Category Archives: metaphor

Metaphor Monday: The Painted Closet


Metaphor Monday is a new thing we’re trying out around here. Every week, I’ll pick a thing and compare it to another thing. Probably writing, since that’s what this blog is about, but who knows? Metaphors are awesome. Alliteration, doubly so. Got a suggestion for next week’s metaphor? Drop it in the comments. And yeah, I’m a day late today — you’ll see why below.

We’re moving (finally!) and as a result, most of my thoughts bend in that direction. The whole affair got delayed and postponed and we ran out of time this summer to deal with it the way we would have liked, and now we’re having to rush through things. Instead of two weeks to sort our lives out before we got back to work, we were left with more like two days, so it’s a frantic rush of movers and building furniture and unloading boxes and the house looks like a war zone if the war were fought between rival manufacturers of styrofoam peanuts.

So we’re hustling to get the kids’ rooms painted (because if we don’t do it now, it’ll never happen), and I catch my wife sort of staring into the closet. Hands on hips. Thoughtful frown on her lips.

“What’s up?” I ask.

“I don’t know if I can handle these closets,” she says.

I look. While most of the rest of the house is immaculate, the closets are not — especially the ones in the kids’ rooms. They were obviously occupied by kids before, and bear the scars of it. Dings and chips in the drywall where toys or sporting equipment were chucked heedlessly in. Aimless, careless scribbles in crayon and marker — not a design or an attempt at artwork, just an outburst of uncertain creative energy.

I shrug. “It’s a closet.”

“I know, but it’s going to bother me.”

Really? I’ve got bunkbeds to build and a rain forest in the backyard to trim down and about a bajillion boxes to haul up the stairs and you want to waste time painting a closet? Why? Who’s going to see it?

Come to think of it, I mean, when’s the last time you saw the back of your own closet, let alone anybody else’s? Leaving the closet in that state is a crime without a victim; literally nobody will ever know. I begin to protest, but I don’t get very far.

“No, I really want to paint over them.”

Happy wife, happy life, they say. So I go down to the basement in search of the primer. We crack it open and go to work with the rollers, and the job is done in less than an hour. We don’t even do a good job, really — the color’s not a perfect match to what’s in there already, and some of the really dark marks show through — but the closets look miles better.

And my wife is smiling a little more.

And so am I.

So, what’s a painted closet have to do with anything? Well, it’s exactly what it is: a lovely little detail that nobody else knows is there. It’s Van Gogh’s signature twisted into the whorls of a sunflower. An authorial flourish added, not for the well-being of the observer, but for the well-being of the author.

An oft-quoted bit of advice for the writer is “kill your darlings.” Generally, it means that those weird little things that you stuck into the work for your own benefit? Because they made you laugh, or amused you, without serving the story as a whole? Those are things which distract from the narrative, that seem to stand for bigger things and thus demand the reader’s attention, and then frustrate the reader when they don’t. They’re a waste of time, in other words. Everybody involved has better things to do. So they deserve, to butcher syntax in a way I feel rolls right off the tongue, to be got rid of. (Diagram that sentence, Ms. Finch!)

But a closet doesn’t take that much time to paint, and there’s the odd house guest who might poke their nose into the nooks and crannies of the place; wouldn’t we rather give them a nice, finished closet to look at rather than a pockmarked and graffitied (graffiti’d?) hidey-hole we hoped would never see the light of day?

By the same token, a story needs a few diversions. A few rabbit holes for readers to dive into, even if there’s nothing hiding at the bottom.

And, after all, a happier wife is worth an hour’s worth of work with a paint roller.

 


Metaphor Monday: The Garden


Metaphor Monday is a new thing we’re trying out around here. Every week, I’ll pick a thing and compare it to another thing. Probably writing, since that’s what this blog is about, but who knows? Metaphors are awesome. Alliteration, doubly so. Got a suggestion for next week’s metaphor? Drop it in the comments.

I was running through the neighborhood a few days ago, and I noticed something I don’t usually pay that much attention to: gardens.

