Sunday, May 2, 2010

Put that in your spell checker

When the vision for the way a project should go has seized you, made its presence felt, and nudged you over the cliff of outside awareness, into the seeming heart of the work, a frightening thing happens. Metaphor and simile begin appearing, hanging out like teenyboppers at a rock concert, wanting somehow to sneak into the show going on inside. In short, metaphor and simile are the undocumented workers, trying to get in, find jobs, show you their stuff. Make a home for themselves.


You are not entirely sure whence they came and as you check up on them, each assures you it is up to the job, will give extra layers of nuance and power to the job at hand, will match the price of any other word or trope or figure of speech.

You first became aware of them when they were pointed out to you during the study of the Tennyson poem, "The Idylls of the King," reinforced by spot quizzes that required of you to define what each was then provide specific examples.

As time progressed, you had a nodding acquaintance with them, each of you waving at the other. Hi, metaphor. Hey, Shelly. Like wow, simile. Back atcha, kid. But it was not until considerably later on, after you'd made up your mind that the writing and reading life was for you, that you happened upon Raymond Chandler, watching the evolution of his Marlowe character through a few incarnations in the old pulp mystery magazine, Black Mask. Chandler produced metaphor and simile like a teenage kid produces zits; they fall gracefully from his pages, where they remain floating about in your memory like dandelion puffs even now. Your Archimedes moment, the I-found-it insight, had arrived: to be the writer you wished, you needed a supply of metaphor and simile that were at once original, easily recognizable, and did the job of imparting a picture to the reader.

Sad but ultimately useful months were spent pressing your sensitivities for metaphor and simile which you could then tear off, insert in a story, then be on your way. The sadness was that you simply could not think of any. No, that is not quite true; you could not think of any worth keeping, much less using. A message was beginning to form somewhere, deep inside, but it was still being shouted down by the fear that in order to be a writer, you needed figures of speech--lots of them. As far back as Homer, your inner voice scolded, there were figures of speech. The wine dark sea, of which James Joyce knew enough to make fun of in Ulysses by having Stephen regard the snot-green sea. In your writing groups, where you attended as a student, not a teacher, you were amazed at the numbers of writers who could turn out metaphor with no thought of effort, without breaking a literary sweat. It wasn't so much that the stories were any good as it was that the metaphors and simile impressed the hell out of you.

Then it happened, as it must to all who attend writing groups: Someone read a story with a figure of speech so awful and contorted that you knew with the certainty and clarity of a writer who had moved on to the next plateau that the straightforward declarative sentence was your kind of sentence. You would neither look at other kinds of sentences nor cheat.

Difficult to say how long this romance lasted. You still have great affection for the active, declarative sentence and at times, when using the spell checker, the program warns you that you have used the passive voice and might, accordingly, be sent back two plateaus, you reread the scene in which the passivity took place, alert to the possibility that it caused some speed bump or inelegant locution that would stand out, break the reader's concentration, possibly even cause the reader to bail out.

Since then, some of your stronger verbs and nouns have accused you of being soft on figures of speech, pointing out that you have on occasion allowed some of them to stay, just as you have come to examine an adverb to see if it has a green card and occasionally allow one to remain. You on occasion turn your back on the passive voice when you see it because, when all is said and done, it not only fits, it belongs.

Your latest Archimedes moment was one in which you are most lenient in the early drafts, not at all adverse to a simile or two. You still go out of your way to avoid sentences with the word "that" in them, but although sometimes it can't be helped, you grudgingly admit that it can be helped with a slight hitch.

Knowing what sounds right to you and your characters makes sense, makes the subsequent drafts not only easier but somehow closer to the vision you have come to experience for the project.

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