Category Archives: symbolism

Ray Bradbury on Shakespeare

How long he stood he did not know, but there was a foolish and yet delicious sense of knowing himself as an animal come from the forest, drawn by the fire. He was a thing of brush and liquid eye, of fur and muzzle and hoof, he was a thing of horn and blood that would smell like autumn if you bled it out on the ground. He stood a long long time, listening to the warm crackle of the flames.

—Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury’s work transcended genre, as shown in the above lyrical passage from his classic tale of a dystopian future in which books are banned and burned. He was a great poet in all senses of the word because he was a genius, because he was original. And he was original because what underlay his science fiction—its origin—was the best literature. As a boy he was transfixed by The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. But he especially credited Shakespeare and the Bible for providing the metaphorical underpinnings of his visionary prose.

At least that’s what he told Terry Gross in a 1988 interview. Gross asked him how he got to write the screenplay for John Huston’s version of Moby-Dick, which he hadn’t read at the time:

Ray Bradbury’s photo by Steve Castillo/AP

By staying true to my own sense of the poetic. Again, here’s the influence of Shakespeare on my life, the influence of the Bible, which I was raised on. And by staying true to my own sense of poetry and my love of metaphor, which you learn from the Old Testament and the New Testament and you learn from Shakespeare. To speak in tongues, which are so vivid that people will remember the metaphor. And also by staying in love with dinosaurs. I fell in love with dinosaurs when I was five. I was walking along the shore with my wife one night down in Venice, California, this was 1949, and we found the ruins of the old Venice pier, all the bones and the skeleton, the tracks and the ties of the roller coaster, lying there in the sea. And I turned to my wife and I said, “I wonder what that dinosaur is doing lying here on the shore.” She was very careful not to answer. And three nights later I heard something in the middle of the night, I sat up in bed, looked at all the fog out beyond the window, and way out in Santa Monica Bay I heard the braying, the calling, the oconing of the foghorn. Over and over and over again. I said, “Yes that’s it.” The dinosaur heard the foghorn blowing, thought it was another dinosaur calling from a billion years of slumber and swam for an encounter, discovered it was only a damned lighthouse and a damned foghorn, tore the whole thing down and died of a broken heart on the beach. I got out of bed the next day and wrote “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” sent it to the Saturday Evening Post. It was published.

John Huston read that one story, and that changed my life forever, because he thought he smelled the ghost of Melville in that story. What he smelled in it was the ghost of Shakespeare and the ghost of the Bible, huh? And so he called me on the phone and offered me the job and a year later when I was working on the screenplay one night I said, “John, how did I get this job? You know, everyone thought you were crazy.” He said, “Well, I read that story about the dinosaur.” And I said, “Well, I was very honest with you. I told you when I met you, I had never read Melville.” But once I got into Melville, I discovered he had been inspired by the same people who inspired me. So we were twins. He had been called upon by Shakespeare to cough up the white whale.

Bradbury, who never learned to drive a car, wrote about 1,000 words a day on an electric typewriter. He hated negative people, negativity—for all his warnings and dark imaginings, he believed in our species, in its potential and in its latent greatness.

12 Comments

Filed under Author Interview, fiction, metaphor, NOTED, symbolism, working method

An ancient lesson in structure

Henri Matisse, Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life), 1905-1906

A version of this post first ran October 3, 2008

The King James Bible’s stories and ancient words and lovely turns of phrase have influenced legions of writers. I’m charmed by its liberal use of sobering colons: like so. And by the nonsensical italics.

And then there’s Jesus: talk about someone who works on multiple levels. He’s always getting thronged and spied upon—What’s he gonna do now?—and he delights in flummoxing. He speaks in riddles to the dumbfounded masses, though perhaps his rhetorical strategy is to intrigue them and, by using symbolism from their lives, as in the parable of the sower, to drive his meaning deep. Just in case, he clues in his disciples (and us, privy to the inner narrative). He works on the sabbath and rebukes hypocrites, establishing his character: a dramatic temper bearing a message more spiritual than doctrinal. He’s a hoot, and nothing like his skeevy interpreters would have you believe.

But it wasn’t until recently, reading Mark’s gospel in the New Testament, that I saw how beautifully structured a Bible chapter can be.

Verily, I speak of flashbacks.

Momentous events occur in Mark’s brief sixth chapter. Jesus performs two famous miracles, feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fishes; and he walks on water, strolling past a ship that’s struggling against a headwind on the Sea of Galilee. Yet what stayed with me was the artful placement of a scene that transitions into another scene set in the recent past. The passage has emotional richness and drama, and it foreshadows Jesus’ fate.

The essay is structured like so. First, Jesus goes about preaching in the synagogues “and many hearing him were astonished”—offended—because he’s just a carpenter and they know his humble family. (It’s the recurring theme about him: Who does he think he is?) Jesus responds to their unbelief with the “prophet without honor” line and leaves for the villages to teach and heal.

Second, he gives his twelve disciples their marching orders, basically to tell people to repent but to expect rejection— which he tells them to handle angrily, I must say. The guy was no mellow Buddha in this tale. But, again, we readers have knowledge the extras don’t.

Third, setting up the flashback with a scene, King Herod gets word of the revival and says Jesus is John the Baptist, returned to life. Herod’s courtiers try to comfort him, saying, He’s just a prophet; or It’s the devil. No, Herod says, “It is John, whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead.”