We have a family down the street from us who moved in about a year ago, and one of the first things they did was till up a corner of their side yard to make room for a cozy little garden. My wife and I kind of sniggered at that: we (well, she) tried to cultivate a tiny garden many years back and it went wrong right away. The Georgia summer is pretty ruthless, and when you’re not organized enough to remember to water it or fertilize it or, you know, any of the things that make gardens work, it doesn’t take long for the weeds and the kudzu to reclaim your work.

But this garden is working. It isn’t the prettiest thing — the creeping grass and rampant weeds threaten it on every side, and it leans sort of precariously on the side of a hill leading down toward the street — but there are definitely things growing in it that look edible. A few scrawny tomatoes dangling on the vine. One or two leafy heads of something poking up through the dirt. And I realized that our garden didn’t fail because there was something wrong with the climate, or with our yard; the problem was with us.

A garden takes devotion. You can’t just work at it a couple of days a week, or when the weather is nice, or when you get a free afternoon. You have to make the time for it every day. Watering. Weeding. Fertilizing. Checking pH levels or something, I don’t know. You have to return to it every day like a monk to his prayers, even when it seems like nothing is happening (because so much of the growth happens out of sight, before you can see it).

A garden takes time. You don’t plant seeds on Monday and feast on Friday. It takes a season, or perhaps a couple, before you can hope to see the fruits of your labor. That means patience; knowing that the work you’re doing means something, even when it feels useless. It means sacrificing hours and hours of time you could spend doing other things (OMG OMG THE NEW GAME OF THRONES IS OUT DID YOU SEE ED SHEERAN HOLY CRAP just kidding I don’t watch Game of Thrones who has that kind of time) to plunge your hands into the earth.

A garden takes defending. Nature doesn’t give a handul of hot fargos that you’re trying to Do A Thing, to get in touch with your primordial roots and grow your own food off the land. Nature has insects and vermin to feed and green things to grow, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to let some kudzu and clover take over the space you’re using for a garden than to cultivate a couple of tomatoes. Your garden will be beset on all sides by weeds and vines and all sorts of things that will kill it if left to their own devices, and there’s no easy solution. Pesticides? Those come out in the food you were hoping to eat. Weed-killer? Surprise, it’s just as happy to eat your cauliflower. The only way to keep your garden safe is to pull them out by hand — and that takes that time we were talking about up there.

And that’s writing, innit? Or fill in That Thing You Want To Do, and it’s that thing, too. You can’t just do it when it feels good, you have to return to it every day, without fail, even when it’s hard, uncomfortable, or inconvenient. You have to sink hours and hours into it at the expense of more normal things. And you have to defend it like a mother bear, else the vermin and weeds of the world will destroy it, mercilessly and without hesitation.

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Not the garden in question, but a nice local one nonetheless!

I run past that garden, and it isn’t much, but it’s surviving. And I can’t help but think of the garden in my head: the one I don’t have the time or the energy for right now, the one that is choked to death with weeds of uncertainty over this move (still in limbo!).

And I really want to get my hands dirty.


Riding The Wave


We’re back from a week’s vacation. Back from a week of beaches and relaxation and not thinking about work at all and HA HA no, we were on vacation with our kids naturally, so it was pretty much life as usual: waking up before the sun, stretching out every activity by about 50% to allow for tantrums and foot-dragging and lost shoes / stuffed animals / underwear, and remember when I said that thing about relaxing? There’s no such thing as relaxing when your kids are five and three and will fight about literally anything if given ten seconds of opportunity.

So: didn’t get as much opportunity to write as I’d hoped.

But on the night when we were uncertain whether the storm of the decade was coming through, my wife and I did sneak down to the ocean to ride some (for the gulf) killer waves. Actually, to be clear, my wife had the good sense to not try riding the waves, but as good sense is rarely one of my dominant characteristics, I jumped in with both feet, and often my head.

Surfing (okay, fine, boogie-boarding because I’m not that coordinated or cool) is a great way for a thirty-something guy to get thoroughly humiliated and smacked around in return for a few sparks of short-lived adrenaline.

