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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Symbolism, Et Alia

   
Author Topic: Symbolism, Et Alia
extrinsic
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Symbolism, imagery, motif and theme, topos, trope, moral charge, any of a number of abstract features for a narrative's figurative meaning making and make believe, many are the labels; few are the explications and explanations for their invention and composition methods. The general practices are intuition and discovery, some emulation and imitation of extant intangibles, maybe most so from osmosis -- absorption and diffusion from life, possibly, timely serendipity maybe, imaginatively reinvented cliché, perhaps an overreliance on stale idiom to convey arousing meaning through an economy of words.

That latter is the function of such expression, the purpose, the desired end: brief, memorable, meaningful, lively, vivid, and sensorially stimulating expression. The means to those ends, like much of creative composition methods, figurative aesthetics most of all, are near infinite of quantity and varied quality of achievement. If artlessly crafted, too, those can feel forced, flat, rushed, and detract from rather than enhance a narrative's appeals. Intentional design of figurative invention is both a challenge and a trap yet a crucial feature.

Awareness that figurative features are pertinent is only an intellectual grasp, maybe at best a scrape at an edge of an idea. What's wanted for dynamic invention is a first principle, backtracked to, from which the splendor of it all flows.

This has been much on my mind these past few months, and fruitless of results until recently. Study of writers, and their works, who accomplish these ends only revealed a mastery that was out of my reach. Artful methods, no clue to the thought processes behind their deliberate inventions. They make it look as easy and natural as breath. Identification of those is challenging enough due to the seeming ease of their expression and that those call no undue attention to their artful expression. Such is the writing life.

Huzzah, though. Came across an essay that analyzes the stream-of- consciousness paradigm of William James, coiner of the term "stream of consciousness," Henry James, younger brother of William, and Edith Wharton, companion and writer contemporary of Henry's. The Figure of Consciousness: William James, Henry James and Edith Wharton. Jill M. Kress. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Henry James' works are often overly ontological, according to some critics: weighty, florid, and too internal of thought ponders of the human condition. He overshoots some presupposed mark. Okay. No problem with that. James had a tool and he explored its uses to an extreme end. Compared contrastively to writers and works that undershoot a presupposed mark, a bracket emerges -- well, a bolus anyway suited to a target audience's sensibilities and comprehension aptitudes.

The essay, book-length, by the way, 268 pages, labels a core feature of William, Henry, and Wharton's theories and intents, that is, complications of human consciousness: the "idea of the autonomous individual." The rhetorical question, and dilemma, posed by the Jameses, Wharton, and Kress, is whether an individual's thoughts are autonomous, or externally influenced, and whether thoughts are accessible by others or private and secure. Each struggles to answer the question and to what degree thoughts are private or public.

Henry James believed a goldfish bowl is a perfect container and as well cannot contain its contents. The goldfish can escape, probably to its dehydration and asphyxiation death on the floor, nor can the bowl contain the water. In time, due to neglect, the content evaporates. Plus, a number of internal and external influences alter the condition of the water: fishfood, the fish's resource consumption and wastes, atmospheric compounds, some beneficial, some toxic, dust, etc.; and, the glass is transparent, cannot contain the view, is, in fact, the design and intent of the goldfish bowl, to see the glass-hole fish, tap on the glass to perhaps elicit a reaction and annoys the fish. What a perfect metaphor a goldfish bowl is for thought and the figure of consciousness: a perfect container for thought is the human mind and cannot be contained.

I lived several years in a residence surrounded by a resort attraction. The visitors were forever trying to get inside, peeking in windows, knocking on doors. I couldn't come or go without being braced by strangers. I lived in a goldfish bowl where my thoughts were private and publicly exposed.

In such a way is a concrete motif informative for a narrative's intangible contests and figurative meaning. Personal experience, yes; however, how about when a narrative needs meaningful motifs outside of personal experience though nonetheless must feel as real as personal experience? Fantastic fiction, where milieus and setting features are made up, events, too, and characters perhaps, especially challenge writers. By default, the usual resort is just use a real-world analog from personal experience or from researched contexture. Far more appeal, though, comes from exotic scenarios that are no less accessible through comparative familiarity.

The first principle then, what? Here's the concrete, the tangible motif. How does that motif represent an intangible, abstract feature of the human condition? Can it, such that the audience appreciates its intent and meaning? If not, what about another motif that can and does? The concrete and the abstract must harmonize, reverberate, and contrast.

