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Let the symbols live

I’ve finally figured out where the title of one of my novels came from. I think.

A couple of years ago, I churned out a fairly strong first chapter and a mess of a synopsis in six days just so I could enter a contest. I almost didn’t enter this particular contest, sponsored by a particular writing group that wasn’t my cup of tea anymore, but my competitive streak couldn’t resist. Especially because a line came out of nowhere and refused to go away:

She didn’t believe in ghosts, but growing up across from the graveyard must have warped her psyche.

I started writing. No road map, no plan. The next bit went:

Or maybe the old whisperings were in her blood. Part Irish, all southern, descended from moonshiners and holy rollers, she’d always believed in things she couldn’t see.

I liked the sound of it, but I had no idea who she was or what the old whisperings were or why ghosts and moonshiners seemed to go together. I just kept writing. And rewriting. And rewriting. There was a plot in there, somewhere, and I hoped to find it.

The deadline arrived. I had a polished chapter but no synopsis. I had to have one to enter the contest. So I wrote a plotless wonder of a synopsis. Then I had to pick a title and pick it fast. I had just enough time to print my entry and hand-deliver it to the category coordinator. “Undo the Dark” popped into my head, and I took it. I printed three copies of the chapter and the crappy synopsis and drove like mad to meet two of my friends at Starbucks. One was the coordinator for the inspirational category of the contest; the other was, like me, squeaking in under the deadline with an entry. I had no hope of finaling in the contest, but it gave me a jump-start on a new project, so it was all good.

I went home and agonized over the plot. I got it. I finished the story, revised it, and revised it again. Now it’s 92,000 words and I can see the patterns and the symbols that were there from the start, while I wrote in a blind white heat for a silly contest.

Some of the symbols are related to the Holy Spirit: wind, water, ghosts, spirits. The other kind of spirits are in there, too. The moonshine kind. Now I’m also seeing a lot about eyes: the eyes of God, the eyes of man, the eyes of a baby doll. There’s also a lot about hands and blood. Wild berries that stain the fingertips. Blood that stains a man’s hands. Bloodlines, family trees, family secrets. Secrets, covered up, like houses and trees are covered by kudzu vines. Then there’s the other kind of covering: love that covers a multitude of sins.

Some of the connections are messy. The ending isn’t neat. There are loose ends. Some elements of the story aren’t exactly CBA-friendly.

Just this week I realized where the title may have come from. One of the characters is a solitary soul who’s playing a game, all alone. Another character is trapped by a dark past and can’t undo it. For him, it’s not as simple as playing solitaire on a computer, where he could hit “Undo” to go back and fix a mistake. I think my subconscious mind put those elements together, even before I knew the plot, and whispered, Undo the Dark. I’m not saying it’s a great title, but it guided me into the themes of the story.

Mick Silva has invited readers of his blog, “Your Writers Group,” to blog about “choosing to develop the natural metaphors in their story and sharing the observations and discoveries they find.” And he says he’ll provide a link. So here are a few observations if you care to link to them, Mick.

One, it’s fun but maddening to write without a road map, to be guided by a whisper in my ear: “Go that way. Now, turn. Even if you can’t see around the corner. Go.” Sometimes I take wrong turns and have to backtrack, but it’s not necessarily a waste of time. Sometimes I learn more from wrong turns than from getting it right the first time.

Two, the symbols have a life of their own but only if I’ll let them. If I hug them too tightly, I’ll be left with a lifeless mockery of what the story could have been. They need room to grow. Time to grow. And I can’t dictate their personalities. As a parent, I have tried to guide my kids, but God is the author of their personalities. What’s there is there. And, like we’re sometimes led by a little child, sometimes a symbol can lead a writer even before it has grown into what it will eventually become.

Three, our writing is, unfortunately, subject to the rules of the marketplace if we hope to share it with other people. I may honestly think God gave me a particular story in a particular way, but the powers that be won’t necessarily agree with me. They may want to kill some of the symbols that I think are at the heart of the story. I’m still struggling with that possibility.

I can definitely relate to these lines from Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel lecture: “I am most surprised by those moments when I have felt as if the sentences . . . have not come from my own imagination—that another power has found them and generously presented them to me.” In my case, the opening lines and the title seemed to drop into my head from nowhere. I had to work hard for everything else, but work itself is a gift and a joy.

Mick, your blog encourages me more than you know. Thank you for being there.

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Categorized: fiction
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