Since You Asked...
Let's Look at the Safety of Metaphors
Joseph G asked:
Chuck, when you talk about metaphor, how stories should explore a relatable metaphor to get the reader to connect on a deeper level, and make them cry by having a character point out all the memories he'll lose between two paddles, how do you define that word? Metaphor. Is it synonymous with theme?
But, first a story…
The day before Christmas I was crossing a street—with the WALK signal—when a car making a turn through the crosswalk brushed past me so hard it broke the phone in my coat pocket. Without a pause I kept walking until a block later when my knees began to buckle. Before I might’ve come to a full stop and collapsed, a thought crossed my mind: How would I depict this physical sensation in a story?
And by placing the anxiety outside of myself, I kept walking. I arrived at a book store. Bought a couple novels. Walked home. All the while sorting and resorting the words I’d need to communicate that exact feeling of my near-miss.
Also … The day after Christmas, my dog jumped off the bed and began to cry. She couldn’t seem to work her hind legs, so I took her to the pet hospital. Cars filled the parking lot. People filled the lobby, whole families, cradling dogs and cats wrapped in towels. So many people that some sat on the floor, everyone silent with dread. My wait lasted from breakfast time until past midnight. What got me through that time was mulling over the film The Hunger.1 Adapted from a Whitley Strieber novel, it tells the story of a vampire whose sole companion seems to be aging very quickly and doomed to die. The plot shows that this companion is only the latest of many lovers, and each thought he or she would exist with the vampire “forever and ever.” And while each companion has lived with the vampire for perhaps centuries, eventually each lover wastes away and must be stored in a casket in a room filled with similar caskets.
As I sat holding my dog in a large room of people holding animals—many in pain, some doomed, all scared—I saw how we live and relive the same tragedy with each pet. The first death might hurt the most, but all the deaths hurt, yet we usually choose a new pet. We fall in love again. We put the inevitable out of our minds so we can find joy in the moment. And so we can provide joy and a home to a new animal.
In regard to epiphanies, I hammer on my students that such revelations don’t happen to characters when they’re alone.2 Still, I wasn’t alone because I had the metaphor from The Hunger playing in my head. The metaphor doesn’t have to hold water—to be flawless and logical and beyond picking apart—it just has to provide that moment of abstraction or cognitive reframing or perspective.3
To circle back to the crosswalk incident, years ago I was in London to tape a BBC program. The studio building was new, and featured elevator shafts and cars that were almost entirely glass. As our group of people boarded and rose quickly, we all stepped to the center of the car. We seemed to be shooting into the air with nothing around us, and the unstated-but-shared terror made us press together like a mass of shivering jelly. This moment, like the moment in the crosswalk, became an instant story that my friends and I told when we left the elevator. Such on-the-body moments are priceless if you can nail them down with the perfect language.
Forgive me for repeating myself, but stage magicians and faith healers perform this old trick. They ask for a volunteer from the audience who’s suffering a minor pain, usually a headache. On stage, they ask the person to close his eyes and to state the exact color of the headache. Then, to state the size of the headache—the size of a shoe? A car? A ship? Then, to state the shape of the headache. In a few moments the headache is gone.
The trick works because it forces someone to externalize their pain. To perceive it as something separate from themselves. Call it displacement or disassociation, but the stage trick works.
That’s why I say, “When a person gets a headache he takes aspirin, but when a writer gets a headache he takes notes.” A metaphor gives people a shared stand-in for their own pain. It alleviates the pain while it connects people. People might like The Hunger for different reasons—it represents addiction, it represents AIDS or pets or failed serial marriages or, hell, it might even be about vampires—but it unites the people who find value in that porous metaphor.
On a larger scale, consider that we live in a world of free-floating bullshit. As former prey animals, we’re wired to expect a panther or alligator to munch us. We blithely cram into metal containers and fly through the air, or down the freeway, at speeds that would’ve driven our recent ancestors insane with terror. My point is, even if there’s no tiger, we need to invent one to vent our tension. For example, in her 1979 review of the Woody Allen movie Manhattan, Joan Didion quotes him:
“People in Manhattan are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves that keep them from dealing with more terrifying unsolvable problems4 about the universe.”
Didion herself wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” To add to that, writers create the stories that other people rely on to live. Inventing fake problems for people—metaphors—is, in short, your job.
Joseph G, please send Dennis your snail mail address, and I’ll send you a nice box of swag. Please mention if there’s a dog or cat in your life.
For everyone, I’ll be cruising the future Comments for questions to use, here. If you want to catch my eye, please:
A movie with perhaps the lamest trailer and poster of all movies, ever.
No matter how much a lone character sips tea and gazes out a rain-streaked window, few people can really recalibrate themselves. Otherwise, we’d all live in isolation.
Consider that simply being among other people is a salvation. A friend once told me that the Civil Rights Movement began when people in isolated suffering went to churches and there found others in the same situation. A similar effect happens in Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s at first a comforting “We’re all in this together” feeling, but it eventually becomes a social movement.
The key word here is “unsolvable”—that’s how come we need the stand-in of a metaphor to at least exhaust our terror.