Brain Pickings

From Jack Kerouac to Ayn Rand: Iconic Writers on Symbolism, 1963

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A Rorschach Test with a spine, or what the art of fluid writing has to do with salt.

In 1963 — long before Twitter, email, and even the Internet itself as we know it — a 16-year-old high school student by the name of Bruce McAllister set out to settle a dispute with his English teacher over whether symbolism existed as a conscious device authors employed in writing. So he devised a four-question mimeographed survey to probe the issue and mailed it to 150 of the era’s most notable writers, much like librarian Marguerite Hart did in the lovely Letters to the Children of Troy project. To McAllister’s surprise, he got 75 responses, ranging from the passionate to the reprimanding to the deeply philosophical. Here are some of the best. (And if the cultural demise of handwriting has rendered you incapable of reading cursive, enjoy the transcriptions in good ‘ol type.)

Symbolism arises out of action and functions best in fiction when it does so. Once a writer is conscious of the implicit symbolisms which arise in the course of a narrative, he may take advantage of them and manipulate them consciously as a further resource for his art. Symbols which are imposed upon fiction from the outside tend to leave the reader dissatisfied by making him aware that something extraneous is being added.” ~ Ralph Ellison

I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to get the subconscious to do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural. During a lifetime, one saves up information which collects itself around centers in the mind; these automatically become symbols on a subliminal level and need only be summoned in the heat of writing.” ~ Ray Bradbury

After all, each story is a Rorschach Test, isn’t it? and if people find beasties and bedbugs in my ink-splotches, I cannot prevent it, can I? They will insist on seeing them, anyway, and this is their privilege. Still, I wish people, quasi-intellectuals, did not try so hard to find the man under the old maid’s bed. More often than not, as we know, he simply isn’t there.” ~ Ray Bradbury

Playing around with symbols, even as a critic, can be a kind of kiddish parlor game. A little of it goes a long way. There are other things of greater value in any novel or story…humanity, character analysis, truth on other levels, etc., etc. Good symbolism should be as natural as breathing…and as unobtrusive.” ~ Ray Bradbury

This is not a ‘definition,’ it is not true — and, therefore, your questions do not make sense.” ~ Ayn Rand

Symbolism is alright in ‘Fiction’ but I tell true stories simply about what happened to people I know.” ~ Jack Kerouac

It would be better for you to do your own thinking on this sort of thing.” ~ John Updike

(Cue in Marian Bantjes’s brilliant recent advice to design students.)

Let me refer you to an article in the NYTimes book review called ‘Deep Readers of the World, Beware!’” ~ Saul Bellow

A pattern of shared sentiments begins to emerge — at its best, symbolism, like salt, is invisible and seamless; it’s organic rather than engineered; and it is, above all, the product of your own mind rather than a prescriptive recipe.

Sarah Funke Butler over at The Paris Review, who uncovered the letters, spoke with McAllister over the phone, some 48 years later — it’s worth a read.

But perhaps what this experiment bespeaks, most of all, is the timeless ambiguity of both the writer’s ego and altruism itself, a kind of binary bet — did these writers respond because they selflessly wanted to help an earnest student, or because they loved hearing themselves speak with authority about their craft, or a combination of the two? And what does our wager say about our own character’s place on the spectrum between cynicism and idealism?

via The Paris Review

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