What’s a Meta-For?

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Okay, results of the contract contest are in, and it seems our ubiquitous General Bertrand was favored from the start. Yet what connections between the 2 articles did you find? I’d hoped the stunt would get you to think about the way we work as Christians who write fiction. With Leithart’s article as context, Pamuk showed just how critical our tools of symbol and metaphor really are to high quality stories.

Here’s Mark: “[In lower quality fiction] there’s an over-determined quality to the symbolism, as if it came about cognitively rather than procedurally. It is at once too meditated and not meditated enough. The grace with which Pamuk can write about his ancient calligraphers, knowing what’s underneath it but never pointing directly to the symbolism, simply isn’t possible when Symbol is seen as a technique to be applied rather than a hallmark or byproduct of method…”

Exactly. Quality metaphors are not premeditated. The challenge is to allow them to arise naturally–and then trust readers to connect their own dots. The alternative is to come up with symbols after the fact and insert them. Very few authors are able to make these kind look seamless and end up unintentionally weakening their books. The better idea is to discover those less obvious metaphors after you’ve written the first draft.

This is an incredibly freeing discovery: Metaphors that effortlessly appear for the observer as if all on their own, first appeared for the writer that way.

I like Mark’s word for how symbols arise as a “byproduct.” Deeper meaning is a result of meditation, usually after the story is already out. The work of that second draft is of finding the metaphors and drawing them out without making them too obvious.

We need to trust readers, and not assume stories with implicit truth and beauty can’t also be mindless escapes. It’s not commercial vs. literary; this is a big part of what makes writing quality or not. Simple books and deep books can both offer the commonplace experience of transcendence. Transcendence is a universal experience, isn’t it? No explanation is really necessary.

And in writing metaphor well, there’s this great result that happens in counteracting the widespread commercialization of faith and God. The divine is not reducable into nice, clean parts. We were created to experience incredible, complicated things, and good books provide those experiences that are otherwise unavailable. Reading is an escape from the everyday and if we wanted commercials, there are over 200 channels to choose from. But what I’d like for Christmas is for someone to blog about choosing to develop the natural metaphors in their story and sharing the observations and discoveries they find. (If you do it–or have an archived post–let me know and I’ll provide a link:Meg’s great post, Suzan’s, Michelle’s, Madison’s.)

Can you relate to this part of Pamuk’s speech? “I am most surprised by those moments when I have felt as if the sentences…have not come from my own imagination–that another power has found them and generously presented them to me.” This goes beyond “getting in the moment,” to the deep mystery O’Connor spoke of. The sacramental art that doesn’t separate spirit from body, meaning from method. This is a divine interconnectedness beyond our words, our ideas, our place in space and time. This is why we can’t control what people will take from our books. Ultimately, we don’t control it. And that’s a great thing if you’re looking to die to self.

Pamuk says he “knew only too well that I lived in a country that showed little interest in its artists – be they painters or writers – and that gave them no hope.” Sounds familiar, and yet he takes writing incredibly seriously: “writing and literature are intimately linked to a lack at the centre of our lives, and to our feelings of happiness and guilt.” That lack is the longing to be reunited with the source. Sacramental art involves natural metaphors, as all of life does because it is all metaphor. And God doesn’t make sure we catch it. “My confidence comes from the belief that all human beings resemble each other, that others carry wounds like mine – that they will therefore understand. …a single humanity, a world without a centre.” When we write, we are not only one; we are all one. We all can have this same experience through books.

And finally, there is Pamuk’s metaphor: his father’s suitcase of words. It stands for something, many somethings in fact. Did you see? A suitcase full of your father’s words is very fitting for us. It’s a weighty thing to carry. Some might think you’re pretty high and mighty to assume you can open this. But we must. It’s our birthright. Our legacy. And we must open it if we want to know what’s inside.

At any rate, I hope all you wonderful writers have a happy, safe, and restful Christmas and an inspired New Year. Let’s make it one to remember.

(As I was writing this, trying to put a certain precocious 3-year-old daughter to bed, she came downstairs with the traditional stall tactic that she was hungry. I gave her the traditional Wheat Thins and milk after reading her another book, and twenty minutes later she tiptoed downstairs to tell us she spilled her milk. After we cleaned up, she said she wanted more. Pushover Dad got her a little more. But no, she said, she wanted it full to the top, pointing out the line on the green cup, the amount she’d had before it spilled. I started to smile, insisting she didn’t need that much milk, that she wasn’t even thirsty, and that she’d have to pee. Three strikes, I win. But she insisted calmly, hands folded, serious as a china doll.

