The Story of a Symbol

All-righty. This tale may take a few moments in the telling, and may also feel rather Becky-centered. BUT…I swear, there is a lesson in here for us writers. For this one, anyway.

In terms of my writing and my reading, I’m not usually a big fan of symbols. Or maybe I’m just not a big fan of when they’re, oh….let’s just say it: Not Used With Skill. I know, as we come up the literary-analysis ladder in school and on into college (and maybe book clubs?!), symbols are something we learn about and something we look for in books and weave into our essays. I always thought, though, that the emphasis that gets placed on them as a big deal can get a little heavy, and that symbols themselves often end up feeling something like that cartoon anvil landing on your head.

This morning, I got a little punch in the gut about how symbols can actually sneak up on us in life and–to extrapolate–that maybe I’ve been a little dismissive of their reality and the power they can carry in a story. You know, when they Are Used With Skill.

Going back in time a ways–a few years ago, my husband and I switched banks, opening up a new checking and savings account. As is pretty typical, the bank official asked us if we’d like credit cards to go with the account. We sort of did the Why Not thing, which–smart or not–is not the actual story. The story starts when the very nice official told me…ME…that I didn’t qualify for a credit card.

There were plenty of logical reasons, the most prominent being that I hadn’t had a work-for-an-actual-company job for ten years. I’d been freelancing, and–you know–the income wasn’t seriously high. (If it had been, I might very well still be doing it!) So, yeah, I got it–on paper, not such a great credit risk.


I felt like a stereotype. Like a woman who was living in the 1950s, not the 2010s. I felt like, as much as I love my husband, this was tying my identity just a bit too much to his. Honestly, I had to take a few breaths to take down the slight, but actual nausea I was feeling.

Anyway, guess what I did today. I had to get some cash from the bank ATM, and I had a few extra minutes, so I popped inside and talked to a teller about whether, having had a p/t time for a few months, I might actually qualify for a credit card. Of. My. Own.

According to the teller, yes, I do. Now I know I haven’t filled out the paperwork. I know I haven’t submitted it, received approval, or got the card yet. But I walked out of the bank with an application.

I walked out with a symbol.

That symbol carried a lot of thoughts and feelings with it. Independence. Security. Pride. A sense of starting over at a not-so-young age actually mixed in with a little bit of that much younger Wow! that I remember when I got my actual first card decades ago. Frustration and some anger that I had been in a place where the application wasn’t a possibility, even though I went into that place for reasons that I thought then and still think were good.

A whole mix of shades and layers.

And I thought, Oh. And I thought of the automobile in my WIP. It’s been playing its way through the plot and character development work I’ve been doing. It’s connected to my MC, but is it the right one for my MC? Does it carry enough weight in her personal story? Does it have the weight and resonance of, oh, say…a simple, little credit-card application?

Symbols. Yeah. They’re a part of life. And maybe I need to be a little more open about letting them be a part of my writing.


  1. Great jump from real life to real writing!


  2. Jenn Hubbard says:

    I think we do have these symbolic moments in life. And that’s when I think they work best in books, too: when they grow organically out of the story. I’ve never said, “Okay, I have to plant this symbol here,” but I have often looked at my work and seen, “Oh, the rain occurs over and over and means this, and glass keeps coming up and it seems to mean that, etc.”


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