In an interview in 1981, author William Gass spoke of his “hunch” that “the core of creativity is located in metaphor”. Gass went on to suggest that “a novel is a large metaphor for the world.”
In my previous post on metaphor, I described strong metaphoric presence as casting “a fine web of meaning over the entire story. All its separate strands are also interconnected; the metaphors have their own perfect geometry and symmetry. The strands give both shimmer and strength to the story; they catch the individual perceptions and associations of individual readers within their sticky threads.”
Strong metaphor allows a story to transcend its own boundaries, which is what Gass is getting at when he suggests that a novel is a metaphor for the world. Strong metaphor allows a piece of art to exist in the mind and (I would argue) the very body of the reader in terms of the sensations and emotions elicited upon first contact with the metaphor(s). Metaphors are doorways of and to perception.
The babbling of King Lear in the storm, and the sharp, manic grief of Hamlet live in my body. So does the image of Persephone descending into the Underworld, Angela Carter’s dark fairy-tales, Jeanette Winterson’s searing, lyrical metaphors on love and loss, and the painful examination of mortality and meaninglessness in Beckett’s Endgame. I may no longer recall the exact plot, but I retain the themes, the images, the metaphors, for they are connected with feeling, with lived experience.
I’m mixing my play-texts and my literature here because at a formative part of my intellectual life, I read and studied both avidly. Researching these articles, I was drawn back to theatre theory. Theatre is a powerful medium for metaphor, combining both text and the visual mediums. Speaking on the relationship between spectator and performance, director and theorist Eugenio Barba observes:
“There are spectators for whom the theatre is essential precisely because it presents them not with solutions but with knots. The performance is the beginning of a longer experience. It is the scorpion’s bite which makes one dance.”
If we take the spectator here to equally stand for the reader, and the performance to represent the story, this observation echoes what I express about metaphors and images living on in my body and memory, long after I have engaged with the work.
As a former theatre director, I’m often struck by the similarities between the relationship a writer has with a story and a director has with the piece of theatre in creation. Both must have an overarching perspective on their work, and yet a precise attention to every detail. In other words, both macro and micro perspectives are required, sometimes simultaneously. Both must elicit meaning and atmosphere from the text. Both may feel they have ‘command’ of the characters, yet also find that the characters themselves have their own inner life and intentions; exemplified in the first instance by the common writerly assertion that characters ‘take over’ or write themselves in certain parts of the writing process, and in the second instance by necessary collaboration with actors who will bring their own insights to the characters. I share another of Barba’s insights here; this one on the technique required of the director (writer) in working to create the performance (story):
“For me, the director [writer] is rather the person who experiments with ways of breaking the obvious links between actions and their meanings, between actions and reactions, between cause and effect.”
This, of course, is only one way of looking at the aim of fiction-writing. But to me, it speaks to the curating of unique perspective and voice, and the conscious dismantling of clichés, which is the kind of writer I’m working at being. I may not always succeed – but to create work full of clichés would be like a little death to me, and I don’t mean the orgasmic kind.
What is a cliché? It’s often a tired, over-used metaphor. Long ago, linguistically speaking, a cliché was once an original metaphor, but they have been brandished so frequently that they have lost their impact. Encountering clichés disengages me from any text; the more frequent they are, the more likely I am to want to throw the book across the room. Perhaps that’s why I don’t own a Kindle. A careful writer will be vigilant for clichés in the drafting process. My editing clients soon know that I am ruthless about eliminating clichés in their work, and stretching them to find fresher imagery.
This leads me back to metaphor. In the first post of this series on metaphor, I suggested a starting place for drawing out and deepening metaphor in your work: your themes. If you want to know one place where your metaphors are to mine, begin with them.
Themes centre around nouns.
Desire. Loss. Love. Betrayal. Madness.
You could also call these the subjects of the work. The nature of those nouns (or subjects) can be expounded upon to create a theme, and the theme is then mined to create imagery, metaphors, and motifs, throughout your work. So another way of understanding a theme is that it expresses an opinion on the subject. If we go back to my initial list of nouns, I’d expand them to potential themes as below:
Following one’s desires has unexpected consequences.
Loss creates suffering, and suffering creates growth.
Love is essential to the human experience.
Betraying someone knowingly creates negative karma.
Madness is merely an unsanctioned perspective on the world.
There may be major themes and minor themes in a literary work. A writer may express a theme through narrative action and scenes, and through the characters; their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Its function is to bind together various other essential elements of a narrative.
Below is an exercise designed to draw out more information about your theme and deepen your metaphors. I’ll be referring to my two most recent short stories Chords of Desire and The Forbidden Box to illustrate steps of the exercise.
TAKE PEN IN HAND
Have you got a current early draft or idea for a story? Pick out one of its themes that you’d like to explore further. Write it at the top of a blank page /screen. Next, do you have any objects / symbols in your story that are associated with that theme? Add that to the top of the page.
