Gail Caldwell’s memoir & metaphors

The use of running metaphors in a piece—all related in some way to indigestion or water or loneliness or roller skates, or with a surrealistic or violent cast—will guide the reader in a particular direction as surely as stock can be herded.—Annie Proulx

I’ve been skimming John Irving’s newest novel, Last Night in Twisted River. I started out reading, but it asked more of me than I can give right now. With classes looming, immersed in my own rewriting struggle, I’m too jangly, I guess, to settle into a thick old-fashioned plotted novel with lots of big fat sentences. So when I got a notice the other day from my library that a memoir I’d requested was in, I put Irving aside yet again.

I’d forgotten about the memoir, Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship, about her bond with the late memoirist Caroline Knapp. The book, a svelte 190 pages, sucked me right in with the beauty of its sentences and the immediacy of its story. I devoured it in two days, and I’ll reread it. When it opens, Caldwell is dealing with Knapp’s death, and slowly a narrative storyline emerges amidst reflection as Caldwell goes back, showing their friendship ignite—over shared passions for dogs, rowing, and swimming—and moves through the years toward Knapp’s untimely death from lung cancer. The poignancy of this loss, and what makes it harrowing for Caldwell, is that this friendship between two single, gifted writers, both recovered alcoholics, was uncommonly deep. They were true soul mates, closer than many lovers.

The memoir’s opening page, an unlabeled prologue, showcases its strong, quiet voice, elegant syntax, and interesting use of metaphor:

It’s an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too.

The year after she was gone, when I thought I had passed through the madness of early grief, I was on the path at the Cambridge reservoir where Caroline and I had walked the dogs for years. It was a winter afternoon and the place was empty—there was a bend in the road, with no one ahead of or behind me, and I felt a desolation so great that for a moment my knees wouldn’t work. “What am I supposed to do here?” I asked her aloud, by now accustomed to conversations with a dead best friend. “Am I just supposed to keep going?” My life had made so much sense alongside hers: For years we had played the easy, daily game of catch that intimate connection implies. One ball, two gloves, equal joy in the throw and the return. Now I was on the field without her: one glove, no game. Grief is what tells you who you are alone.

Let’s Take the Long Way Home is so rich with metaphors, and they’re so pleasing and surprising. Aren’t we always seeking apt comparisons? I tell my students that we reflexively pursue symbols to define people and situations—and we must, since words themselves are metaphors. Your ex was just like those cheap cracked boots he left in your closet, wasn’t he? Admit it: she was that mess she left in your bathroom. And Caldwell’s perfect title, what Caroline Knapp used to say to prolong their outings, epitomized their friendship.

When I was a young writer, I’d likely have attributed Gail Caldwell’s frequent metaphoric phrases to sheer genius, and probably some writers do think metaphorically more easily. But now I’m more inclined to see metaphors also as just another aspect of craft, even though they can seem magical. Metaphor “is the language of the angels,” says author and metaphor maven Silvia Hartmann, using a metaphor for a metaphor. “Religion, society, thought, science are all based on metaphor and to be able to speak the language of the angels allows a human being to shape reality for themselves, and for others.”


Filed under memoir, metaphor, symbolism, syntax

9 responses to “Gail Caldwell’s memoir & metaphors

  1. “Grief is what tells you who you are alone.” Whew. That phrase will be in my head all day on our mountain hike. Thanks for pointing me to yet another book I need to read. By the way, Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories is proving to be a great help to me.

  2. You began by saying that you were too “jangly” to settle in to a big novel. But then you go on to draw favorite phrases and images from many sources, teaching us, like you will your students, why and how language and metaphor help us make meaning. Bravo–and may you have a wonderful opening of the new academic year.

    If you want to hear Gail Caldwell’s beautiful voice describing her friendship and her writing on the Diane Rehm Show, listen here:

  3. Richard, this is another rich post — giving us a memoir to read, a lesson about writing, a beautiful example from the text, and great quotes on metaphor to guide us (plus some of your own life). The lines about one ball, two gloves, equal joy in the throw and return and then one glove, no game are just plain wonderful. Thanks! Paulette

  4. Thanks for the reminder about the power of metaphor. One can know it as a writer at our deepest core and still let pages slip by without a good metaphor. I’m currently struggling with what Caldwell has done so well with overarching metaphor for the entire piece. How can one metaphor serve for a life of chaos, diversity and far too many lessons learned?

    Great blog!

    • Brenda, I don’t know the answer to your great rhetorical question, of course. Except to say I think it takes most writers a long long time. Caldwell may have had her friend’s expression as her title from the start, or it may slowly have emerged, or a friend or editor saw it.

  5. Beautiful post, Richard. I’ve read Carolyn Knapp’s essays and am drawn to them again after reading about Caldwell’s memoir. I lost my best friend to cancer 7 years ago. I know the one glove.

    So happy to have found your blog through the remarkable and talented Beth W.

  6. richard moore

    So many fine insights here, so many memorable phrases. As a writer-in-process, I love metaphors, but find it very hard to evoke them. Maybe because I am leery of overdoing them. Have you seen that as a problem in some writing?
    Another area of great interest to me is the ubiquitous practice of using similes. I perk up every time I run across the word “like.” How the writer uses this opportunity is often lyric and insightful. Maybe as much a test of the good writer as metaphor.
    I wonder if you could devlop a post on the use of similes?
    Love your blog and look forward to it.

    • Metaphors are powerful, probably always challenging to create, and the danger is to strain and mix metaphors or use the typical ones that come to mind and are therefore cliche, like “soldier on.” Caldwell seems to have a good metaphor or similie (a type of metaphor, of course) on about every other page!

  7. I love the way you put that–“too jangly” to settle into a big, thick book. I know exactly what you mean. Nice post.