A goldfish bowl is not a human mind. The metaphorical correlation, though, must be accessible, and resonate with readers, the action, the settings, the characters, and the circumstances overall, and the reverberation ring throughout, by transformative alteration per instance, at least twice, if not thrice -- no more. In other words, once in a start, once in a middle though different, and once differently in an end, and be relevant to the action at hand. Furthermore, for the stronger appeals of character-driven action, such motifs must be relevant to the personas of the action's flow. For example, the one ring to rule them all from the J.R.R. Tolkien Middle Earth cycle.

What about the concrete motifs of your works in progress? What aspect of the human condition are they intended to reflect?

I'm working on a short story where a space habitat is like a cruise ship, from the below-decks viewpoint of a menial laborer crew person. The cruise ship topos is that of luxury pastimes and at the expense of menial laborer misery in exchange for bare minimum subsistence. The habitat, too, is a goldfish bowl. Of course, this intends to be a satire, Menippean satire about a human condition.

The crew person is transformed by the action, both tangibly and intangibly, though pokes fun at both elite and subjugated life stations and yet the crew person establishes a meaningful adult identity in the process. Now, the intangible action is subtended to the deep background though is the real foreground, so that the practical irony of it all is a discovered moral truth and not an asserted moral law. In other words, the concrete transformation action carries the narrative.

[ September 29, 2016, 03:49 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Grumpy old guy
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Just what do you mean by 'concrete motifs'? Are you talking about the physical, social, and technological environment the story takes place in, or something else?

Phil.

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extrinsic
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A goldfish bowl is a concrete motif, to mean a material, tangible, physical, non-abstract object. A goldfish bowl's more obvious abstract motif value is that of valuing a pet's care and attendant affection or at least appreciation for the goldfish's indifferent companionship.

A setting entails concrete aspects; objects of a setting's social milieu are concrete though as well entail abstract associations. A turnstile is a tangible object of a specific intent, and fraught with many figurative, abstract associations.

Social associations between concrete objects and abstract representations are manifold by their nature, intent, and interpretation. Technology's physical object and more elusive electronic aspect influences are likewise concrete and abstract.

Synthesis of a concrete and attendant abstract motif's relevance, in real life or prose, is distinguishable though overlook-able. Sentimental value for a cherished and long-used coffee cup exceeds its tangible sale value, for example. However, the coffee cup of a famous celebrity may fetch a sale value far beyond even the celebrity's sentimental value of it. on the other hand, a chipped and cracked coffee cup of no emotional association will have a nil or negative value.

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Grumpy old guy
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In order for my answer to make much sense I think I need to explain how I create stories, regardless of length. They all begin with the idea of a character faced with an impossible choice. Imagine a fork in the road. If the character chooses the left fork something horrible will happen, if the right fork, something different but equally horrible will happen, or the character can choose to do nothing, which has its own consequences. I then reverse engineer the story in order to create the environment and circumstances within which this moral dilemma arises and is resolved.

So, in essence, every single thing in my stories, every rock, thought, door, and character is a concrete motif with the purpose of driving the story to its conclusion.

But--sometimes a goldfish bowl is just a goldfish bowl.

Having said that everything is a motif, nothing really is. I do not consciously create metaphoric motifs in my stories. There is no One Ring, no Book of Souls, no Sword of Power; nothing like that at all. Despite what critics may care to imagine and read into my stories. There is, however, a lot of sub-text.

I know, this is about as helpful as a hit on the head with a hammer. [Smile]

Phil.

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extrinsic
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From a close study of several writers' processes, Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, Gustav Flaubert, to name ones whose processes were published contemporaneous to their fiction, and so in the public domain, thus accessible free from Project Gutenberg, and others whose processes are not public domain yet -- the process is more or less the one of a basic character moral dilemma and complication: cursed if you do either of a "forked" decision tree, cursed if you don't, and some reverse engineering to establish the existents: events, settings, characters.

Then draft composition, then a tone rewrite, then a unity rewrite, then a subtext rewrite, then a meaning making rewrite for co-relating subtext to surface meaning what a narrative is really about, then, at last, a proofread pass to adjust grammar and style. Then publication submission.

I'd appreciated process through to the tone rewrite phase; scrapes at the others eluded my grasp. "The Figure of Consciousness" opened up the later phases. I'm miffed and awed that my process went through changes from pure intuitive discovery writer, plan writer, to a meld of both, to a transcendent process that now contributes to every phase from inception to concept evaluation to final revision. It's a formula though the results are not formulaic, and, now I realize, a formula that served many successful writers well.

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LDWriter2
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Intriguing discussion

But it's late and I will have to think on my response-if I can remember to do that. I have been failing greatly in my attempts to come here.

But maybe that last could be considered a symbolic metaphor.
[Smile]

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by LDWriter2:
Intriguing discussion

But it's late and I will have to think on my response-if I can remember to do that. I have been failing greatly in my attempts to come here.

