Welcome to my final post on crafting an extended metaphor that runs the length of your creative writing. These lessons apply for fiction as well as nonfiction, but for the purposes of this series I’ve focused on examples from my recently published memoir, Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road.
In Part One of this series I emphasized the importance of identifying a theme in your work, and how that connects with the protagonist. In Committed a key theme is the notion of being stuck vs. moving forward, a challenge for the narrator. I demonstrated two moments in the opening chapter that symbolized being stuck, an unmoving statue and an unmoving narrator (awaiting the lowering of a drawbridge).
In Part Two of this series I noted that it is useful to have a “vehicle” to carry your metaphor throughout your work, particularly one that permits the introduction of various moods. It could be a particular setting or object; in the case of Committed I chose the vehicle in which I drove across the United States.
By the final section of the book, Part Six: The West, the car has been firmly established as a metaphor for motion; a place of sanctuary; and a means of forcing introspection. With a theme and a vehicle, you can set your metaphors in motion. This scene, of me driving north from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Boise, Idaho, advances the theme of action vs. inaction:
I don’t believe it at first. I lean forward over the car’s dash, as if being closer to the front windshield will allow me to see further. Then I check all of my mirrors, and turn to look over my right shoulder. I’m truly alone. For the first time on this trip I am the only vehicle visible in any direction. On this empty Idaho highway I am one with the asphalt and the scrub brush.
A siren breaks my reverie. In my driver’s side mirror I spot a highway patrol car emerge from the gully between the westbound and eastbound lanes of I-84. I pull over and he stops behind me. Now nothing is in motion except a tumbleweed far ahead in the distance. This is my first speeding ticket of the trip, but I take it from the officer with grace. I’m tempted to tell him that going eighty-nine miles per hour endangered no one but myself. But there is no use in doing so, and besides, the speed limit here is seventy-five, which is fast enough. I’m eager now to get where I want to be, but that doesn’t mean I need travel without restraint. Imposing a bit of sanity on my journey won’t hinder my eventual arrival.
It is worth noting that this scene leverages my “vehicle,” the car I’m driving; incorporates the theme of motion by noting it can be done with restraint; and also loops in a key element of why the narrator has been stuck; his fear of instability related to mental illness (see “a bit of sanity” in the final sentence.”
This scene then features a further element incorporating all of these elements: the car, the sense of motion (action) and overcoming fear:
The officer returns his patrol car to its hiding place like a crouching tarantula while I resume my driving. More tumbleweeds appear, many more. The strong wind reminds me of my drive across Nebraska, but the parched landscape here produces not fields of golden crops but rather brown flora corpses, moving east in a steady migration. A large, spiky sphere resembling a skeletal snowman base whisks in front of my car and I swerve, narrowly missing it. Another arrives, then two. I bob and weave across the two lanes of highway, careful not to end up in the ditch that is deep enough to camouflage a highway patrol car. Soon the tumbleweeds prove too numerous and one strikes my car’s grill with a combination of a thud and a pop. Twigs snap and whish into my windshield. I flinch.
But that was it. Thud. Pop. Whish. No harm done. It’s fun, actually. Now, still alone on the road, I aim my two tons of steel directly at the zombies. More thuds and pops and whishes. I’m living a video game. Then the leader of this migrating brush pride approaches, spiky tendrils emerging from its base that are almost as wide as my car’s front grill. I must take him out. I dig back deep into my brain to high school algebra and imagine the train that leaves for Pittsburgh and the other train that departs for Cleveland, and the varying speeds they must reach in order to pair up in Buffalo. I calculate the hypotenuse between me and my prey, imagining us meeting at the right angle of the triangle. A gust increases my foe’s speed. I accelerate to meet it.
And I do. There is no thud this time. It is more of a boom, a rippling force of sound that chills and excites me. I am blinded momentarily by the spray of limbs that scatter across my windshield. When I can see again, two tendrils extend up from my grill, aimed out away from each other like a longhorn hood ornament. This is my trophy, the record of my kill. I didn’t just take out the dried-up remains of a land in drought. I obliterated parts of myself. I leveled the man who surrendered his creativity to a questionable lobbying cause. I demolished the young adult paralyzed by fear of mental illness. And like a patient sniper, I took out that child who couldn’t create without his mother’s approval.
I return to the use of my “vehicle” in the final chapter of the book. This excerpt will be small, because I don’t wish to give away too much of the ending. But note that this excerpt sets up the importance of the chamber of the vehicle as a place of solitude and reflection, which is key as the vehicle itself (specifically, the car’s CD player) sets in motion the conclusion of the book. I am in Portland, Oregon, overlooking the Willamette River:
The river is calm and steady. And, I realize, so am I. Perhaps I should get out of the car and go sit on the river’s grassy bank, which could become my Walden Pond. But while I mean no offense to Thoreau, I believe I have achieved tranquility here in the passenger cabin of this internal combustion vehicle. This chamber of solitude has been my incubator. It has tolerated constant ramblings into my voice recorder as I sought to capture not just what I was seeing but what I was becoming.
And now some news: In June of this year I will be teaching a brand-new course online for The Loft Literary Center. Titled “Writing About Others In Your Life,” the four-week course will focus on liberating oneself from resistance to writing about others, whether in a memoir or personal essay (or, presumably, in a work of fiction based on real life). The class will focus on making use of craft to help overcome resistance, and use of metaphors will be one of the key lessons. The Loft has not yet posted its summer classes; stay tuned for more details.
Let me conclude by noting something I said in Part One of this series: Writing is about revision. Don’t beat yourself up if in your early drafts of a work you see no metaphors emerging. During the revision process, if you know the theme you are trying to advance and the conflicts the protagonist is facing, opportunities for the use of metaphor will emerge.
Now go and write!