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Theme, Symbolism and Imagery

IP - Theme Symbolism and Imagery

I was in the city again yesterday for another worksop with Writers Victoria. This time it was Theme, Symbolism and Imagery with Emily Bitto (who I think I accidentally called Anna at one point -- sorry Emily! My mind has been playing weird tricks on me lately). It makes two weekends in the a row that I've headed to the big smoke. It's strange to be catching public transport again and to not have to wear a mask when in shops and on the streets. It feels as weird as it did to first put on a mask back in July last year.

Again, I was the only poet in the room but I still learnt a ton of useful stuff to apply to writing (or perhaps editing would be more appropriate) my poetry. Emily is a woman after my own heart. She loves words, their definitions and etymology. The class started with Emily defining theme, symbolism and imagery and then we dove into each one in more detail staring with imagery.

If you're like me, when you read the word imagery you immediately think of pictures. Well in literary terms imagery does refer to pictures but it also refers to anything that deals with our senses. So an image can also apply to taste or sound. You can then add actions into the mix and end up with the image of a person eating an ice cream.

Symbolism is often general and it can also be culturally specific. It's something you need to be aware of when writing as symbolism can change the meaning for the reader. The cool things about symbolism is that it adds depth to your work without you having to do a whole bunch of explaining or description.

Theme is still a little murky for me and hard to define or put in words I guess I'd say it's the overall / underlying message of your piece or the dominant flavour of your work. You know overtones of joy with lashings of poignancy and a twinge of bittersweet. Like that. 

I hadn't ever consciously thought about the themes in my work or the symbols I might be using until yesterday's workshop. It was interesting to look at the themes I've written about in the past and how they have changed over time. When you use them consciously, images and symbols can build on each other, adding strength and weight to your theme. I got really excited about this idea of intentionality around my writing.

The other thing that excited me was learning that you can develop your own personal set of symbols which can be used throughout your entire body of work. The Australian poet who Emily did her Masters thesis on, David Malouf, apparently uses crabs as symbols in his poetry. I know that in art, the surrealist artist, Salvador Dali, used a set of recurring symbols throughout his paintings. Side note: the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres (north of Barcelona) is incredible and well worth a visit if you're ever in Spain.

I realised that I have been unconsciously using a lot of very basic, cliched symbols in my writing. Flowers, angels, God. It's embarassing and shows a distinct lack of imagination on my part.  But the good news is, I can now change all of that and develop my own meaningful set of symbols!

The workshop was filled with lots of practical exercises so we could put all the theory to the test. We also had the chance at the end of the day to put it all into practice on an excerpt of our own work which was then critiqued by a classmate. Peer responses are such a great way to receive feedback when you're writing. It's always great to know what's working and what isn't as well as seeing what other people take from your work.

For those of you reading this blog post, I wanted to share some of the Emily's gems. And if you ever get a chance to do one of Emily's workshops, grab it with both hands!


Wise words from Emily

Focus on being embodied and concrete and let that produce the images.

Choose images that have rich and multiple symbols.

Give your images room to breathe so your reader can pick up on their resonance (ie don't pile on inage after image and overwhelm your reader) .

Trust your subconscious mind to come up with thematic content.

It's how you enrich your theme through story that makes it what it is.