But maybe that last could be considered a symbolic metaphor.
[Smile]

Well, yes, symbolic representation of a personal association between tangible events, maybe metaphor-like, maybe another figure or figures, though certainly an allusive reference.

"failing" attempts, for example. Attempted failure? Failed attempt at failure? Therefore, successful? Though not? Surely a compressed paradox, an oxymoron, actually, and the figure's figurative truth characteristic between otherwise incongruent terms. Delicious irony, at least the observable situational irony, if not many much more.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
So, in essence, every single thing in my stories, every rock, thought, door, and character is a concrete motif with the purpose of driving the story to its conclusion.

But--sometimes a goldfish bowl is just a goldfish bowl.

Having said that everything is a motif, nothing really is.
Phil.

Had to meditate on this; one, because empty disagreeable dissent is disagreeable; and two, to non-refute a refutable assertion.

Sometimes, indeed, a goldfish bowl is just a goldfish bowl. If the bowl has no representational meaning, it holds no significance to a narrative's meaning; therefore, little to no place in an artful narrative. A goldfish bowl must mean something to at least a viewpoint persona and readers or it is a superfluous, non-telling detail that is likely to, or will, bog down a narrative's movement for its depiction expression span.

Yes, not everything is a motif, though, probably is if a thing is relevant. Though if the thing is not relevant, it probably is or actually is superfluous detail. A thorough description of a chair, for example, cannot comprehensively define the chair's totality, any more than a photograph or three-dimensional image can.

A single "telling detail" though can evoke what the chair means to a viewpoint persona such that readers sense the chair and its meaning from their personal experiences with a similar chair and within their imaginations and emotions. Like the chair's texture, firm, though aged and splintery, and the meaning of the chair is prickly hard on the backside -- uncomfortable and a tenuous perch. Or the chair is the epitome of comfort and security. Or the chair is of mixed emotions and meanings.

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extrinsic
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Took a while to re-find this audio essay about the concepts of literal and figurative meaning:

Maud Casey: "It's a Wooden Leg First: Paying Narrative Attention to the Literal Level of the Story in Order to Achieve the Figurative," January 2008, The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, available audio download from the program's online store. $5.00.

Promotional blurb, which expresses more concisely than I have above, the nature of the beast:

"About her story 'Good Country People,' in which a Bible salesman steals a woman's leg, Flannery O'Connor wrote, 'If you want to say that the wooden leg is a symbol, you can say that. But it is a wooden leg first.' Similarly, Maud Casey warns against symbol-hunting and symbol-planting; she argues, instead, for the resonant power of lavishing attention on the literal level, and turns for examples to O'Connor’s story as well as to fiction by James Baldwin, Tim O'Brien, Deborah Eisenberg and Chris Abani."

Link to the program store of online digital lecture downloads, 1984 through 2016: http://www.wwcmfa.org/mfa-store/fiction-digital-lectures

Warren Wilson's MFA program is a three-year low residency curriculum at the private college.

Flannery O'Connor, "Good Country People" free PDF download from Weber.edu, nineteen pages.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I submit that if a symbol (or any other device, for that matter) doesn't work in the story in the most literal sense, it will have failed for most readers.

The readers who recognize anything else that the "wooden leg" may represent have the added benefit of enjoying the story at an additional level (or maybe even more than one additional level).

But if the story can't work literally, it runs the risk of being pointless figuratively.

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Grumpy old guy
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The decision by a writer to use motifs to 'enhance' their story is one I think is fraught with danger. In essence, the writer chooses the physical nature of the motif, its attributes, purposes, effects, and the results of its interactions within the story. The reader interprets this motif in their own way--if at all--if they notice it--if they value it in the manner desired by the writer. Which means not at all, usually.

After having said that I don't consciously incorporate concrete motifs in my stories, I realised I actually do. Not completely consciously, and not with any narrative purpose other than to give added 'depth' to the storytelling. Their not being noticed by the reader affects the storytelling not at all.

It is my view that reader appreciation of a motif is the inverse of its subtlety.

In other words, kdw hit the nail on the head.

Phil.

[ October 05, 2016, 07:42 AM: Message edited by: Grumpy old guy ]

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extrinsic
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Figurative expression comprehension ranges like most everything along a dimensional continuum. A distribution graph of comprehension across the reader population, where the baseline x is aptitude and the vertical axis y is number of individuals, is a standard Bell curve.

Lowest aptitude left, fewer individuals. A parabolic curve arcs upward with an apex that represents average comprehension and largest number of individuals. Then the arc trends downward, more aptitude, fewer individuals. Highest aptitude returns to the baseline toward the right and yet fewer individuals.

