Ash Q&A #4: Do you consciously think about the symbolism in your writing?

I’m answering a series of interesting questions about Ash. Read previous posts in this series here. This question comes from my editor, Kate Sullivan, who asked me this: In class, we’d sit for hours dissecting the symbolism in a novel, and I always wondered if we were stretching for meaning or if the author actually intended to embed it that way. Obviously, Ash has some symbolism, a lot of it centering around food or blood. ... Is this something that you think about consciously while you’re writing, or does it just … happen?

Funny that you ask that, Kate, since I'm currently deeply embroiled in figuring out whether this or that symbol/metaphor works at all in my next book, currently titled Huntress. (Yes, Kate is editing that one, too.)

Before I worked with Kate on Ash, I would have said definitively that any symbolism in anything I wrote was entirely accidental. I never took any English classes after high school (I was an economics major), and in fact I pretty much turned up my nose at all those analyses of the meaning of the potted plant in Chapter 6. (I exaggerate, but sometimes that's what that kind of analysis felt like to me: totally ridiculous. The plant is a plant, I'd argue.)

George O'Keefe's "Poppy" (1927)

I did take several writing workshops in college and graduate school, and I'm sure that symbolism arose in those classes too, but it always arose after the fact. I mean, we'd write whatever we'd write, bring it into class, and then be critiqued on what was written. Some of my classmates did see deeper meaning in what I wrote — often, actually, related to food. If they told me about that deeper meaning, I'd usually shrug and say, "Huh. Interesting. I was really just trying to describe that piece of fruit."

I think that throughout my life I have been a predominantly instinctual writer. If I think about things I've written that are later described as symbolic of something or other, the only common thread uniting the writing of those scenes is my reliance on physical description. I have tried very specifically to notice and to record the way things look or feel.

Food has always been very important to me, not only as sustenance but as a cultural practice. That's why I studied food in graduate school and wrote this paper on Chinese cookbooks. I think because of my research, the symbolism of food comes pretty easily to me. I've already thought about food a lot, through an anthropological or cultural studies lens, so it would make sense that any symbolism in my writing might come more easily from food.

"Adam and Eve" by Vecellio Tiziano, c. 1550

As for blood, I have no idea. :) Obviously blood is a very potent symbol as well, so maybe I'm just going for the easy way out here! If you combine food and blood, well, you've got communion. So, you see, these are pretty old symbols. Maybe I should try to find some new ones! On the other hand, it might indicate that for some reason I'm particularly interested in communion — fellowship, community, connection. And that, I guess, is true.

Anyway, after working with Kate on Ash, I can say that I do sometimes think about symbolism. I thought about it very carefully for a choice I'm making in Huntress, actually. But when it comes to particular objects in a story — an egg, a knife, a flower — I usually write those scenes without realizing that they have any symbolic value. That realization comes later, after the scene is written and I'm in revision. At that point, I try to focus the writing so that the symbolism works.

So, I guess the answer is that I do sometimes think about symbolism consciously, but it's also unconscious. I admit I'm most pleased by the unconscious stuff — probably because it comes as a surprise to me, which is fun. But it's also a challenge to consciously write in a long-running symbol or metaphor, and it's something that I want to do as a writer. I hope it works!