I love incorporating symbolism in my writing. I love it because it digs deeper, past the surface and to the heart of the story. To write subliminally is to operate below the threshold of consciousness; to produce something that is subtle, yet strong enough to influence mental processes or the behavior of an individual.
What is Writing Symbolism?
It is something I’ve discovered that I am not even sure exists in the mainstream sense of things as an official way of writing! Anyway, if it’s not, I’m coining it.
Writing Symbolism is when a message is given to a persons subconscious or spiritual self to influence positive change in their physical self. Not to be confused with metaphysical psychology, this skill allows the writer to open the eyes of the reader in a way that is easier to understand or to digest. It makes readers think and tends to stay with us past the entertainment factor.
The symbolical writer’s goal is to tap into that spiritual consciousness that exists in all of mankind, but that has been lost or hidden in the world we live in. To create sort of a stepping stone to the consumption of greater spiritual awareness.
This kind of writing is most effective for writers who wish to incorporate spiritual concepts in their writing without being preachy.
I caution however that writing subliminally is not easy. If done incorrectly you can easily confuse readers. Let’s look at an example of a subliminal writer who has done it right:
Sue Monk Kidd
The Secret Life of Bees
What message is behind The Secret Life of Bees?
There are many.
The major theme of this novel is expressed in its title, which comes from a statement made by August:
“Most people don’t have any idea about all the complicated life going on inside a hive. Bees have a secret life we don’t know anything about (148).
Throughout the novel (and movie), the reader (watcher) learns how most people are not what they seem to be on the surface. People’s lives are usually much more complex and complicated than they appear. The bees represent a community of people working together in a society which is represented by the hive and is symbolic of the Boatwright sisters and their community.
Lily is driven by her need to know about her mother so that she may learn more about herself. In seeking her mother, Lily finds mother substitutes. Rosaline, August, and the other women step into Lily’s life and provide the mothering that she needs so desperately.
The Black Madonna/ Virgin Mary demonstrates each woman’s need to be mothered. The women’s devotion to the Mother shows the power and importance of a mother in the life of a woman.
On another level, the Black Madonna / Virgin Mary is also symbolic of The Sacred Dark Feminine, which is highly promoted by the movie. The women do not just rely on the idol for mothering, but they worship her. Queen Latifah, who plays August, also symbolizes The Black Madonna / Sacred Feminine. She is the physical manifestation of her. In one such scene for example (see pic) she raises her arm in a tight fist and mimics the statue of the Black Madonna. The women also depend on her (August), for guidance and motherhood.
Three Holy Women
The days of the week (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc), and the months of the year (January, February, March, etc), from which we are so familiar are actually named after Gods and Goddesses. Thus the purpose of giving the Boatwright sisters names that are months of the year is because the three holy women are symbolic of goddesses. (There is also a Trinity undertone.)
• The Childlike May
• The Sensuous and Artistic June
• The Wise and Kind August
Rosaleen (who is, first, representative of a “Mammy Crone”) elevates and becomes a goddess figure herself at the end of the movie when her name is changed to July.
Of course, we cannot forget the antagonistic issue of race in the 1960’s south that is interwoven into the everyday relations between individuals in this book / movie. The plot demonstrates two encounters between whites and blacks (I really don’t like using these terms. White, Black, and Red are colors, not nations of people. I believe people were separated according to a nation, not a race but I digress) in which the black person is treated unjustly. Rosaleen, for example, is sent to jail for defending herself and Zach goes to jail for not admitting which of his friends broke a bottle on a white man’s nose.
On another level, Lily must personally navigate the delicacy of the racial difference between herself and the African-Americans she comes to love in Tiburon. White people criticize Lily for living with the black women, who treat her better than anyone else ever has. Lily develops romantic feelings for Zach, who tells her that he could get killed for even looking at a white girl. Finally, for the first time, Lily experiences what it is like to be judged based solely on her skin color when June complains to August that she does not want Lily in the house because she is white. I love how Kidd did this, showing the intimacy of Lily’s education on race by literally immersing her into the shoes of the black women she comes to love.
Death Gives Way to Life
Throughout the movie, there is the theme of death giving way to life. It is sometimes good, but it is also sometimes bad. In the very beginning of the movie Lily tells us:
“People who think dying is the worst thing don’t know a thing about life.”
Here, we see how Lily’s life has been profoundly affected by her mother’s death. This statement suggests that living with someone else’s death can be more painful than dying. In this case, Deborah’s death has given way to Lily’s miserable life.
However, death can also be a positive force in the lives of the living that remain. Following May’s death August tells Lily:
“Putting black cloths on the hives is for us. I do it to remind us that life gives way into death, and then death turns around and gives way into life.”
The promotion of death as giving way to life is seen twice (or maybe more) in this movie as a positive force. The first instance is the way that May’s death propels June to marry Neil, thus establishing their new life together. The second time is when Lily finally reconciles with her mother’s death and is set free to truly begin her own life. But on a deeper level, the movie promotes the idea that life can also kill.
May kills herself because life is too much for her to bear. When Deborah learns she is pregnant with Lily she decides to marry T.Ray. Lily’s life leads to Deborah’s symbolic death on the peach farm, where she has a nervous breakdown because she cannot bear to live there. This new life (Lily) also leads to Deborah’s literal death when Lily accidentally drops the gun and Deborah is hit with a bullet.
Symbolic Writing is a challenge, but if done right is a powerful way to reach readers with a message. One thing to remember is that everything, like any good book, must connect. The Secret Life of Bees was well written with symbolism because not only did almost everything represent something deeper the author wanted you to see, but it all connected so it wasn’t just thrown together. From the beginning to the end The Secret Life of Bees is personified.
Even May’s death is representative of the secret life of bees. She is kind, smiling, and joyful. She cooks for everyone and is there for you. Only those who truly know her will know how depressed she really is. Only they will see her secret life with the letters and the wailing wall and upon her death, see that everything is not always as it seems.
In her place is Rosalie, the missing piece. Where there was once May, June, and August. There is now June, July, and August and yet again, death gives way to life.
Yecheilyah Ysrayl is the YA, Historical Fiction author of The Stella Trilogy. She is currently working on her next book series “The Nora White Story” about a young black woman who dreams of being a writer in The Harlem Renaissance movement and her parent’s struggle to accept their traumatic past in the Jim Crow south. “Renaissance: The Nora White Story (Book One)” is due for release spring, 2017. For updates on this project, sneak peek of chapters, the pending book cover release, and full blurb for this series, be sure to subscribe to Yecheilyah’s email list HERE.