Haiku, Themes, Symbolism, and the Subconscious

Haiku, Themes, Symbolism, and the Subconscious
Terry Odell


Photo by Terry Odell

Joyce Hooley’s post on Saturday got me thinking.

I recall learning about haiku in high school, and being a dismal failure at coming up with anything significant. Quoting from Joyce’s post, “at its essence, a haiku is a short poem that uses an image from nature to evoke a particular season in a particular place, and then uses a break in the rhythm of the poem to juxtapose that image with another image, or to juxtapose two aspects of the central image, and thereby prompt reflection.”

I’m not a poet, not by any means. My in-person critique group in Orlando included two excellent poets, and my feedback was generally along the lines of  “I think a comma here would help.” Not to say I didn’t appreciate their work, but constructing it on my own wasn’t/isn’t in my makeup.

Nevertheless, I gave Joyce’s challenge a try. I looked out my window, and this is what I came up with.

A breezeless morning
Aspen leaves are motionless
I miss the rustling

Not particularly profound, but for the scientist in me, it met the syllable rules, and that was enough.

Joyce’s reply to my offering”

Because aspens are so often used to portray rustling, shifting, motion, using them to portray stillness is very effective for suggesting a strangeness in that stillness, suggesting restlessness in the viewer…

Did I have any of that in mind when I wrote my little poem? Not a bit of it. Did I even “see” it when I read what I’d written. Nope. When I look out my office window, I see aspen trees. That’s what grows there. I didn’t chose the species, or think about what they meant. I admire Joyce’s ability to see beyond the obvious.

Which (circuitously) brings me to the question of writing fiction. We find underlying themes in our books. Do we know what they are when we start writing? Considering the current WIP (a romantic suspense). It took 32 chapters for Kiera to reveal the piece of her past that could destroy her growing relationship with Frank. Frank was nicer; he told me his problem much earlier in the book. Characters’ pasts shape their futures, and can drive the story. For me, more often than not, it’s discovering a theme, and then going back and “filling in the blanks.” Sometimes, when I consider theme, I think I’m writing one book over and over: a character’s road to self-discovery.

Back in high school English, we read and analyzed works of literature. Mr. Holtby was always asking what the significance of this or that was. As students, we asked whether the authors consciously knew this as they were writing. Why did Hemingway decide the old man’s eyes would be blue? If the book is set in Puerto Rico, don’t most natives have brown eyes? And on and on, through many books. Why was the house yellow? Why was the bird an eagle and not a hawk?

Ultimately, Mr. Holtby suggested that as the authors were writing, some words felt “right” and others didn’t. When I was writing my first novel, Finding Sarah, Randy, the hero was coming home from a rough day. He went down the hall, opened the door to a spare bedroom, and sat down at his grandmother’s piano for the first time since she’d died.

My reaction was, “Randy? Why didn’t you tell me you played the piano?” Going back, however, I discovered that there was only one line I’d written that didn’t go along with his talent.

Some authors need a theme before they start writing. I recall a workshop where the author read us passages of her book, and asked us to identify the theme. Not one of us could. Her theme was “Ties That Bind” and she showed the character strapping on a wristwatch, tying his shoes, and I don’t remember what else. But to the participants, these were merely normal actions in the scene.

I have no answers. What about you? Do you see themes? If you write, do you know them beforehand? Do you go out of your way to include actions that speak to the theme? Is it an after-the-fact process, or do things fall into place from your subconscious?

Trusting Uncertainty by Terry OdellTrusting Uncertainty, Book 10 in the Blackthorne, Inc. series.
You can’t go back and fix the past. Moving on means moving forward.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

32 thoughts on “Haiku, Themes, Symbolism, and the Subconscious

  1. Good morning, Terry. Thanks for the interesting post and questions. I rarely (that doesn’t mean “never”) see themes in my own writing. I usually see a thread and start tugging. Sometimes it leads somewhere and um, sometimes not. But I keep tugging. Generally, however, for my own humble efforts, Mark Twain said it best in his epigram which introduces The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

    “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

    Have a terrific rest of the week, Terry!

