. . . Use subtle symbols, not crashing cymbals.
Today I am featuring another chapter tidbit from Roy Peter Clark's book, "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writer," published by Little, Brown and Company. You can find a copy here.
Good writers strive for originality, and they can achieve it by standing on a foundation of narrative archetypes, a set of story expectations that can be manipulated, frustrated, or fulfilled in novel ways, on behalf of the reader. Examples include:
The journey there and back
Winning the prize
Winning or losing the loved one
Loss and restoration
The blessing becoming the curse
The wasteland restored
Rising from the ashes
The ugly duckling
The emperor has no clothes
Descent into the underworld
My high school English teacher, Father Bernard Horst, taught me two important lessons about such archetypes. First, he said, if a wall appears in a story, chances are it's "more than just a wall." But, he was quick to add, when it comes to powerful writing, a symbol need not be a cymbal. Subtlety is a writer's virtue.
"The Dead," by Irish author James Joyce, is the take of a married man named Gabriel who learns at a holiday party that his wife is haunted by the memory of a young man. Years earlier, Michael Furey had died for her love. Countless times I have read the final paragraph:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey laid buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
When I first read that paragraph in college, it struck me with a force that transcended its literal meaning. It took me years to recognize the rich texture of its symbolic iconography: the names of the archangels Gabriel and Michael; the instruments of Christ's passion ("crosses", "spears," and "thorns"); the evocation of the last days ("fall," "descent," "living and dead"). The fact that these were veiled from my first view is a virtue of the story, not a vice. It means that Joyce did not turn symbols into cymbals.
His last words of advice? "Use archetypes. Don't let them use you."
Now, on to the WORKSHOP:
Discuss Father Horst's advice: a symbol need not be a cymbal. Can you find a symbol in your work? Is it a cymbal?