On allegorical writing- when a blue door isn't only a blue door
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, as a writer you’ve heard the famous Ernest Hemingway quote about writing. "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."
For me, that’s true to an extent. But really only true when it comes to non-fiction.
I’ve lived the kind of life that people love to hear about on talk shows to feel better about their own struggles:
*Father in prison with a mentally ill and abusive mother who refused to get help.
*I’ve literally lost count of the number of times I’ve been groped- unless it’s especially egregious, I don’t even notice anymore.
*I was sexually assaulted by two different people in high school.
*I’ve also experienced: years of housing instability, losing most of my belongings in a house fire, being diagnosed as Bipolar 1, being the first in my family to graduate from a four-year college, coming out and getting divorced, then getting remarried and being successful in a white-collar job.
My life is a stressful feel-bad then feel-good story for the ages.
But writing directly about those issues leaves me feeling raw and exposed. I understand Hemingway when I write non-fiction. I sit at my keyboard and bleed pain and anguish for the entertainment of others.
Fiction is a different story. Sometimes a blue door is just a blue door, that’s true. Sometimes though, a blue door can represent prosperity or a deep depression.
There is a reason allegorical interpretation is taught in high schools across the country. If you only look at the surface of a story, you can miss the point of the story entirely.
Ironically, I used to rail against allegorical interpretation. Who was I to say that a blue door represented anything else? It drove me mad when I had to “waste” classroom time arguing about the meaning behind the author describing a cat as silver rather than gray- maybe they liked the word better?
At almost 40, I’ve realized how much I rely on allegories in my own writing. It’s a humbling realization. I owe an apology to every English teacher who ever received an eye roll from me when they asked us to look for deeper meaning in the words the author chose.
Allegory is used often in horror, especially in two of my favorite old school films. Dawn of the Dead was about consumerism- it’s literally set in a mall. Night of the Living Dead was about societal ills and specifically about racism. It’s no accident that the black hero, Ben (played by Duane Jones), survives the zombies and is then killed by a militia of white men.
Beyond classic films it’s difficult to find a horror book, short story, or movie that doesn’t have an allegory hidden within its text. Most horror is political and most horror is open to multiple interpretations.
I’ve seen this directly reflected in my own writing processes and the stories I choose to write about.
I can’t write directly about a sexual assault without feeling over-exposed and ill. But I can work on my novel about a girl who experiences something similar and strikes back in a way I never could.
I can’t write directly about all the instances where I’ve been groped without wanting to scream. I wrote a horror short story about men taking chunks of women’s flesh piece by piece with every inappropriate interaction.
When my mother was slowly dying after suffering 2nd and 3rd degree burns over most of her body, I was a wreck. My male neighbor walked up to me while I stood outside my car trying to cope and told me to smile. I don’t think he will ever forget the way I unloaded on him. I literally screamed at him in the parking lot until he backed away and ran into his townhouse.
That day is not something I want to relive. Instead, I wrote a horror short story about the ways men try to force women into the roles they want them in. It’s a story about one woman and her resulting metamorphosis into something non-human.
It's important to me when I’m writing stories now to think about what I’m actually trying to say. Thinking of the meaning I want behind the story has improved my writing to an unbelievable degree. I look at my recent works with shock and surprise. They’re so far above the level of what I’ve written before that it feels like someone else wrote them.
I’m still searching for that important first fiction publication. The odds are always against us when it comes to getting our work published. But it’s easier to continue trying if you know the message in your work is important. Even if you do have to hide the message behind one of those pesky blue doors to do so.