Thursday, January 29, 2015

Environmental Symbolism (subtitled: Fall in Portland)

Otherwise, fall is always a nice time in Portland – brisk, still sunny but with a changing quality to the light, and this city was really made for scarves and sweaters and tights and boots, I think.  Some years we get gorgeous leaves that stay on the trees, some years a huge rain tears them off just as they turn that lovely golden color.  I get the feeling that this year will be the latter, but that’s OK.  Went for a hike yesterday in a state park near my apartment, and the smell was just divine.

Awhile ago, a writer friend and I exchanged a series of emails about life, love, jobs, and change – all the good stuff! – and I included the above paragraph as a closer.  He wrote back:

God damn you can write! It's hard to put my finger on it but the words... each one tugs me forward into the next sentence and paragraph. Things line up so beautifully non-sequitur. Just a pause to say how truly gifted you are. 

I'm wondering if that...your skill... is why I began to tear up over the last paragraph. That was just so beautiful a description. Beautiful and melancholy, which is a perfect descriptor for the whole of my being right now. In this moment I'm sad; no, "tired" would be the better word.

His response was a pleasant surprise (his state of mind nonwithstanding, although you’ll gather from our list of email topics that it was a heavy exchange).  Although I don’t think it was my words alone that caused him to tear up.  I’d guess he felt an emotional resonance with the words and saw his current emotional state mirrored within them.

And that made me think about “environmental symbolism” in writing, a new-to-me term that describes when a writer uses environmental descriptions to symbolize the mood of a character or storyline.  Usually when I think about description in writing, I think about: set the scene.  Help the reader “see” the location so that they’re pulled into the story and are not confused about where they are and what’s going on.  If you’re in a foreign locale, setting is exotic and fun!  Invite the reader to want to be there too!

This email exchange was a good reminder that description can set the mood, too.  I wasn’t thinking about mood when I wrote that paragraph – but I can see how this description could really set the mood.  As a writer, it’s always interesting to see how other people react to your words.  You’re in there in the weeds, mired in tunnel vision, so familiar with your half-excavated gems that you lose perspective on how your words might come across to the reader.  And now that I'm working my way through a second draft, it's reminded me that the seasons of the year sometimes correspond well to the mood of the narrator.  For instance, most of my book centers on two distinct time periods in the narrator's life, and each time, fall has actually been a time of decay in her life, followed by a seeming "dormant" winter season of turmoil of death, and then a "spring" of hope and new directions.  So now I plan to be more intentional about incorporating descriptions of the weather, scenery etc. that reflect the narrator's mood and personal growth.  Pretty cool stuff.

Some random thoughts on writing during this cold and blustery day!  Hope you’re staying warm!

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