Ever read anything about dream analysis, specifically the symbols involved? As in: "If you dream about a three-meter rabbit with the tail of an alligator holding a cigarette in its left hand and speaking with a lisp, it represents your remorse for your hit-and-run involving the old woman or that you regret paying full retail for the mauve espadrilles." I particularly enjoy the ones that take themselves seriously.
The problem with interpreting another person's internal symbolism is it can't be done. Here's a quick experiment: Next time you're near someone you know, read their mind. Or, if you find it easier, project your thoughts into their mind. Next, instead of direct mental contact, speak to them and listen to what they say in response. Which method conveyed the most information most accurately? Spoken language developed cooperatively. Individuals wanted others to understand them and to understand others, so they worked together to build a lingual consensus. Folks started out agreeing this sound combination means that object and developed more and more complex constructions to encompass whatever they wanted to communicate.
Unlike the world around us, there are no other people inside our heads with us. (Go ahead and check; I'll wait.) We don't need to form a symbolic consensus with anyone, which means the language of our thoughts is unique. For example: we agree on the definition of "spider" – say the word and we all know what is meant. But inside our heads we each have our own way of storing the concept of spider. Somewhere in my infancy I decided connecting neuron a-476392 to neuron q-799986 via synapse epsilon 379-squared meant "spider." In your infancy you almost certainly chose something else, with the result that (assuming there was some way to boost signal strength without frying my brain) if I tried to transmit the concept "spider" you might receive "tapioca." Or, more likely, gibberish. This is not a new concept. ESP experiments always involved attempting to transfer a simple visual image because experimenters hoped uncluttered stimuli were universal.
Of course, there are external, cultural symbols that are widely recognized. In some cases the meaning is universal. There is no confusion as to what people is represented by a six-pointed star, for example. Sometimes the symbol is generally agreed on but with variations. (A five-pointed star represents "protection" in many cultures, with local variations on who is protecting whom from what.) Some symbols have diametrically opposed meanings. (The swastika means "life" in much of Asia but "death" in modern Europe.) One of my favorites, the cross in a circle, meant the earth in prehistoric times; is the sun cross to modern neopagans; represents the four seasons to agrarian cultures; the four elements to early alchemists; and to Christians declares faith must be applied to the world if it is to do any good.
The symbols of our cultures are inescapably melded into our perceptions of the world around us. But each of us also carries a lexicon of internal symbols, symbols we may not even recognize are symbols, that give shape and tangibility to our thoughts and feelings. Most people never have any reason to share these internal symbols, but writers have no choice – we use them all the time.
Do not imagine I am backing away from my assertion that writing is a craft. We build a story the way a wood carver builds a chair. It can be beautiful, but to be of any value it must do its job. Just as a chair that tips over will not be used, a story that does not entertain will not be remembered. Or finished. But at some level, every writer is working through her internal imagery as she writes; to a certain extent, all writing is a sort of therapy. And writing can help us sort through our past -- just as our past shapes our fiction. I'm not talking about a snappy bit of dialog built around what you wish you'd said to that bore at the party, or a fantasy about what could have happened if you'd ever gotten up the nerve to approach the object of your adoration in high school. Some writers are known for putting people they don't like in their stories then giving them disgusting traits or a pathetic death; as I recall, Peter Benchly does this to critics. All of that is superficial, and not at all what I'm talking about.
It's no secret I'm an unabashed fan of Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and one of my favorite stories of hers is "June Sixteenth at Anna's." (UPDATE: When I first wrote this column the story wasn't available online. Now it can be purchased as a standalone story at Smashwords for $2.99, or - much better buy - in the $9.99 anthology Recovering Apollo 8 and Other Stories. When you've finished with this column, go read.) The source of this story's power, its ability to affect, is what it's really about. In 2005 Kris described "June Sixteenth" – written, I think, in 2003 – as one of the most difficult stories she'd ever written. She could not get the feel, the tone, the language, where she knew it should be; she kept tearing it apart and starting over from scratch. Her breakthrough came when she realized what she was writing about. This story was her way of working through her feelings about September 11, 2001. There is nothing about 9/11 in the story – no hint of terrorism or horror – but it is built on the internal symbols her mind had developed to deal with the event and its impact on her. Realizing what the story was about didn't make it suddenly easier to tell, but it helped her make a master craftsman's choices in deciding how she shared her heart.
I am not a writer of Kris's caliber, but I do know enough to recognize when a story might be about more than I think it is about. My most recent sale to BattleCorps, "Bad Water," is on the surface the story of a retired patrol boat pilot reactivated to carry out one last mission that requires his unique qualifications. I had the story in the first week, all 15,000 words of it; a straight-up covert ops story that didn't work. I did not immediately recognize the problem – that in telling an adventure story I had missed what I was writing about - I just knew there was a problem. At times like that my process is a variation on my pre-writing mental composting: I set the story aside and think about it without writing for a while before taking a fresh run at telling the tale from scratch.
Over the course of the next week whenever thought about "Bad Water" I found myself distracted by memories of growing up in pre-Disney Florida, my mother's decades-long battle with debilitating illness, and speculation about paths I'd almost followed. (No, I'm not going to get more specific than that.) In other words, I realized what "Bad Water" was really about. Armed with that understanding, I went back and wrote a much stronger 13k story – a story that does not mention Florida or my mother or the path I did not take but draws its strength from all of them.
If you ever find yourself unable to complete a scene or a story; or if your characters go unexpectedly flat and lifeless; or if everything looks right, but in your gut you know it's wrong: stop. It could be a mechanical problem, a story element that doesn't work, or the characters acting out of character, or dialog being stretched to cover a clunky bit of plot business. Or it could be that you haven't taken the time to discover what it is you're really writing about.