Friday, November 21, 2014

Nervous as a Long-Tailed Cat in a Roomful of Rocking Chairs

You did not spend much time thinking about figures of speech in your writing until you began reading, then rereading the mystery novels of Raymond Chandler. There was some inherent worldweariness in his language that painted every scene with grace under the weight of melancholy. 

In addition, Chandler's stories were gravid with the awareness of the things people under stress would do to one another and to themselves. His characters cheated, betrayed, gambled, entered untenable relationships, became dried-out, withered husks of their earlier idealism. They dreamed California dreams with Nebraska sensitivities, watched California sunsets, and hid their accents of birth.  In their attics--for there were no cellars--they kept shoe boxes filled with their high school trophies.

 Even now, when you return to him, you think about the effects his stories had on you, and how, for the longest time, in envy of his figures of speech, you belabored figures of your own to the point of weighting down your prose with a leaden self-consciousness and near pedantry.  You looked for and found rooms with the dust of forgotten dreams, unearthed characters whose words were as badly pronounced as their unrealized dreams.  Thus, yes; you wrote metaphor and simile from the head, not from the memories of missed connections and choruses of refusals.

There is no telling how long you trod this self-conscious and self-absorbed path of metaphor and simile, pausing to find the comparisons and relevance at the expense of the story.  You wrote this lack of story off under the convenient heading of being more a literary type, character-driven rather than plot-driven, two additional terms that made you fearful you lacked qualifications to tell stories.

Diligent practice must not be construed as a guarantee of desired result.  Even while practicing a good deal, reading writers such as Chandler caused you exquisite despair.  But practice also led you to the negotiated settlement of not forcing metaphor and simile.  If they came, well and good. If your prose came forth crisp and lucid, there were worse consequences to suffer

Somewhere in the murky depths of junior high school, you lurched into the mine fields of figures of speech.  A metaphor is.  A simile is.  This was either the seventh grade or the eighth, probably the latter, because you'd come back to California mid-way through the seventh, so relieved to be back that you took a holiday from being contrary.

Definitely the eighth.  "Why is it you are here?"  asked Mr, Engberg, the Boy's Vice Principal.

"Figurative speech."

"Isn't that a bit vague?  Why are you really here?"

"Insubordination."

"Are you one of these fellows who needs everything drawn out?  If you can raise the issue of insubordination, you can tell me why you are here."

You decided to come clean.  You liked Mr. Engberg, sensing about him a sternness wound about an armature of agreeability.  "We're being introduced to figures of speech and the teacher refuses to recognize synecdoche as a topic of discussion."

This is why you liked Mr. Engberg.  "Are you sure the issue is her refusal to recognize synecdoche?  Could it also be her refusal to recognize your vocabulary?"

In your recollection of the moment, you nodded, but said nothing, a dangerous step but those junior high school years and the high school years to come were sullen years in which it seemed best to settle in as best you could to the role of a B student, better than average but not willing to share much of the curiosities and frustrations arguing within.

Your use of figurative speech was kept at a respectful tight rein until, now and then, one would seem to appear from the same source all your narrative shared.  Hooray.  Cause for a sigh of relief for the awareness that you were not writing to demonstrate an ability with figurative speech.  In addition, you'd long worked your way past the notion of description, into the choppier seas of inference and evocation.

Once in a while, a useful figure comes tumbling out of a sudden, complex thought, where a character is caught up in one of those moments sometimes captured by a stranger's camera, where expectations are up, guard is down, and the worst consequences present themselves, smiling, unhesitating.

You look at it with suspicion, wondering whether to leave it or not, because now, as you were bombarded with adverbs in the third grade, you are bombarded with the tough love advice to kill your darlings, remove all those tones and quirky turns of phrase that shout out to the world, "Oh, like me.  Like me."

Sometimes figurative language cries out to you the way puppies in animal shelters try their pitch lines on you, wanting you to take them home.


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