Sep 18, 2020
6 mins read
Since this is the first round-up, and the blog's been up a little longer than the usual two-week window for these, we'll have a couple extra articles in the round-up.
I'm also making this one free to the public, because it'll be an example of what to expect.
8/31: What is Visionary Fiction?
An overview of the visionary fiction genre.
I talk about my philosophy for reading as a writer and how the way we value words makes us better writers.
A visionary fiction piece based on Arthurian Grail stories.
9/7: Genre and the Modern Writer
A study of the writing market and genre for the 21st century writer.
I share my hard earned insights about what writing advice to listen to–and how to listen to it.
I talk about my organization method that I use for both my fiction and non-fiction writing.
I put all ongoing series in this section, with links to past entries.
This is the first part of a science fiction story following explorers on a barren world.
9/16: Choosing a Subject: Initiation
This is the first part of a series on how to narrow down story ideas to those that are most likely to bear fruit.
Kyle's note: I'll be putting a list with each of the previous parts of series in as well; so you'll have Ellison's Fall 1, 2, and 3 in the next newsletter in one fell swoop; likewise the next two parts of Choosing a Subject will be in them as well. Once a series is complete, I'll put the links in for one newsletter after completion, then drop them from the newsletter.
Bonus Piece: Symbols and the Writer
My exposure to the work of Carl Jung was a pivotal turning point for me as a writer.
Out of all his work, I recommend foremost Man and His Symbols, which is a book that includes both the work of Jung and that of many of his associates. They each apply their work in their own particular fields, but the effect is amplification rather than dilution.
However, there is no writer of fiction among their ranks, and little of their focus is literary.
The work of Joseph Campbell brought many of Jung’s theories to the fold of literary analysis, but Campbell is guilty of methodological flaws. As Clyde Ford points out in The Hero With an African Face, Campbell has a tendency to disregard any work which he regards as uninteresting–African myth, for instance–and his own work, like The Hero With a Thousand Faces, often cannot make a strong causal link between selective interpretations.
Much of Campbell’s work is cherry-picked by writers who apply it to their own work, which is how we get the modern story structure of the Hero’s Journey.
But one need not delve into the world of symbols and archetypes to develop story structures. Kurt Vonnegut’s famous four-minute breakdown of story structures achieves in practice what Campbell only arrives at through intellectual struggle with less dogmatic assertion.
Rather, a more suitable approach for the writer is to use lessons brought from Jung to study stories on the basis of symbols.
First, a definition of symbols, taken from Jung himself:
"The sign is always less than the concept it represents, while a symbol always stands for something more than its obvious and immediate meaning."
This can be aptly applied in literature, as in Frye's approach to archetypes and symbols. It is not beneficial to draw symbols from a catalogue; meaning cannot be purchased so cheaply, and attempts to provide symbolic meaning in this way result in nothing more than an assortment of signs. In the hands of the right writer, this method may succeed despite its faults, but it is only through perplexing the audience or a sufficiently solid skeleton underneath the symbolism that such works succeed. In the latter case, the symbolism is nothing more than wasted effort on behalf of the writer.
What is the proper way for writers to approach symbols?
1.Study of basic archetypal structures.
Archetypes are those things from which symbols can be drawn as fragments. The mythic symbol of the dragon is nothing more than a manifestation of an archetype: the treacherous unknown. Whether this comes from within or without varies in each account; Tolkien's Smaug seems to represent an internal and unknown threat posed by greed, while Beowulf's fatal confrontation with a dragon represents the inevitable fate of all living beings.
Studying archetypes is important, but must start from the proper perspective. From Jung's perspective, symbols are inflections upon universal archetypes found in the collective unconscious. Even an analysis less heavily dependent upon Jung (like that of Frye) would argue that the archetype cannot be communicated in its entirety.
If a symbol is like an event, then an archetype is like the complete set of events that could have occurred. The panther, the serial killer, and the natural disaster would each qualify, in the right context, as signs or symbols drawn from the universal archetype of the dangerous unknown.
2. Identification within a work.
Jung's claim to fame is dream analysis, something both he and his sometimes-mentor sometimes-rival Freud are known for.
However, while Freudian dream analysis is one-dimensional, being drawn from a presupposition that the psychological functions are predominantly sexual, Jung paints a deeper and more vibrant image of the psyche, accounting for a broader concept of the ego, unconscious, and psychological functions that includes symbolic representations of the universe.
In this way, Jung's preferred means of identifying symbols is to find them within the dreams of a subject (or in manifestations like art and stories, which is how Jung's influence eventually came to Campbell).
My preferred way to work with symbols is to draw upon them minimally from outside a work, but to amplify and use them when they occur. When conceiving of a story, I may draw an image from my own dreams, or use an archetypal concept drawn from mythology.
The caution here is not to find a symbol for the symbol's sake, as one does when searching through an archive of symbols. That method neuters the symbol. Rather, the goal is to find an existing symbol and draw associations from it.
From the hero symbol we can make easy connections: a hero has an adversary and a mentor.
When a story stalls, or when it becomes unclear, these connections put it aright and provide the writer with powerful tools.
There is more that could be said about using this method to inflect stories: the hero who vanquishes an external adversary with the aid of their mentor follows Campbell's heroic form, but there are protagonists who follow other paths, often tragic or antiheroic ones, which are beyond this study of symbols.
3. Association by type.
A type is not quite a symbol, but drawing an element from another story provides the symbolic links associated with that type.
Types are essentially distinctive stock characters: you might describe a character as a type of Faust if they are consumed by hubris and seek power they should not have.
In the Bible, Jonah is used as a type for Christ: by spending three days in the whale's belly, the sign of Jonah becomes a symbol of Christ's resurrection.
This permits an approach similar to the method above, where associations are drawn from a symbol. The nuanced difference is that here a type comes with its own symbolic associations, and authors can play with them by subverting the audience's expectations or use them to enrich their work.
Symbols provide a path to creating rich and meaningful works. The associations that they can suggest provide a tool for readers to draw from and give a foundation for consistency throughout a story or novel.