To approach this week’s subject of symbolism, I want to use a duo of current examples that I truly think are both important as well as relevant. Not just here, but everywhere. And not just on this particular type of subject matter, but all types of subject matter. Depending on whatever it is that you’re writing about, of course.
It’s Summer time, and a lot of high school kids are experiencing their graduations with pride and a true sense of accomplishment for making it to such a great milestone in their lives. It’s a moment of joy and beauty to cross that stage with your peers and be celebrated for reaching the end of that long road, and looking forward to beginning your journey down the next one.
However, there are some students who have been heartlessly robbed of their moment in the sun…simply because they had something important that they wanted to say aloud. Not to broadcast hatred or offense…but to inspire those in future generations who may have to face that same uphill battle when it comes to the simple fact that they are gay.
How do you talk to people who refuse to listen? Who have already made up their minds, and shut you down and get angry the second the conversation is even approached, much less delivered with any sort of grace and understanding? It seems impossible.
This is an 18 year old high school valedictorian from New Jersey who graduated last Summer. Not just a graduate…but the TOP of his class! Someone who put the work in and spent his entire academic career being the best student that he could be, all while dealing with the pain and ridicule of being labeled as ‘different’. Just someone who wanted to be proud of who he was and remind others that it’s ok for them to do the same. While giving his acceptance speech, he was humiliated in front of his entire graduating class by having his mic shut off, his voice silenced, and his moment tarnished with an act so loathsome that I am actually shocked that these people were allowed to keep their jobs for being a part of it.
Censored. Unable to speak his truth. And threatened with the penalty of not receiving his diploma at all if he were to mention being a part of the LGBTQ+ community, or his activism to support those around him who share his feelings. This was the outcome…
So, that brings us to valedictorian, Zander Moricz…who was also eighteen, graduating at the top of his class, and being faced with the same threats and censorship as many other gay teens have had to deal with and suffer the consequences of defying their ‘divine rule’ because it’s too much trouble to just leave people the fuck alone these days. However…what Zander did here with his speech was different.
He can’t mention being gay. He can’t reach out to others who may be torturing themselves in silence. But he doesn’t want to bite his tongue and not say something. So…how can you have a conversation with people who are constantly trying to snatch away your ability to speak and express yourself? Not everybody, mind you…just the few loudmouth assholes who deemed themselves to be the ones in ‘control’.
This is what he did…
The idea of symbolism comes in many different forms, but for this article, I’m mostly concentrating on the sneakier part of the equation. Because there is this giant, bottomless, chasm that exists between ‘preaching to the choir’ and the ‘closed minded fanatics’. The most amazing feeling in the world is knowing that you were able to possibly build a bridge between both sides…no matter which side you might be coming from. It’s actually pretty fascinating to think that, for all of our fighting and violence and insults…there is a layer of humanity beneath it all that bonds us together as one, and reminds us that a vast majority of us are all looking for the same things in this life. Happiness, love, understanding, security, and hope. It doesn’t matter whether the extra details in your story may be about…if you can dig deep enough to get down to the core issue of what your protagonists are trying to achieve…even people with a conflicting ideology will be able to grasp a hold of what it is that you’re trying to say. It’s simply a matter of figuring out how to say it.
There are many of my own stories that I’ve written over the years, where I could change and alter and tweak a few details here and there, and make them a mainstream story for the masses. Easily. Change the love interest from a boy to a girl. Change the ‘coming out’ element to some other ostracizing part of the high school experience. Sometimes it’s changing the age of my characters from ‘15’ to ‘18’…and suddenly, it’s ok to write the EXACT same story without anybody feeling uncomfortable about it. It wouldn’t be difficult at all. Just change one symbolic expression for another, and let the emotion and the plot do its job without the stumbling blocks set up by folks who might not…really want to accept some parts of my stories. I could do that. They don’t have to be gay themed at all. But I chose to write what I write for the people who needed it most, and that’s my decision. It won’t ever make me rich, but it means more to me than a massive paycheck for yet another ‘boy meets girl’ romance for an already saturated market.
This doesn’t mean that you have to change anything about what you’re writing. That’s the beauty of symbolism. It’s being able to slide a few good points past someone on occasion without them even knowing about it. Hehehe! Which can be a lot of fun.
Now, you don’t have to make this some kind of clandestine practice, where everything is a mystery and you’re trying to ‘hide’ what it is that you’re trying to say. Symbolism isn’t about hiding. It’s about pushing your message out there in a way that begins subtle…but presents itself more abundantly as the scene/story goes on. You want the symbolism to be visible…you just want to be ‘light handed’ enough with it to penetrate before those few nay sayers in your audience have a chance to shut you down and block you out of their headspace.
