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The primary influences on my writing have always been Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Based on what I have read, neither was a fan of metaphors. Somewhere in the back of my mind I seem to recall Hemingway once calling metaphors “the weakest of animals” or “the “weakest of literary devices” or something like that (I have searched for this quote and haven’t found it yet). Ergo, I have always shied away from metaphors and I have found that it has helped my writing immensely by forcing me to be creative in my comparisons and analogies. While searching in vain for Hemingway’s quotation on metaphors tonight, I ran across this quotation from George Orwell which makes a few good points:
“By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images dash [sic] … it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.”
Metaphors are a bridge to another idea; they take the reader onto a tangent. If I say, “The hunter stumbled through the woods like a wounded bear,” I am shifting the reader’s visual image from that of the hunter to that of a bear. Yes, I give the reader a concise description of how the hunter was stumbling, and the reader can probably visualize the stumbling rather accurately, but wouldn’t the reader become more involved with the hunter and be able to visualize the scene more precisely if the hunter is described as if he were a wounded bear stumbling. Wouldn’t it also be a bit more of an intriguing psychological puzzle for the reader to solve and come to his own sudden epiphany of something like “Oh, he’s moving like a wounded bear!” For example:
The hunter, half-dazed from a blow to the head, his dark eyes fixed on some point on the dim horizon, staggered back and forth, bumping into trees, sometimes leaning against them to keep from collapsing into the hard-packed snow, dropping to one knee then rising slowly, painfully catching his breath, limping, often groaning, sometimes bellowing out in a desperate hope that someone passing through the distant shadows might come to his aid.
Isn’t that more dramatic? Doesn’t that involve the reader more into the actions and situation of the main character? Yes, it’s considerably longer, but now the reader can visualize precisely the hunter’s agonizing movements. Now, instead of having to visualize a bear, all attention is focused entirely on visualizing the hunter. Now you are forced to be creative, to use something other than Orwell’s “stale metaphors, similes and idioms” and have to use something more dynamic. No one can accuse you of not really thinking or of being lazy in your descriptions.
In short, if I want to compare two objects, I describe one using the characteristics and attributes of the other. If I have done it well, the reader will see the likeness between the two, but will still remained focused, and maybe even more intensely, on the subject.
I have used this method for some time now, and I believe it has strengthened my works considerably.
For more on this method of describing objects, see my article on the Tao of Writing Part 3: Talking about Dogs.
Slattery’s Tao of Writing, Part 3: Talking About Dogs
Some time back I was writing a story, thinking about how to be more mysterious in my writing, how to be less direct, yet provide more details in my narrative, when it occurred to me that (probably because I am a “dog person”) writing is often like talking about a dog without saying that you are talking about a dog.
Often, I have an idea or a feeling that I want to express, but if I try to express it directly and concisely, the reader will probably not apprehend the nuances I see in the idea. At the same time, much of the enjoyment in reading is trying to perceive the meaning behind the author’s words while experiencing the world of the work’s narrator vicariously. Therefore, as a writer, I want to get my ideas across without being so direct that the reader loses much of the fun of reading. For example, look at the first chapter of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway was known for his lean, muscular style, so you know he isn’t going to use any more words than necessary to express his ideas.
In the first chapter, he describes soldiers marching off to the front over the course of several months as he views them from a nearby house. As he watches the soldiers, the leaves fall from the trees, the vineyards dry up, the mountains turn brown and bare, and the dust the soldiers kick up turn everything bare and white–the color of bone. All these hint at death. Hemingway could have said simply, “Frederic Henry [the main character] watched the soldiers march off to their deaths”, but the reader would have lost the experience of living that time with Frederic and he would have lost sharing Frederic’s experience of witnessing an event and puzzling out its greater meaning for himself. All the artistic beauty of that chapter would have been lost.
I recall reading somewhere several years ago this idea described as the principle of contraction and expansion. That is no doubt true. Yet, to describe it so unemotionally as “contraction and expansion” seems aesthetically too clinical, too sterile, too confining a term for an idea concerning the breadth and depth of literary intellectual and emotional perception.
I think I prefer to think of this idea in terms of a dog, a living, breathing being full of warmth, love, loyalty, joy, anger, fear, tenderness, intelligence, stupidity, pain, and all the other abstract qualities sentient creatures have. Yes, I can simply say “dog” and hope my readers see all the nuances of a dog’s existence that I do, but they might not and I would be depriving them of the experience of sharing my perception and all the intimated nuances and emotions that come with it. So sometimes it is best just to describe the nuances of a dog’s life and let my readers enjoy drawing their own conclusions and along with these conclusions enjoy the subsequent discussions and debates among them as to who was right, who was wrong, who knew what he was talking about, who did not, and so on.
There are times when it is necessary to be concise, to pick a single word you hope is as pregnant with meaning for the reader as it is for you, but those times must be balanced against the times when the reader needs to experience an event and all its nuances. The writer, as artist, must decide how to balance out those moments. The writer strives to achieve a balance of ideas and perceptions. Balance is part of the art of writing. Balance is part of the Tao of writing.
Sometimes it is best to simply say “dog.” At other times it is best to talk about a dog without actually saying that you are talking about a dog.