  2. Thanks, Joe. I know that quote. Thanks for the reminder. We read Huck Finn in Mr. Holtby’s class. He still made us look for symbolism and themes. “Raft vs Riverboat” it was, as I recall.

  3. A recurring theme in my stories is the working-class protag vs. a spoiled member of the rootless elite. It took me a while to recognize I was doing it — but I believe that’s how deeply theme should be embedded.

    • Thanks, Mike.
      I usually don’t know themes until a reader mentions them, but since I write using Deb Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, the themes appear as I write. I’m not sure what Mr. Holtby would see in my books, though.

  4. Great discussion, Terry. I love exploring how the writing mind twists and turns and crawls and runs through jungle of the brain.

    My subconscious does most of that work. I may have a general theme in mind, like autonomy or loyalty or betrayal, but I don’t think of that as I draft. Yet when I reread, the breadcrumbs have been dropped. On rewrite, I often expand and amplify those places.

    Several times, readers have said, “I like how you made this-or-that signify thus-and-such.” My internal reaction is usually: “Huh, I did?” But then I realize they are onto something I wasn’t aware of, even though I’d written it. How weird is that?

    Gotta love the mysterious subconscious.

      • Carl Jung once said, “…The question arises: ‘Has the Unconscious consciousness of its own?’” ~ETH Lectures, Pg 212ff.”

        The answer is yes. Who decides to go for a walk in the middle of the night while we’re sound asleep? Who is to blame for those wonderfully apposite Freudian slips? Who plants something special on page 50 that we don’t need until page 100?

  5. Interesting post, Terry. I do see themes. And I know them before I write. But I write fantasy, and that makes the process easy. For example, in my last book, HEART BRAIN 180, I wanted the story to revolve around the dangers of cell phone addiction (ex. Facebook and Instagram problems for teens), so I set up an imaginary world in a giant circulatory system where the evil ruler (The Queen of Hearts) was snatching people from the real world by attaching to their heart strings and their brain, then literally pulling them through their phone into her world, where they got a deep and thorough reset. With such a fantasy set up, the possibilities for symbolism are endless.

    I’m guessing that, for other genres, the answers will much different.

    Thanks for the discussion, and have a great day.

  6. Interesting questions. One of the joys as a reader is that, while I doubt all writers are thinking thematically or even deeply about some of the things they write, the joy of the reader is connecting with something written in a story that gives you pause to think about something in a way you might not have before. I wouldn’t say I always pick up on themes in a story, but often subconsciously look for them, rather than just wanting to be ‘entertained’ (though picking up on themes IS part of the entertainment).

    Justice is probably a common theme for many writers, whether consciously or not. Many of my book ideas are conceived on theme, but not all. I have a tendency to keep coming back to the theme of fatherhood, for example. I had the most awesome dad in the universe, but I’ve also been heartbroken hearing real life stories of people whose dads were….well, less than ideal.

    When I try too overtly to write with theme in mind, the writing gets stiff as if I’m trying to beat the readers on the head with a message. I hate that in books myself, so I don’t want to do it to my readers. For me I just have to go with the flow of telling the story. I’m still a major work in progress as a writer, but most of the time, when I just let go and tell the story, I manage to convey theme anyway.

  7. Lately, I’ve been thinking of them as similar to character arc. I do know my theme in general terms–my last WIP was called Building a Villain, my current one Redemption, so you can see the themes–but I don’t focus on it so much. It’s like you said, theme was so brutally beatup in English class, I’m letting it do its thing quietly on its own time.

    But I figure if I have a strong character arc, something the character has to overcome or learn, there’s a theme in that.

    • I’m letting it do its thing quietly on its own time.
      That seems to work best for me. Following GMC: What does the character want, why does she want it, and what’s in her way? gets me going, and the theme shows up along the way. Or at least, my readers think so.

