolism of the rather obvious kind that I think it's safe to assume that that was authorial intent. Sometimes, however, that isn't always the case. In my Intro to the Short Story class last semester, we read Helena Maria Viramontes' short story "The Moths." I believe Viramontes teaches writing at The Other* school in Ithaca, and my professor asked her what exactly she meant by the moths she put in at the end of the story. She replied that she didn't really know; she just thought they were cool.

It's always a balancing act you go through when reading. Maybe everything you pick out was put there by the author, or maybe you're just having a particularly clever day. Personally, I have always leaned towards the idea that symbolism is more about reader interpretation than authorial intent. I've always dreamt of sitting in on a class where someone is teaching my book and having a good chuckle when they talk about all the symbolism I didn't put in. (This will never happen, mostly because I have yet to come across a class, anywhere, where contemporary (heck, even classic!) fantasy is taught.)

But then, in that same short story class last semester, my professor brought up the idea that your subconscious is smarter than you are. It synthesizes the things you read and sneaks them into the things you write, and then all of a sudden you look back at what you've done and there's a theme that you didn't notice before.

And I'm noticing that that's happening with Letters to Oliver.

It started out with the premise of the book, really. It's an epistolary novel, so one of the things I wanted to play around with was exactly what Emily says to everything she is writing. There are three main recipients of her letters: her younger sister Ginny, her best friend Fiona, and Oliver, who doesn't actually receive the letters she writes to him. She gives different amounts of truth to different people.

Then I realized that what's going on with my antagonist fits this newfound deception theme so well it's scary. I'd tell you what that is, but I'd spoil it, and that would be no fun.

And THEN I realized that not only did I have a theme, I had a symbol that fit that theme! Two, really. The first one stemmed from Emily channeling me far more than any character really should and hiding behind words and books. It's not strictly deception; more along the lines of a lie by omission. Emily's a very poetic person, really. She thinks of everything in terms of words, from her spells to herself. The second one has to do with my weird obsession with describing atmospheres. In A Bridge to War, I go crazy talking about golden-green light through summer leaves. In this, I talk about the rain and the ominous yellow-grey London fog. A fog that hides things and makes them seem like what they are not. Muahaha.

The biggest "whoa, Caitlin, how the heck did you come up with this?" was when I realized I had a modified hero's journey thread going on through all this. What what??? Well, I had always known that the subtitle for this book could very well be "How Emily Bell Grows a Spine," but then I wrote this:

"I feel as though I am being utterly ridiculous, muttering on about spells and words and my inability to write you a letter you will actually receive, but it is as though this London fog has paralyzed me...

There is nothing anyone can do, excepting perhaps myself, and I am lost deep in the fog somewhere and cannot find my way out.

I wish I knew the way."

And my brain went wild. Because Emily gets lost in the fog literally later on in the book. And guess what? She comes out having rescued Oliver (well. Halfway, at any rate. He's still a rabbit at that point) and actually sort of self confident. WHOA.

Can this semester be over please? I need to finish this book. I am having entirely too much fun with it. :)

* That would be Cornell. We Ithacans speaketh not of those on the other hill. ;)


  1. Woo! :D You are correct- I like very much. I've mentioned before that you are a genius, correct? :D

    And I also agree the semester needs to finish. That is fascinating... and very true- your mind is a brilliant center for musing. :P

    Plus I am not very fond of AP-type symbolism right now. XD

  2. I love the way free association works and the pieces of a puzzle that is a WIP fall into place? Totally approve of the symbolism and theme and isn't it wonderful when things work out liek that?

    Oh and good luck with the rest of the semester, we call this kind of week "dead week" for a reason :)