However, if considered as able and unable to comprehend, the smallest group is those unable to comprehend figurative expression at all.

Comprehension aptitude can be taught and learned, developed, and strengthened, with effort and over time. The general trend is comprehension advances naturally with age though can plateau at any age per individual.

Wayne Booth, A Rhetoric of Irony, says of irony similar circumstances though pulls back from indicting anyone's aptitude, rather, takes a Life takes all kinds perspective. And that later in life figurative language expressers and recipients naturally develop stronger aptitudes and comprehension skills.

Another aspect of figurative language Booth discusses is how initial comprehension may be instant and complete or delayed and unstable though, over time, stability unfolds. A mark of stability is how an interpretation develops into a complete comprehension of a figure, situational or extended, shared by a large consensus. The language "invites" interpretation and interpretation becomes stable.

A noteworthy example Booth uses is Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal." Interpretations of the narrative contemporaneous to its publication follow the above distribution curve. A few take the satire at only face value. A large number intuit or comprehend the narrative's irony and are in accord with comprehensive and supported interpretations that a few fully grasp.

The latter are the group currently who are most in common agreement of the narrative's interpretation, intent, meaning, message, and methods that achieve those ends. The latter consensus, though, is a result from two centuries of study accumulation and advances of analytical arts and sciences.

Two centuries to fully comprehend and form a stable consensus agreement about one brief narrative? Such is the human condition. Shakespeare's narratives continue to resist such appreciation five centuries since their debut. More recent acclaimed works unraveled sooner.

Nor is fantastic fiction so much a different entity. The only genuine difference is the field has drawn less analytical scrutiny than classics and acclaimed narratives. Both fields rely upon topos: motifs recurrent across a genre that possess default figurative meaning, like vampires. Both fields rely upon comparatively proportioned and unified literal and figurative meaning. Both fields rely upon an overall shared cultural and spiritual zeitgeist. Only fantastic fiction more so favors a non-one-to-one correspondence between literal and figurative layers, and, to me, is more artful and appealing for it.

Yet, as Casey argues above, symbol-hunting and symbol-planting is the perilous risk of inventing symbols and figurative language overall. Those feel forced, unnatural, and perhaps rough and rushed.

Seconded, that if the literal meaning doesn't work, the figurative meaning does nothing to improve comprehension or appeal; likewise, if the literal meaning works, the figurative meaning must too, in large part due to larger number average comprehension aptitudes possess a native figurative understanding and have the aptitude for it and feel and are smart for being able to interpret and comprehend, which appeals to intellect, imagination, and emotion.

An ideal marketplace target audience is those who stand at the apex of the Bell curve, for being most numerous, most reachable and reached at least, if not for pure revenue concerns. Yet also ideally, a well-crafted narrative reaches the Bell curve gamut from extreme to extreme and all data points between.

Mutual human conditions, intangibles, values, beliefs, idioms and idiosyncrasies, and life experiences span that gamut.

Ergo, both figurative meaning presence and accessibility enhance appeal. Casey also advises how: Lavish attention on the literal to achieve the figurative. And if so, more often than not is a consequence of some effort degree and some natural, though acquired by absorbtion and practice, fluency degree.

[ October 05, 2016, 04:57 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Grumpy old guy
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Here's another question: If they're so hard to get right without being obvious, why include metaphoric or allegoric motifs at all?

Phil.

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extrinsic
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1.) Allusive "telling" detail expresses more with less -- in an economy of words
2.) Added allusive depth adds freshness and appeal to otherwise many times repeated storylines -- many a stranger comes to town stories are extant and its corollary the prodigal leaves town and other basic storylines
3.) Artful detail engages intellect, imagination, and emotion
4.) Artful expression transcends "tell" and bland, dull language
5.) The poetry of prose distinguishes the genre from poetry and textbook text
6.) Motifs and metaphors entail emotional if not moral charge essential to dramatic expression
7.) Those carry viewpoint agonist, narrator, and writer distinction from the fray
8.) Those express individual identity that arouse curiosity and antagonism
9.) Those express otherwise unexpressable abstract concepts such that readers tangibly share the meaning
10.) Life is symbolic; everything is fraught with allusive meaning that either matters at the moment or doesn't or will at a later moment . . .

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extrinsic
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For example, Hulga's wooden leg from Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People." The figurative meanings of the leg trace several threads through the story. Its literal meaning and figurative meanings align and pivot around the prosthetic limb: It is a crutch, both literally and figuratively.