  8. I usually have a theme in mind because I get to a “mirror moment” early. I found that in the dead center of so many great stories is a moment of forced reflection that tells us what the story is really all about. The mirror moment of self-loathing in Casablanca sets up the theme to come, that sacrifice for a higher cause is a duty greater than to our own self interests.

    Rick: I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.

    Finding that moment early in the process helps me write organic scenes with a sublime unity that = theme.

    • Thanks, JSB. I like your mirror moment (and was waiting to see it and Casablanca or the Fugitive show up in the comments), but I tend to find mine along the way using GMC. Since I don’t plot in advance, I go back and fill in things once the characters tell me about it. In the long run, I figure it doesn’t take more time to finish a book that way than if I’d spent time plotting before I started.

  9. Good morning, Terry. Very interesting discussion and very timely for me. I’m putting together a list of publishing terms to discuss at our next writers’ group meeting, and ‘theme’ is on the list.

    As a mystery writer, there are a couple of overarching themes in my books. One is that justice will prevail. The other is explicitly mentioned in my first book: “With time all things are revealed,” meaning the truth will come out.

    Halfway through writing my second novel, I realized I was homing in on the importance of saving one life and I paraphrased a Talmudic saying for my theme: “Saving one life is like saving the whole world.” Once I realized that was the basis for the story, I went back and wrote a chapter where the mc’s sit in on a Torah study where that saying is discussed.

  10. Today’s Theme Music: “Agatha All Along” from WANDAVISION.

    All the way through undergraduate and graduate schools, I wrote a lot of papers about theme, imagery, and structure because the process of both creation and result fascinated me. At the time, I thought I was focusing on those authors, but, when I began to write fiction seriously, I realized I was figuring out myself as a writer and what I wanted to write. Throw in my fascination for the works of psychologist Carl Yung, literary critic Northrup Frye, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and I started this journey with a very strong sense of what and how I wanted to write.

    Even then, I was constantly shocking myself with the directions my prose took, and, when I read my finished projects, I discovered my subconscious knew a heck a lot more about what I was writing than I did. PRO TIP: Once you figure out what your subconscious was planting in your prose, go back through your work and strengthen it but not to the point of being obvious.

  11. I write Haiku once in a while and have had several of them published.
    Here are two of my faves:

    Beneath a Peace rose,
    Among the fallen petals –
    Ants in fierce battle.


    Old cat purrs softly
    Within aging, wrinkled arms.
    It is Winter now.

  12. Nice how Terry shifted gears, there, like jumping from the second to the third line in a haiku.
    I heard of a movie where they’d shot all the material and shut down filming. Then, watching the rough cut, the producers realized the theme was not what they’d assumed. How did they fix it without a reshoot? Ha-ha! I’ll tell you later. (See below.)
    Let’s not neglect motif, another way to draw a work together or reflect the theme symbolically. In “Matchstick Men,” the motif was pooches. The money was stashed in a ceramic dog. There’s a scene where a dog is heard o.c. (There was no dog there; the woof was added in post-production.) What did the motif stand for? I’m not sure, possibly loyalty or truth.
    In my WWII novel, my Unconscious told me Gen. Zeitzler would resign, a rare occurrence. Against the odds, I had him write a letter of resignation. When I looked him up later, I found that was what Zeitzler had done IRL.

    The Fix: Retreading the movie to match a different theme without shooting new material would be almost impossible. But the producers simply replaced the music track with other pieces whose tempo, etc., better reflected and emphasized the new theme.

    • Thanks for your input, JG. Changing the music was a smart move. If only we could add soundtracks to our books. (And yes, I know there are often playlists, but music that follows what you’re reading would be cool. Or, maybe a giveaway. It’s obvious when watching video that ominous music means “Bad Stuff Is Coming.”

  13. A family theme runs through most of my books. In my Grafton County series the theme is to sacrifice ones self for family is not a sacrifice at all; it’s one’s duty. My Mayhem series touches more on the search for ancestral roots and self-discovery and how nature vs. nurture plays a role in becoming who we are at our core. And yes, I write each new book with those themes in mind.

Comments are closed.