Aimee Bender on the Skylight Books podcast this week discussed exactly what I needed to hear.
First she read a story from her new collection The Color Master, and if you have time you really should listen to it.
But then she started answering questions and fielded one that led into a rumination of the use of metaphors (beginning at about 29:50 to the end). She said that a metaphor shouldn't have a one-to-one correspondence with the thing it is standing in for, or with the magical element. It needs to be more intuitive (from the unconscious, from a feeling of being drawn to use the items in the metaphor) to be infused with an emotional life. "The magic is a kind of access point into the emotional life of the story," she said.
Quoting Donald Barthelme, she said, "Art should both invite and repel interpretation." A one-to-one correspondence between symbol and meaning defies this mystery. Kills the mystery even. Bemder said where you are drawn to the meaning but don't completely understand the meaning, the emotion will be in there, as infused by the symbols you have been drawn to.
Later she said that once you (the writer) begin to see the symbol as a symbol, there are a few ways to fix this. One is to throw a random element in "to get the brain off its analytical mode." She doesn't believe that anything is chosen at random, but rather that everything is selected from the buried unconscious, and that "to kind of know what you are doing and kind of don't know what you are doing is a very productive space to be in."
Another fix she cites is one used by George Saunders and Haruki Murakami, one in which "as soon as you smell the meaning, you put it in the story." That is, you acknowledge to the reader that x is a symbol for y, yes, they saw it and you saw it too, and now the reader is ungrounded because they no longer know what will happen next, because you have to do something different next, having just acknowledged the symbol. "The story refreshes itself," she explains. The story is free to become bigger than that one symbol.
She says it better than I did, and with examples. Plus she's charming. So go and listen for yourself.