What can I say? Some people live in an inescapable bubble. It’s fragile and it’s weak…and they will HURT you in order to maintain it if they have to. And it’s sad. But every now and then, we can secretly bring one another to a mutual understanding when it comes to these things…and find that we actually have more in common than we ever thought we had tearing us apart.
We search for love, and a sense of family, and community. We want what’s best for our kids. We want to laugh and seek joy and truth, as well as a security for ourselves and our loved ones in the future. When using symbolism in your work, especially if it’s surrounding a concept that goes against the grain or comes off as controversial, weird, or unacceptable, in what people have been taught to think was a civilized society…those common elements that you need to focus on. Hold on to them. Bring them into focus, and your readers will be able to relate. Promise.
Gay people can love and be inspired by straight romantic comedies. Why would anything else be different? It’s the idea of love and connection and being able to struggle through the tough times to win the prize at the end of the road. Now, there may be a social stigma surrounding stories with an LGBTQ+ theme and characters for some people, but given a chance…your message isn’t abnormal. it’s not something that you should be afraid of, or avoid, or feel like you have to sugarcoat, really. Just allow your story to cling to the core elements that bond us all together as one, and if they give it even half a chance…they might just be able to get into it.
Now, that’s not easy. Trust me, I have had stories that people have ridiculed and made nasty comments about for years. And you know what? They never even READ it! Not a single word. But have gone out of their way, both privately and publicly, to keep other from giving it. And I suppose they’re just going to have to live with that message in their blindspot forever. ::Shrugs:: It really doesn’t make much of a difference to me. I’ve already got a trusting audience that knows me well enough to not suddenly throw my entire sense of morality and responsibility and human decency aside for something that that was designed to emotionally ‘damage’ my readers for no good reason. That’s just silly.
If you know my particular vibe…then you already know what kid of feel that my writing tries to maintain. I change the details and the characters and the tone often enough to give the stories their own particular flavor, sure…but those core principles always remain. Even when I’m symbolically substituting one thematic principle for another. When I wrote the first chapter of “New Kid In School”…the idea was boy meets boy, despite the odds working against them. In that case, it was inexperience and teen angst. But what is at the core of that story? Ask yourself, wouldn’t you want to meet an incredibly beautiful stranger out of the blue one day, fall hard for them, find out that you two get along great…and eventually become a couple, odds be damned?
Now, the story, “A Class By Himself”, is a completely different story with different characters…but what if it was class and status working against the protagonist. For “On The Outside”, what if the love interest was out of the closet and being bullied in the hallway, while the protagonist was still too scared to do the same? What if, in “Shelter”, this was happening during a zombie apocalypse? The details are vastly different from one another, but the ‘core’ in this particular case is the obstacle that both characters have to navigate their way around. Finding your core makes using symbolism much easier, and much more effective, in my opinion. Use those common bonds as an anchor, ad build your symbols around them.
Again…symbolism is using a relatable series of images and themes to say what you want to say without really saying it. The story of Moses, for example, was about a baby who was sent down the river in a basket to a different land, change his name once adopted by new parents, and was given a chance to do some good for the world. And it was Jewish creators Joel Shuster and Joel Siegal that used this same symbolism to tell the story of Jewish immigrants in 1938. And that story…was the origin of Superman. And you’d be shocked if you began going down the rabbit hole to find all of the symbolism in “Alice In Wonderland”!
One of my favorite examples of symbolism where you may not even be looking for it, was one that I added to a story that I was writing called, “Magic Man”. And I detailed the Biblical symbolism in the TV show, “Gilligan’s Island”…which is brilliant. Once I learned about that, I was blown away. The island represents the garden of Eden, and there were seven passengers on the U.S.S. Minnow (or the Jesus fish symbol), each passenger represented a different sin. The Skipper was gluttony, the Professor was pride, Ginger was lust, Mary Ann was envy, Gilligan was sloth, Mrs. Howe was greed, and Mr Howe was wrath. And it was their indulgence in their own sins that always kept them stuck on the island. Now…you could market that as a Biblical analogy and grab yourself a decent sized fanbase…but you might also get a lot of people reaching for the remote to change the channel. The way to avoid that as much as possible? Is through symbolism.
This is a short film that takes place in a classroom, and it’s a representation of child indoctrination. Give it a look…
Think like WE think…or prepare for punishment…
I know that I’m a hopeless optimist…but I truly do believe that there are more than enough similarities holding us together for everybody to truly connect on a deeper level than all of that surface garbage that we stress over all the time. Tap into that, and use your freedom of symbolism and metaphor to show your audience another way of accepting that. Cool?
I hope this helps you guys out with your writing ideas and process! Get out there and create a classic! Seezya soon!