Friday, July 10, 2009

When Metaphors Run Amok

A while back, when I was moving from journalism and public relations writing to creative nonfiction, I was worried that I was not handy enough with metaphor, with imagery, with a dozen other literary devices utilized, and expected, in more literary work.
I did learn.
Still, in the back of my head is always a journalism-based sensibility. I ask myself if a fact-based description can do the job, and if the answer is yes, I try not to deploy anything more. Can a sensitive but literal passage about say, an older-than-average father and his keen but unathletic son discussing baseball strategy in a dugout, really be improved upon by describing the scene with a suggestion of a decorated field general advising a scared new recruit in a foxhole? Often, the answer is no.

Following the excellent suggestion of a former writing mentor, I question every use of a metaphor or suggestive image, each simile and allegory, all the crafty doo-dads I sometimes tend to throw into a first draft and ask, is this really necessary? Does it add to the pleasure of reading, or simply strive to impress the reader, even slow down the flow because it asks the reader to do a little too much in the way of mental gymnastics? Is it original?

I think this serves me well. Yes, I do kill a lot of “little darlings.” Good riddance.

I’m reminded of this because occasionally I read something – an essay or an entire book -- which suggests that it may have first come to life as an assignment in a writing craft class in which students practice their skill with metaphor and imagery, by over-exaggerating.

A novel I read the other day was just this kind of book. Although by the half-way mark I wanted to toss it on the floor and cry Uncle!, it was in fact a terrific story, with rich characters, percolating dialogue, a sense of urgency. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that the author’s constant use of metaphor and imagery – new ones seemed to sprout in every paragraph – was getting in the way. I found myself not fully engaged in what was happening, because instead I was watching for how the author was going to describe it. And, being annoyed that this was overshadowing the experience of the book.

Something else too. Getting through this book made me feel like a terrible reader -- not intelligent enough, creative enough, imaginative enough, not literary enough. It was as if the author was saying, in almost every other sentence: see if you can keep up with my writerly prowess.

I’m not an expert of course in how and when and why to use metaphor and its literary cousins. I suppose the answer is different for each piece of writing. I do know, however, when I reach the saturation point as a reader. Or, was I just was not the “right” reader for this particular book?

I know there are ultra literary novels, even experimental ones, in which the writing matters more than the story -- craft above context -- and it may be that I simply don’t have the patience for them. But this book didn’t feel that way; it felt like a novel trying to tell its story in spite of what on the surface appears to be inspired writing.

If nothing else, however, this reading experience served as a potent reminder to me about the fine lines which exist in a piece of writing, separating something terrific when done in moderation, and – as my mother used to say – too much of a good thing.


Houston A.W. Knight said...

Very interesting article.

I had written a very long comment but it didn't go through so...we'll see what happens with this one.


2KoP said...

When I read recently read The Secret Life of Bees, I found myself marveling over (and loving) Sue Monk Kidd's use of metaphor. I'm not great at metaphor, myself, and at first I notice just how many she used. But, rather than take me out of the story, I found it suited her southern narrator, allowing me to hear her voice.

I had a writing teacher I admire critique a couple of chapters of my children's novel. At one point in the story, a magician on stage releases a dove into the audience. "This screams for a metaphor," said my critiquer. I've tried and tried, but the metaphor escapes me, so I'm done trying.