One element of creative writing that I struggled with in my MFA program was the use of metaphor, particularly ones extended across long passages. I bemoaned my struggle from one of my Vermont College of Fine Arts residencies. But as I progressed in my studies I came to realize I was too hard on myself, wondering why when I sat down to write I didn’t immediately see how to tell my story in such a literary way. Metaphors, I learned, don’t have to spring directly from your head in the first draft like Athena from Zeus.
Writing is about revision. Successful use of metaphor emerges from the revision process.
This is the first of a three-part series in which I break down how I made use of extended metaphors to advance both plot and character development (yes, I’m using fiction-writing terms for a work of nonfiction) in my book Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road. In this post I’ll discuss the importance of identifying the theme you want to advance through metaphor.
A key theme of Committed is the question of leading a life of authenticity. A related theme of the character’s inner conflict is that of passivity vs. action. The book’s introduction occurs a year before the road trip that forms the basis of the story; in that scene the narrator takes a bold action on behalf of his children. But when his road trip begins in the subsequent chapter the narrator himself is paralyzed: creatively, professionally, and emotionally. How as an author could I demonstrate that to the reader in a subtle yet impactful way?
I chose to open that first chapter not with the narrator arriving at his first destination or conducting his first interview. Instead I chose this in-media-res opening:
I refuse to tell my story.
The man with a matted gray beard, tattered Army-issue jacket, and carved-wood cane presents no such resistance. While killing time in this Haverhill, Massachusetts, park before my first interview, I stand with him before a memorial to local residents lost in the Korean War. Like many of its ilk, the memorial eschews subtlety. A statue atop a ten-foot block of granite depicts an oversized soldier. His pose suggests motion as he leans forward, bayoneted rifle leading the way. But he is frozen, frustratingly unmoving. The only motion comes from the flags, flapping in the light morning breeze, tethered on the eight poles that encircle the soldier.
The key to an extended metaphor is making sure we return to it. That doesn’t mean the narrator in Committed needs to return to this physical statue later in the book; that’s good, because he did not. As it happens, after visiting this memorial he interviewed a novelist, made a purchase at Heavenly Donuts, and left town. No, in this example returning to the metaphor requires another vehicle to be found.
I could have ended that first chapter with my interview of Portland, Maine, photographer Brian Fitzgerald. Instead I chose this:
I see so much of myself in Brian. But perhaps that is why I find myself wanting to leave. Once I have sufficient footage I move on, declining his invitation to join him and his wife for dinner. The path to my motel means I need to cross the Fore River, but the drawbridge spanning Casco Bay is up. In front of me an elderly man in an aging sedan honks. I’m not sure what he’s hoping to accomplish. None of us can move, not until that drawbridge is lowered. Surely he sees the flashing light to our right informing us of this fact. It’s possible he can’t see the drawbridge itself, though. I can’t. There are too many cars, and too much development. I feel restrained, held back, as motionless as the Korean War statue I saw this morning in Haverhill. I run my usual self-diagnostic, looking for racing thoughts, checking to see if I have growing rage that is not proportional to my situation. I don’t believe I’m becoming manic. Perhaps I see more today what is wrong with my life and how I also lack any insight on how to improve it. And so I sit, waiting for that unseen drawbridge to move. I am staring ahead at an obstruction I know is there, and yet it remains frustratingly beyond my line of sight.
If you’re a fiction writer you have an advantage on me; you can make things up. As it happens I was struck by my conversation with the homeless man in Haverhill, and summarized it on a voice recorder after it occurred. I also shared a real-time summary of my time stuck before the drawbridge on that voice recorder. Many other seemingly mundane occurrences I documented that day did not make the final draft of Committed, but these two did because they helped me advance a metaphor.
In Part Two of this series I’ll discuss how to identify a recurring vehicle for your metaphor (unlike using both a statue and a drawbridge) and in Part Three I’ll examine how to tie together the various appearances of your extended metaphor.
ADDENDUM: Part Two is now live.
Do you find as a reader that the use of metaphor helps deepen your immersion in the story you’re reading? Do you seek to make use of them in your own writing?