Friday, March 19, 2010

My Battle with Metaphor

Much of your writing life has been conducted in an uneasy relationship with metaphor, beginning with a distant memory of some teacher telling you you could never hope to understand romantic poetry, which of course you at the time wished to write, without some degree of intimacy with it. But with some notable exceptions in your reading, it became apparent to you that you'd have to find some other way in with romantic poetry because so much of it, metaphorical, allegorical, and simile-like, did not stand the test of time. This was about the time you discovered William Carlos Williams, but that is for another time, since this means to stay for at least a few paragraphs on the subject of metaphor.

You began filling notebooks with such metaphor and simile as you encountered, reaching the point where you hoped never to see another and wrote for yourself in simple, declarative sentences that seemed pretty straightforward and uncluttered. It was no wonder you felt a growing affinity with the then pulp magazines, mysteries, science fiction, and westerns. Lousy pay rates but you were pretty prolific at the time and saw your clear to making enough to keep you in books, a night a week out at some place where jazz was to be had, and something adventurous to throw in the crock pot.

Then you discovered Raymond Chandler, who seemed to produce metaphor the way you produced excuses. Out the window, sometimes even literally, went the straightforward declarative sentences. What are these, Richard said one night when he came by your window to meow, a way of signaling you out of the house without awakening neighbors, stepping in the process on balled sheets of paper. Metaphors, you said. What are these, John Carroll said when you turned in pages on a screenplay. Metaphors, you said. Lad, he said. He wanted to say more. As long as I'm paying you, there will be no more goddamned metaphors in the screenplays.

Look, I said one day. Raymond Chandler uses them all over the place and they even hired Faulkner to do the screenplays of his novels. Lad, he said. He wanted to say more. It may be vulgar for me to say this but you can, if you wish, blow your nose without using a handkerchief, which is precisely what most of the people who will pay to see this movie would do if they thought they could get away with it and which many do without even thinking about the consequences.

I arrived early the next morning with thirty some pages, and not a single metaphor. When I drove down the sprawl of driveway, I saw two men,drunkenly brawling near the porte cochere. As I approached, I recognized one of the brawlers as John, cocking his arm back for a swing. "You son of a bitch," he said to his opponent. "If you had any decency, you'd tell me where you are." Both his eyes had been fairly well puffed beyond vision. "And you," his opponent said. "If you were half the man you make yourself out to be, you'd stand still." Thus spake not Zarathrustra but Clark Gable, a frequent roistering companion of John.

"Is that you, Lad?" John said as you approached. "On a Saturday?"
"I brought some pages without metaphor."
"Why would you do that?" Gable asked, turning in my direction, his face as bruised as John's. "Why would you write anything without a metaphor? Goddamn you, LaFitte [for that was John's true surname]What have you done to this man?"

At which point, John's mother called to inform us breakfast was ready.

"Christ," Gable said, "I thought we were at my place. What the hell are we doing at your place? Where is my car? I suppose you sold it."

John had abandoned or forgotten the causes of his fight with Gable, turned to you. "You see, Lad? With people like us, metaphor is unnecessary?"

You actually wanted to believe that and for a time you did, but there did not seem to be on the pages you wrote the things you hoped would be there. You could not articulate what those things were. You looked for them in vain. It helped some that Christopher Isherwood spoke to you of times when he deliberately tried to cause the pockets and hems of his denims to appear threadbare, "Saintly in their wretched simplicity," he said, but there was nothing wretched nor simple that you could find in his writing; it was all elegant and pointed as well as honest.

They come at you now with the persistence of telephone solicitors, male and female, asking you how you're doing today, approaching you like coffee stains on a freshly laundered shirt. They have made you as wary as a man with dandruff venturing out of the house in a blue suit. Of course you check for them. Why, a student once asked, do your comments on our stories always contain metaphor?

Your answer could have been--but wasn't--synecdoche; the part always representing the whole or the whole always suggesting a part, or things wanting to connect as if on their own. You would have to be two ants shy of a picnic not to get the message.

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