But I realized — as I was on vacation, hiding from responsibilities and from my craft of choice — it’s also a pretty good parallel for writing.

To wit: here’s how surfing works. You grab your board and you head out into turbulent waters, fighting the current and the crashing waves to get yourself out a decent distance from shore, where the waves are fewer and farther between but bigger, more powerful. There, you wait until just the right one comes along, and then — with every ounce of strength and dexterity you can muster, you abandon your fingernail grip on safety and attempt to ride that thing all the way back to the shore.

Fun, but also pointless and much more likely to leave you smashed against the ocean floor, unsure which way is up, filling your lungs with ocean water than to deposit you safely on the shore, stepping casually off your board as if the thing you just accomplished were really no big deal as the ocean breeze ruffles your sun-kissed hair.

Which is basically writing. Let’s be honest: life would be easier if you just didn’t. The world doesn’t want you to write, like the world doesn’t want you to surf. Those waves are monstrous, relentlessly pounding you back to shore, which is really where you should be hanging out: grinding out your daily routine, seeing to your land-lubberly responsibilities (i.e. your job), sticking to the land you evolved to walk upon and not the sea which your evolutionary ancestors abandoned.

Every wall of water that breaks upon you is shoving you back toward land. The sea doesn’t want you there — it knows you don’t belong. Just like the writer trying to make time for himself when he has family and job and mortgage payments to contend with. That’s where you and your energy belong, not splashing around in the ocean that’s just going to leave you cold and bruised and waterlogged. But you fight your way out anyway, whether you’re chasing a thrill or an escape or because somewhere deep in your primeval brain you feel like you do belong out there.

Then you wait. The shore — and the safety and normalcy it represents — is distant. All around you break waves that you allow to pass by for one reason or another: Not big enough, not breaking at the right time, too fierce. The waves are the writer’s ideas: plentiful and without end, but mostly useless to the writer, for many of the same reasons: too big in scope for the author to tackle, too small to really hold his attention, or interesting but just not one he’s feeling right now. Most of them roll right by.

But eventually, you see the one. It’s just right, this wave, big enough to give you a thrill but also just big enough to scare you a little. (It’s the idea that frightens you a bit that will keep you writing.) So you jump on it, and this, too, is a struggle — because in the build-up to the wave, the current changes. The ocean draws the water back to itself to gather strength for the new wave, and it pulls you out to sea with it. But you find yourself atop it nonetheless, and then everything changes. Now you’re flying along at the speed of creativity, as this madcap idea explodes and crashes all around you in an erupting chaos of foam and spray — the castoffs of a story being woven from nothing.

And who knows? Maybe the wave turns on you — it breaks over your head and tumbles you end-over-end. It slams you into the sand and the ocean rushes into your mouth and nose and ears and you feel like you might as well be a mile underwater for all you can see and feel. This is where the idea leaves you and the inspiration rushes right out leaving you lost and adrift and doubting every decision that brought you to this point, reconsidering an easier life, perhaps as an accountant.

Or maybe you ride it all the way home, bumping gently onto the sand as you stick a perfect landing: the ending writes itself, the conflicts wrap themselves up neatly, and you step off the board, nary a hair out of place.

Either way, you find yourself back on land again — beaten and half-drowned or charged up and riding high — but not quite satisfied either way. Nobody heads out to ride just one wave, do they? There’s an infinity of stories out there waiting to be told, an interminable ocean of waves waiting to be ridden.

Grab your board.

Or, y’know. Your pen. Or keyboard. Or whatever.


MudStuck


I was out for a run once, and it had been raining in the days before. The sun had been out for a day in between the rain and my run, so most of the ground was relatively dry; even the dirt patches had baked and packed down solid. There were still deep standing puddles here and there at low points in the road, but they were obvious and easy to avoid.