For example, in both of my stories, the impact of a secret is a theme. Coincidentally, both stories feature an important object (also a symbol) associated with secrets. In The Forbidden Box , an old box has secrets, as does the owner of the box. In Chords of Desire, the object associated with secrets is a cello. It’s a major theme in the former story, a minor theme in the latter.
This is a free-associative exercise. Simply allow yourself to write a series of sentences about your theme and /or your object. Think about them separately, but also play with linking them in the same sentence. “Rest” your mind on what you know about your story so far while doing this. In other words, allow your ideas about the theme to be filtered through your story-world. Take about ten minutes to do this.
If you don’t have a current draft, go back to your list of personal themes / symbols from the first post, and choose one or two of those.
(So, while you do that, I’m off to make a pot of tea … Back soon …)
I’m back. I’d love to peek over your virtual shoulder and see what’s on your page, but as I can’t, here’s a selection of my statements from my draft-work.
The Forbidden Box
Theme: Secrets Object: The Box
Boxes are three-dimensional walls.
The lid of a box, when opened, is like a mouth, spilling forth secrets.
Boxes hold the tangible and the intangible: artefacts and memory.
A locked box is like a mystery, waiting to be solved.
Boxes are miniature rooms.
Boxes are for keeping things in, but also for keeping things out.
Chords of Desire
Theme: the impact of secrets Object: Cello
I am shaped to hold secrets; hollow yet fecund.
For them, I play an entirely more compelling movement, like a hidden code in a forbidden love letter.
But there are stories and there are secrets. The secrets I keep deep in the hollow of my body. These she shall not have.
Inevitably, you will generate some metaphors and some similes amongst your list. You may not use all of them in your stories; some you will re-draft and re-word. But I’ve found I generally use more than half in some way or another, and they can be a great way to generate more material when you stall. How might you use these?
- As part of a character’s dialogue, or their inner thoughts.
- A repeated thematic motif throughout a work, particularly if a more poetic or lyrical style is what you are exploring.
- As part of the narrative itself – for example, if the story is written from third-person omniscient perspective.
Some statements may also become an idea or image which you will explore and illustrate throughout the narrative of your story, rather than you using those words literally. For example, The Forbidden Box is a re-imagining of the Pandora myth, and the image comparing the opening of the lid of a box to the opening of a mouth and the spilling of secrets is an image that helped me link the idea of family secrets, and of adults not revealing vital information to Pandora until she was ready, to Pandora’s burning curiosity to discover what’s inside the box, and what is revealed when she finally opens the box. The shut lid of the box is juxtaposed with the shut mouths of her grandfather and grandmother.
Below is a small excerpt where I used some of the statements in different ways. In this excerpt Pandora is about seven years of age ( I’ve also re-written one or two words so as not to reveal certain elements of the story – for those who I hope will get to read the full version at some point if it’s accepted for publication):
“The box, Grandma, the box!” was all she could say, when Grandma asked what was wrong. Grandma tried her best to reassure Pandora that whatever she had seen had been a trick of the light, and her imagination.
After dinner, lighting his pipe, Grandfather announced:
“Best not to go near that box. It’s very old, and very valuable. It’s not a toy, not even for very intelligent young ladies like yourself. Do I make myself clear?”
For the first time in her life, she was only too happy to let something forbidden to her, stay forbidden. But for years she would have strange dreams about the box, where the figures in the carvings would come to life and speak to her, where voices would whisper open me … see what’s inside.
A shut box is just like a secret, waiting to be unlocked.
The theme of family secrets, information being withheld is there in the dialogue, and the last line is a re-working of:
A locked box is like a mystery, waiting to be solved.
Note that you can also use this exercise just with a significant object or symbol in your story. I’ve used it to generate the bulk of the material for a memoir short story I wrote about my mother’s life, family secrets, mother-daughter relationships, grief, and her journey with cancer. The two symbols I explored using this exercise were my mother’s hands and an unusual topaz ring.
The theme of the impact of a secret brings intrigue, complexity and depth into the narrative and the characters. It was there in the seed of both stories, yet it could have remained dormant or half-asleep. I consciously put my creative attention on that theme (among others) and worked to draw it out further.
Free-association writing reveals to your conscious mind what your subconscious already knows; it enables you to know what you know. It can help some writers get past internal blocks. What you come up with may surprise you and help you gain more insight into what this particular story wants to express about your themes through your metaphors.
By playing upon your theme(s), you will immediately develop, deepen, and multiply the play of metaphor in the work.In a stunningly written book on the theme of callings, author Gregg Levoy relates this about powerful story-telling:
“A tradition in both Middle Eastern and Hebraic mysticism holds that any passage of sacred text, any teaching, any story, must be examined from at least three points of view: literal, metaphorical, and universal (mystical or wordless). None excludes the others. Meaning thus becomes a thing of layers. Those with a poetic basis of mind understand this. Where science goes for the unified theory, poetry voluptuates in nuances. Where logic studies the wind, poetry regards how the boughs are bent.”
Meaning becomes a thing of layers: metaphors assists you in creating these layers.