I Is for Imagery

I loved high school English, but after all those in-depth discussions of Shakespeare, Hemingway, Austen, Fitzgerald, and the rest, I went out into the world with some wrong ideas about writing.

I thought images, symbols, and metaphors were like booby traps. Writers embedded them in their stories in order to razzle-dazzle sophisticated readers, and to trick high school students. Why was there a green light at the end of Jay Gatsby’s dock? Why, to drive us crazy, of course.

My English teacher senior year was aware of the problem. She’d ask what an author was trying to do in a particular passage and then, usually after a minute of nervous silence from the class, add, “This is not a trick question.” We didn’t believe her.

For many years, I wrote mostly nonfiction. Nonfiction, I mistakenly thought, was safe from images, symbols, and metaphors. When I started dabbling in poetry, I knew I was in trouble. Poetry is all about images, symbols, and metaphors, isn’t it?

I am not a gardener, but I do have a little garden. It’s in an old dinghy.

Before long, though, I got it: Images, symbols, and metaphors grow out of the writing. They’re gifts, like sprouts in the spring garden. (Look, look! A simile!) The gardener can nourish them and help them grow, or she can decide the row is too crowded and yank some of the seedlings out. (Metaphor!)

A writer I once workshopped with relayed something she’d heard from a poet she knew: “To be a writer, you have to know one thing well.”

The thing you know well is the soil from which your images, symbols, and metaphors grow. Of course there can be more than one thing, and you can always learn more.

When the garden gets too crowded, it’s hard to see what’s going on.

Any story or poem or essay is bound to have lots of images in it. This is fine. Gardens contain lots of plants, don’t they? All sorts of plants. At the same time, if you’ve got too many flowers growing in a limited space, your readers won’t know where to look. They may miss something that you want them to notice. Keep that in mind when you get down to revising your work.

One last thing to keep in mind: Many, many common expressions are metaphors that have long since come adrift from their literal meanings. This can get writers into trouble. Take the phrase “rein in,” as in “rein in one’s ambition.” I sometimes see “reign in” even in the work of pretty good writers. “Rein in” comes from horsemanship. If you keep horses, reins, and bridles in mind, you won’t write “reign” for “rein.” (Come to think of it, I don’t believe I’ve ever come across a reference to “unbridaled passion.” It has possibilities, doesn’t it.)

Metaphors and images can be effectively mixed and matched. They can complement each other or create dissonance. If you use them with care and know where they came from, you won’t inadvertently come up with doozies like “He’s a wolf in cheap clothing” — which also has possibilities, but seriously, you don’t want to do it by mistake, do you?

For a crash course in metaphors, see this post by Richard Nordquist, a retired English professor who is very good at explaining things.

H Is for Habits

Habit: “A recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition” or “customary manner or practice.”

When you’re not sure where to start, head for the dictionary. 😉 Those come from the American Heritage Dictionary. There are other “habits,” but I’m not thinking of nun’s habits or riding habits or habits involving narcotics.

Habits are the patterns and practices that can help you create the space that makes your writing possible. Needless to say, they can also create spaces in which writing is difficult if not impossible, so if you’re having a hard time getting down to work, day after day after day, it’s worth taking a hard look at what habits may be getting in the way.

I once wrote a whole poem of ways to avoid writing. I can’t remember any of it, but I’m pretty sure that doing the dishes and vacuuming were in it. The ways to avoid writing are myriad. I can even use writing to avoid writing.

My #1 habit in the sense of “customary manner or practice” is write every day. This started when I was working on my novel. I’d never completed anything longer than 40 pages before. I was desperately afraid I was going to choke. You know where the cartoon character runs straight off a cliff and for a moment is suspended in midair above a chasm, feet still running? That was me.

I made a New Year’s resolution, one of the few New Year’s resolutions I’ve ever made. The resolution was that I would write every day until I had a complete draft. I didn’t specify how many words I would write, or how many hours — only that I would write every day.

I have a candle burning while I write.

Some days, I swear, it would be five minutes to midnight when I sat down at the computer and opened the Word file. That was enough. I’d tweak the last paragraph I’d written and then write another paragraph or two. Just opening the file was enough to reassure me that it hadn’t turned to crap the moment my back was turned. What I’d already written would tell me what to do next.

Ordinarily mornings are my best writing time, especially for first-drafting. In the morning I’m fresh and optimistic. As the day goes on, my mind fills up with distractions, interruptions, and reasons not to write. Editing I can do at other times.

My worst habit, of the “recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition” type, is Spider solitaire. Decades ago I played it with real cards, then some fiend decided to bundle it with Windows and I was doomed. If the writing stalls, suddenly Spider is open on my screen and I’m playing another game without knowing how I got there. I am almost certainly powerless over Spider solitaire. I don’t think my life has become unmanageable — yet — but I may be fooling myself.