The day was gorgeous; clean spring air, soft breeze, shade from the verdant, rain-thickened trees. The kind of run that makes you feel alive and calm… you know, all that hippy-dippy crap that I usually try to write away from. I had gone a couple of miles, completed a neat loop through a well-marked part of the trail, and was about half a mile away from the trailhead and my car. I had expected to get muddy from stomping through the elements so soon after a rain, but surprisingly, I had stayed relatively clean. I relaxed into the last mile, putting on a little speed and feeling the wind on my face as I streamed along the shaded path.

KASPLORCK-CCCHHHHHHHHHUUUUUUUPP.

A mud pit, cleverly disguised as a perfectly ordinary patch of dirt, had engulfed my shoe and yanked it unsanctimoniously off my foot. Through some miracle of physics I retained my balance and didn’t pitch over on my face; then I had to hop on one foot to circle around and look at what had happened. I’d plunged my right foot into mud six inches deep, and once ensconced, the suction was great enough to remove my entire shoe. There it sat, inches below the surface of the mud, sunk in a perfectly fitted crater with mushroomed edges, slowly beginning to fill with muddy water from the surface. I bent to try and yank it out, but with only one leg underneath me I couldn’t manage enough leverage to dislodge it. There were only two options — sink my unshod foot into the mud to establish leverage to pull the shoe out, or try to worm my foot back into the shoe and unstick it that way. Both choices would leave me with a horrific muddy mess on my foot, not to mention that the shoe was already past done.

I was beyond frustrated, and after the fact, I would realize that there was not a single good reason for the frustration. I had set out for the run knowing that the trail was likely to be a muddy mess. Had I hit the mudhole at the beginning of the run, it would have fazed me not a tick. The problem was, I made it through the run nearly unscathed, clean enough to let my guard down and start imagining a future where I wouldn’t have to stumble in the door and leave my laundry to dry on the porch before I could even step foot inside the house. Timing, I suppose, is everything.

Okay, so, this is an allegory, right? The through-line of this blog is and always has been my writing project. There’s a healthy dose of side business in the flavor of my kids, running, stupid stuff I see on TV, and what-have-you, but really, it’s all about the writing, all about the book, and that’s never more true than now. I was — am — will be — this close to finishing the first edit of this book. I can see the finish line, taste the clean air on the other side, feel the grass growing softer underfoot.

And all of a sudden, a mudhole yawns open beneath my foot and swallows my shoe.

In short: there’s a character in this piece. A character I like a lot. A character who’s critical to the early stages of the story but not quite so critical to the end. And due to that duality, some poor notetaking, and, I’ll admit it, a pretty glaring oversight, this character has turned into the Gordian Knot of the book. The problem? In one scene she’s there, helping to drive events and throwing down obstacles of her own; the next, she’s not. She’s simply gone. Like I totally forgot to write any sort of resolution, or anything even close to resembling a resolution for her.

And I’m stuck. I don’t know what to do. I made it through the whole muddy trek of this edit — even undertaking some fairly major changes to the story — without getting particularly dirty. Nothing I couldn’t hose off with a stout drink and a hot shower. But I don’t know how to fix this, and I can’t picture a future in which it’s fixed. Back up and write her out of the narrative completely? I fear the story will collapse in on itself like a matchstick house, and I’ll have to rebuild it piece by painstaking piece. Forge ahead and cram her back into the final third? The can of sardines will burst, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get all those tiny, stinky fish back into the tin.

I don’t see a way to fix this without diving in and getting myself covered head to toe with the inkstains of major narrative surgery. And I was so close.

There’s a third option, of course, just as there was a third option with my mudbound shoe. Leave it, and hobble home in my socks. Just forget about it and hope that my readers do the same. (Not likely.) Or, pile this and all the other little nitpicky problems the story has sprouted into a neat little pyre and nuke the whole mess from orbit. Leave no survivors. Take it back to the blank space.

Okay, so there’s really not a third option.

So if the blog has been a little sparse lately (and let’s face it, it has been), this is why. I’m stuck.

That’s not an excuse. I’ll find a way around. I didn’t come this far to shamble home with my shoe left in the mud. But it’s a problem I need to solve before I can really feel comfortable in my writing again.


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