And I stood there as she repeated herself—“I just want it up to the top, Daddy”—and something about it, her persistence, her calm determination about this very serious business of getting a lot of milk struck me funny. I choked down a laugh, told myself I wasn’t necessarily contributing to misbehavior by complying, and went to fill it up. When I got back, she inspected it and took a slow, satisfied sip. I couldn’t hold it back anymore and cracked up–just her seriousness over the whole thing. And she laughed too though not really knowing what was funny. Maybe she was surprised at how this had gone.

As I kissed her goodnight and shut the door, I thought, This is it. This is how metaphor is. You write the little details, the particularity of the green cup with the silly little pepper people on it, that stuff that sticks in your head forever—all of it is significant. It matters because it means something. You don’t always know what it means and that’s the point, the whole reason for all of it, and why getting it right isn’t so important. Everything simple is so remarkably ineffable. You can’t understand it, so you just enjoy it, and you keep living and writing about it anyway.)

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11 thoughts on “What’s a Meta-For?”

  1. I’ve been meaning to write about this anyway.
    Over the summer, my son and I were gardening. Ok, well I was. He was asking his gazillion and one questions and telling me how muddy I was.
    He asked why I always wanted to get muddy, why didn’t I just wait until everything was dry and then pull the weeds?
    So I said that the weeds come up much easier after a good storm and I showed him how, if you pulled at the base of the weed, the whole root ball came out and explained how important it was to get the roots out. Since we’ve seen Larry Boy and The Rumor Weed more times than I can count, he understood weed problems.
    This was just after my uncle committed suicide.
    And then I understood why I am a writer.
    I’ll be sure to blog about this. I even have some good pictures of the *ahem* garden that I’ve been anxious to put up.

  2. Hmm. Rabbit-hole symbolism of a twisted mind . . .
    Adam and Eve scenario. Beguiling female manipulates facts to get what she wants. Male responds without vision for bigger picture. For a brief moment, there is laughter all around at the sheer enjoyment of the taste of control. Human conduct takes a downward turn. Darkness prevails.
    Can’t help myself sometimes. Sorry.

  3. Great interpretation, Nicole!
    Here was mine: The bedtime snack is a wager for increasing the attention of “the Father.” Yet having ruined his gift and fearing his disappointment, she somehow finds courage to face the unknown. It’s the hope of grace that outweighs her fear. And when the expected condemnation turns to laughter, she sets out for dreamland a confident pilgrim.
    Different view, same context. Good metaphor is always dense, complicated.

  4. Surprising metaphors seem to surface on their own when using webbing techniques to gather thoughts and material – like Garbriele Rico explains in her book ‘Writing the Natural Way.’

  5. I’m not sure that what your post inspired in me directly answers the question you asked, which was to directly relate metaphors to our writing.
    Your questions brought up other questions in me, and so my response went somewhere deeper, not able to stop at the surface. While exploring the idea of a really good natural metaphor I stumbled over the source of all metaphor – when art intersects craft. I went with the inspiration at hand rather than trying to force the question. I hope you don’t mind…

  6. I am so bad. I started a great post and intended to finish it the next day and here it is like a week later and I still don’t have the second half up!
    I’ve been decorating my blog. Maybe I’ll get to writing the next part sometime today. LOL

  7. Mick, your simple story really ministered to me.
    “I just want it up to the top, Daddy.”
    That’s my prayer, for God to fill my cup to the top and for me not to be satisfied with a half empty glass.
    I need to realize God is a loving father who wants to give me good things, and I shouldn’t be afraid to keep asking until I get all that God has for me!
    Growth, love, forgiveness, peace, Grace! Fill me to the top, Lord!

  8. My favorite part of this post:
    “You don’t always know what it means and that’s the point, the whole reason for all of it, and why getting it right isn’t so important. Everything simple is so remarkably ineffable. You can’t understand it, so you just enjoy it, and you keep living and writing about it anyway.”
    It’s freeing to know that we can just live and not always worry about getting everything right. Someday we’ll understand everything that seems so messy right now. But for now, I’ll just live. And write. And play.

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