An aid for ambulation is its physical, literal meaning. The amputated limb and the prosthetic are cause for self-pity, figuratively a crutch, to mean emotional or psychological dependency, a self-justification support for a personal vulnerability that causes a mild, moderate, or severe dissociative affect.

The wooden leg is all that for Hulga, plus other meanings, and which reconcile into one. O'Connor lavishes literal attention to the effects the leg signals and, ergo, achieves the figurative. The self-pity aspect is instantly accessible. Other figurative threads that are less accessible hold other intents and appeals. The reconciled into one thread peculiarly contradicts the others and at once resonates with them and completes the tapestry.

In other words, the short story holds appeals for all readers' interpretive and comprehension aptitudes. The story and the collection in which it was published, A Good Man is Hard to Find, 1955, received popular and critical acclaim through the late '50s to '60s and is still timely and relevant today though not as popular as it was, due in part to audience distractions from an oversaturated entertainment marketplace.

[ October 07, 2016, 06:48 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Algis Budrys pointed out that part of the "sense of wonder" readers experience may be due to a sense of there being more to the story than what is on the surface. If for no other reason than that, adding figurative aspects to a story can give it a "feel" that might not be there otherwise, even if not ever reader perceives it.
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extrinsic
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I remember, when I was a young reader, I wondered how much I missed though sensed was strong undercurrents. I felt plot arcs' emotional movement, when they were strong, though couldn't distinguish the methods, foremost. Efforts later unraveled plot methods; I still missed more than I was comfortable missing. Directed and independent study and analysis incrementally filled comprehension gaps.

That "sense of wonder" provoked me to unravel incomprehensible, to me, meaning. A number of facets attributed to Socrates entail the persuasion to unravel such. The Socratic method, for one overarching facet: in a few words, essentially, exhaustive explanatory detail withheld in order to persuade effectual self-learning, self-decision, self-responsibility, and therefrom reap the attendant high-value rewards of self-discovery.

Like, say, censorship is the theme of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. That didn't fit with my sense of that theme as an incomplete interpretation. Later, Bradbury added that technology destroys culture theme; still incomplete.

However, though shy of the mark, no less presented a clue to a full comprehension of the novel; that is, the perils of mass culture majority rules' capacity for corruption of minority and dissenter groups and the whole. Later, after I realized that theme-premise, Bradbury confirmed it. Great that he did; however, the satisfaction of self-discovery was unblunted.

What, fifty years for even the novel's writer to fully comprehend the work!? Yep. Somewhat less for me; my first read was circa 1973 and when critics imposed the censorship theme as the singular interpretation, in accord, too, with Bradbury's intents.

Next I read a new edition of the novel, mid-'80s, a Bradbury coda added the technology destroys culture theme. Several more reads after, late twentieth century and early twenty-first, I uncovered the mass culture majority rules theme, and soon thereafter Bradbury solidified and confirmed it. Another few reads and now I fully comprehend the novel's satire, irony, especially its practical irony, another of Socrates' methods, though I didn't understand those terms until a few years later, recently, actually. Satire reveals social vice and folly; practical irony discovers a moral truth, doesn't assert and impose a moral law.

Nor has my appreciation for the novel diminished; actually, it has grown all the stronger for a full comprehension.

Did Bradbury consciously intend all this? No, he admits, not fully consciously. He grasped at the edges of elusive ideas, lavished attention on the literal meaning and achieved the figurative he consciously and nonconsciously intended -- a serendipitous Freudian slip of a non-psychosexual type.

In all, the intended lavished literal and figurative meanings' attention do orient around the perils of censorship, yet the nonconscious influences asserted their presences no less. Taken altogether, they factor out to a greater synergy meaning than the sum of the whole. These are why I make the effort; one, for fullest reading satisfaction; two, wariness of undue persuasions; three, for informing my own writing.

The several other figurative threads of the novel are not as accessible as the satire's censorship target victim, less accessible for less skilled readers, though influential regardless. The novel's figurative language spans the reader comprehension aptitude gamut, from none to full yet most reached and reaches average aptitudes.

The point of all this above is to relate that writers and writing is a matter of literal and figurative expression skills intuited, discovered, and learned that reaches a target audience and spans a broader appeal base. Durable prose does so. Prose ephemera the Digital Age produces in ever greater abundance than before, so much transient and perishable, does not, is fraught with superficial expression. Ergo, to be competitive in an evermore competitive culture, stand out from the fray through natural, ample, strong, and clear figurative expression.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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One of the things that I got from FAHRENHEIT 451, which is probably one of the most obvious things, by the way, is that no matter how awful the situation may be, there is a way to fight it, to keep the bad from overwhelming and winning. For all its darkness, I found it quite a hopeful novel.
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