In this week’s Paffooney remix, I have pictured the little boy crooner Francois Martin on the main street of Norwall. Why have I done such a foolish thing? Why have I drawn a boy singing silently a song that only I can hear in my silly old head? In fact, why do I label them Cantos instead of Chapters? Of course, the answer to these rhetorical questions is metaphorical. I look at my writing as being poetry, or, more accurately, as music rather than mere prose. It is a metaphor central to my being, writing is putting the inner music of my mind down on paper.
Here is a secret to powerful writing. Connect ideas with metaphors. A metaphor is a direct comparison of two unlike things to create an analogy, an echo of an idea that gives resonance to a notion. Sorry, I’m an English teacher. It’s in my genes. But metaphors can serve as the essential connections, as glue to put paragraphs and scenes together.
Let me show you a metaphor. Here is a short poem, the natural environment where many metaphors live;
Once I had a cookie… But every time I took a bite, It became smaller and smaller…
With each bite I had less and less cookie left.
But when it was gone, the sweet taste of it…
Lingered on… as memory.
The central metaphor of this poem is comparing the cookie to my life. I am getting older. I have six incurable diseases, some of them life threatening. I have been thinking about mortality a lot lately. So what is the point of the poem? That even when the last bite is taken, and there is no more cookie… when I am dead, there is the memory of me. Not my memory. The memory of me in the minds of my family, my children, my students, and other people who have come to know me. That memory makes whatever goodness that is in me worth living for.
Okay, a metaphor explained is kinda like a bug that’s been dissected for a science fair. Its innards are revealed and labeled. The beauty is gone. It’s kinda icky.
What works better, is a metaphor that the readers can readily grasp on their own. The beauty has to be discovered, not dissected and explained. Let me try again;
The Boy and the Boat
The boy looked to the horizon where wild and wooly white-caps roiled upon the sea.
“Lord help me,” he said, “the sea is so large, and my boat is so small…”
I can hear what you are thinking. “That’s too simple and ordinary. If it’s a metaphor, then it’s a really stupid one.” Well, I heard someone thinking that, even if it was not you.
Let me add a bit of information to help you connect things as I do. When I was ten years old, a fifteen-year-old neighbor boy sexually assaulted me. I told no one. I was so devasted by the event that I repressed the memory until I reached the age of twenty two. In high school, my suicidal thoughts and darkest depressions were caused by this event even though I couldn’t even recall. To this day I have not explained to mother and father what happened. I can only bring myself to tell you now because my abuser died of heart failure last summer. It was a life event of overwhelming darkness, pain, and soul scorching. Now look at “The Boy and the Boat” again. Has the meaning changed for you the way it does for me?
Now, I know that the last paragraph was a totally unfair use of harsh reality to make a point about metaphor and meaning. So let me give you one last poem… a sillier one. You can make of it whatever you will;
The wrinkly, bewhiskered old man
Had a smile like a plate of moldy spaghetti
In the afternoon sun.