When I teach symbol analysis in my classes, my technique is to have students draw a T chart and list the literal details (using actual quotations) an author uses to describe an object on one side of the chart, then brainstorm as many possible symbolic meanings as they can for each detail on the other side. When we do it together, we usually end up with a rich and messy map of possibility. Then, we discuss how the symbolic meanings might be combined–how they overlap and connect to give us a few overall interpretations. Finally, I ask students to choose the one meaning they find most compelling or interesting and then link it back to as much evidence (those quotes from the literal side) as they can to support their reading. They then write an analytical paragraph with their topic sentence stating their reading (“The sword in Beowulf represents loyalty to the tribe”) and embed quotations to support it. Voila.
The reverse assignment is designed to help students create some symbolism themselves in their creative writing. They get so used to the T charts that it’s relatively easy for me to turn it around and tell them to describe an object with as much detail as possible. There’s no need, in the first draft, to edit or limit their ideas based on which details might have significance. Their job is only to be as descriptive as they possibly can. Later, they can think about what resonates and why and then revise accordingly, but during the initial part of the creative process, they should just try to notice everything and anything; you never know when you might get something cool out of it.
I’d like to try to experiment with some symbolism for my Ireland vignette project, so I’m going to attempt my own assignment. The first object I will describe is a hot water bottle.
I don’t need to boil the water when it’s just for me or Free. The tap water gets hot enough if I let it run for a while. While it’s running, I turn the knob on the top to open and drain the old contents. The bottle is fat and limp, cold and heavy. It’s awkward to hold, floppy and big, swishy and full like a cow’s udder. Like a bladder, it begs to be emptied. I tip its open end toward the sink and water gushes out with big gulps and belches. When I hold it up by its tail it hangs smooth and sleek, its red rubber slightly stretched from repeated cappings that trapped the steam too early, its furious pressure released too slowly through the protective casing.
I test the running faucet water with the tips of my fingers to make sure it’s as hot as it can get, and then I squeeze the air out of the bottle, folding it over or under so the tip at its top can be lower than the faucet. I wait as it fills, holding it so only water and no air is sliding in. When it’s full, I cap it, turning the cap until rubber rubs tightly against rubber. There’s no noise, no click to say it’s done, just increased pressure until it can’t be turned anymore. I take a towel and wipe it down, quickly on the outside and then in around the nozzle, remembering as I do watching my mother do this when I was a child. I couldn’t wait for her to hand it to me, always with the warning “be careful; it’s hot.” Since mine hasn’t been boiled, I can just hand it to Free, who is just as eager for what she calls her “water bed,” eager to slide it under the covers where her toes or tummy will soon be snuggled.
On the outside of the bottle, the ridges run diagonally and evenly down the side. In my mother’s house, there are several varieties of bottles we’ve found over the years, chasing trends to find small ones, colorful ones, and wool-covered ones. When we were children, my brother somehow got his hands on an old-fashioned one, ceramic and solid, like an old whiskey bottle with a funny looking stopper. They used to use bricks, once upon a time. You could burn yourself more easily then, of course. Now the only danger isn’t dangerous, really, just the annoyance of a too heavy bottle flopping from the bed onto your foot or spilling on you when you go to put it away.
Newman never used the things and finds them to be a wonder, a miracle of warmth waiting to wrap him up. They are perfect in their simplicity. I can’t imagine not having one or two in the house. They come out in fall before the heat goes on when it’s chilly but not chilly enough. They live under sinks and are sometimes dusty and tucked behind things like toilet paper rolls, a tub of vaseline, the curling iron and mouthwash. They wait patiently, coiled and resilient, for the moment they are needed. When groping hands finally reach for them, returning as they always do, they cannot be rinsed and filled quickly enough, their potential met with anticipation and desire. They do not disappoint. They satisfy immediately, their heat lasting and lovely.
I want the hot water bottle to represent comfort, obviously, but also intimacy in different respects: closeness to my mother, who gave me the bottles and the ritual as a child, as well as closeness to my daughter and partner with whom I’ve shared it. I like the possibility of tying in details that suggest intimacy of all sorts, even if it’s tinged with the possibility of sexual desire, which I didn’t consciously think about as I wrote, but I can see in some of the descriptive details I used above. I like that idea, even if I end up revising the organization of the description. There’s something awkward and body-conscious about some of the details, and I like that because it goes along with true intimacy and the comfort you find through that–the idea of acceptance of all the parts of someone, hot and cold together, if you will.
So that’s all I’ve got for now. Do you see any other symbolic meanings you pick up on based on my description? Are there any details you could add? I’ve used the bottle for injuries and soreness before, but I didn’t even think of that when I was writing. It certainly could be added.
Do you use a hot water bottle? What are your associations with it?