How do writers find the symbols they use? Every high school student remembers the A emblazoned on Hester Prynne’s bosom in the Scarlet Letter. Poets look out the window. Shakespeare compared his love to a summer’s day, while Robert Burns’ luve was like a red, red rose. Nature yields symbols like a flower unfurling.
After the murder of Cecil, the beloved lion of Zimbabwe, I marveled at the outpouring of love for this animal. A musician friend used to take a walk as way to move an idea along, so I drove to the forest preserve. As I walked, I thought of Cecil, realizing I would probably never see a lion in the wild.
A tree struck by lightning in the previous night’s storm blocked the path. As I stopped to consider my options, a buck appeared at the rise of the trail. We contemplated each other in silence. Living in northern Illinois, deer sightings are common. Farm fields and woods have given way to subdivisions. As their habitat diminishes, deer appear in the woods and also in our yards. Last spring I put out a basket of impatiens on Saturday afternoon only to see it had been eaten like a snack by Sunday morning. Local nurseries sell deer repellent and gardeners sprinkle red pepper on their flower beds.
Several years ago, two deer walked into a bar in the small town where I live. It sounds like the beginning of a joke. These deer found nothing to eat and walked out of the bar without saying anything. If animals could talk, what would they say? Cecil might point out that the average eight-year-old spends eight hours a day in front of a screen. Parents and educators now have to come up with creative ways to get kids outside. Just stepping outside, or looking out the window, yields a local safari of birds, squirrels, foxes, and raccoons.
I started seeing deer whenever I walked. One afternoon at Vet’s Acres, I passed a faun quietly munching in the tall grass. A group of hikers behind me on the trail never sighted the animal, enmeshed as they were in conversation. One of the women said a deer had attacked her neighbor’s dog. Alarmed, I consulted a park ranger who said deer see us coming and run away. The ranger added kids missed seeing animals in their immediate vicinity as they were busy with their phones.
Once I tuned into the wildlife sharing my habitat, deer became a leitmotif in my writing as well as my life. The main character in my WIP is so out of touch with his wild animal side that it takes a head-on encounter with a family of deer to force him to see the world outside his computer screen.
The novelist E.L. Doctorow said, “”Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” As I drove home through a wooded area in the dark last night, a doe sprinted (safely) across the road several yards in front of me. As I said, I don’t like to put words in an animal’s mouth, but somehow the sight made me think I was on the right track.