Image courtesy: Jane Austen Film Club
“It is astonishing what a different result one gets by changing the metaphor! Once call the mind an intellectual stomach, and one’s ingenious conception of the classics and geometry as ploughs and harrows seems to settle to nothing. But then it is open to some one else to follow great authorities, and call the mind a sheet of white paper or a mirror, in which case one’s knowledge of the digestive process becomes quite irrelevant…George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss
The crazy-haired schlub at the front of the room knew something. She looked like an ill-kempt precursor of Professor Trelawney. She looked like she’d wandered in from the bus stop, looking for a place to rest. I puzzled over how this woman would teach us creative writing. I puzzled over how anyone teaches another how to write creatively. You know the old cliche about judging books? Truth. She was weird, for sure, but she was also genius. Her genius was simple:
We read good works and then we practiced.
We read poems, excepts and short stories. Once, we read pages and pages of novel’s first sentences. This is still one of my favorite exercises, along with finding that new and expertly tailored metaphor. Great authors seem to do this with the ease of flexing their fingers.
“There is no frigate like a book,” wrote Emily Dickinson.
Or this, from Aimee Bender:
I felt the wash of her love every day, pouring over me, but it was a different kind, siphoned from a different, and tamer, body of water. I was her darling daughter. Joseph was her it.”*
Or this, from Colum McCann:
On weekend mornings we…looked back to see the little scarves of smoke coming up from the chimneys.
It is one thing to say reading books is escape. It is quite another to plan the journey by ship over sea water. This imagines a much deeper experience. In Bender’s example, the narrator knows of her mother’s love, and when she adds the texture of water, the reader gets an immediate sense of the depth and tone and sadness between these two women.
Similarly, I had highlighted the “little scarves” from McCann ages ago, and every time I return to it, I am startled by its simplicity and beauty and loneliness.
When I sit down to write, I think of my college writing instructor, the crazy-haired lady at the front of the room. I think of her dowdy dresses and clunky shoes. I see her unironically retro spectacles. I continue to write for her, to find that new way to explain, or to see or to imagine the ordinary objects of life around us made extraordinary by metaphor. I write to surprise her.
From whence do these images come? Lately, I’ve found myself, fingers poised over the keyboard, eyes unfocused on the distance, waiting. Yesterday, I was thinking about how to describe the face of a girl who was open, innocent, naive and stubborn. I waited. I waited. I thought of what the characters were doing, of who they were. The vague outline of an idea formed, like a headlights through fog. And there it was, all of it; the complete and appropriate way (IMO) to describe just exactly what this girl’s face is like. (A porcelain plate, if you’re curious.)
I wonder if it’s like fishing. Waiting for the perfect idea to arrive. I wonder what the process is like for other writers, or people who like to use words. Where do you find your metaphors?
Bender, Aimee. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: A Novel. New York: Doubleday, 2010. Print.
McCann, Colum. Let the Great World Spin: A Novel. New York: Random House, 2009. Print.