Exposition explains Herod’s guilty conscience: “For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison” for his wife’s sake. His wife was first his brother’s wife, and John had told Herod not to marry her. John’s edict made her so mad she wanted him not just jailed but killed. In the flashback we see how she maneuvered Herod into separating John from his head. It involves a sexy damsel’s alluring dance and Herod’s folly in making a loose-tongued promise in front of his vengeful wife.

At the end, we’ve got the resurrection theme. And we understand Herod’s character—a threat to this latest holy man. The narrative timeline resumes with the apostles reporting back to Jesus on their mission work.

Next: miracles.

The ages have burned much fat from biblical narratives, and what’s left has poetic compression. But I was sore amazed at how deftly Mark 6 tucks in the resonant Herod scene and flashback. In this chapter, narrative, deeper meaning, and structure work elegantly together within the New Testament’s larger story.

11 Comments

Filed under NOTED, punctuation, scene, structure, symbolism, theme

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.”

9 Comments

Filed under memoir, metaphor, symbolism, syntax

Noted: Annie Proulx

from an interview in The Missouri Review, Vol. XXII, No. 2

“The research is ongoing and my great pleasure. Since geography and  climate are intensely interesting to me, much time goes into the close examination of specific regions—natural features of the landscape, human marks on it, earlier and prevailing economics based on raw materials, ethnic background of settlers. I read manuals of work and repair, books of manners, dictionaries of slang, city directories, lists of occupational titles, geology, regional weather, botanists’ plant guides, local histories, newspapers. I visit graveyards, collapsing cotton gins, photograph barns and houses, roadways. I listen to ordinary people speaking with one another in bars and stores, in laundromats. I read bulletin boards, scraps of paper I pick up from the ground. I paint landscapes because staring very hard at a place for twenty to thirty minutes and putting it on paper burns detail into the mind as no amount of scribbling can do.”

“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.”

“For the sake of architecture, of balance, I write the ending first and then go to the beginning. . . . In working endings for stories and novels I try simply for a natural cessation of story. . . . I try to understand place and time through the events in one character’s life, and the end is the end. The person, the character, is one speck of life among many, many. The ending, then, should reflect for the reader some element of value or importance in the telling of this ending among the possible myriad of stories that might have been told.”

Comments Off on Noted: Annie Proulx

Filed under craft, technique, metaphor, NOTED, research, symbolism

Noted: Tony Earley

from an interview with Tony Earley conducted by Hattie Fletcher for Nidus

“I can’t write any piece, fiction or nonfiction, until I come up with a metaphor. I hate the idea of writing on only one level. Often just walking around through the world, I’ll see something and think, damn, that is a great metaphor—for what? And so I have a metaphor, but I have no thing to hook it to. And so, a piece usually results when I find I have both sides of the equation. I love metaphor. I like metaphor better than I like narrative. I’m a whole lot more interested in writing in between the lines than I am in what’s accomplished in the lines themselves. Exposition, you know, moving characters through space, getting a character to the airport on time so he can catch the plane —I hate that stuff. I would much rather do a metaphorical construction than character development. . . .

“I’ll have enough of a voice to get started, and often I discover the metaphors while I’m working. I think my subconscious is rapidly trying to connect things, and once I actively start writing then I discover the metaphors in the piece. Usually it’s where I say, this looks like that. And once I’ve had that realization, I can go back through and put in the textual stuff to link them. But often I won’t understand until I’m well into a piece that I have in fact constructed a metaphor, and then I’ll go, there it is!

“I love that moment. When I teach to my students, I call it the “thing” and the “other thing.” The “thing” is what the story is about, and the “other thing” is a parallel narrative, something that looks like the “thing” but isn’t. Like, in my story “Here We Are in Paradise,” there’s a pond that has snapping turtles in it, and the snapping turtles eat these painted ducks, and the people who own the pond, the wife is dying of cancer. So the turtles eating the ducks looks like cancer, but it isn’t. It’s “thing” and “other thing.” And I try to do that in fiction and in nonfiction both. Actually, I think that’s the classic American short fiction template.”

1 Comment

Filed under braids, threads, craft, technique, creative nonfiction, metaphor, narrative, NOTED, symbolism, teaching, education

Melville’s thematic fluidity

This is a guest post by Tom Gilbert, my son, a college sophomore majoring in philosophy and film.

“To write a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme.”
–Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

“Everyone knows I’m not a folk singer,” says Jude Quinn/Cate Blanchett/Bob Dylan at the end of I’mbluewaterblog2 Not There, and I might have taken that a little easier if it was said to a superimposed LBJ or questioning reporter. But as it stood, right into the camera, with such an acerbic smile on Blanchett’s face, it was jarring. Todd Haynes’s biopic of Dylan lives on that fleeting edge of self, not so much breaking the fourth wall as balancing on its edge. I reflected on this on my half-hour walk back to my dorm in the bitter cold of finals week, wishing that shot could have lasted a little longer instead of clipping along at 24 frames per second. Film is better at portraying the fluidity of ideas than measuring their depth, and I wished for something that could penetrate that search for identity while balancing the audience’s knowledge and emotions separately. And then I remembered Moby-Dick.

I realized the two works are surprisingly similar: both are immersed in the search for truth, and use a pantheon of characters to portray a fundamentally ambiguous symbol. But where Haynes assumes we already know Dylan and uses that knowledge against us, Melville is tasked with telling an ignorant public just what the hell whaling is. And so he decided to write a textbook.

For nearly every narrative chapter, Melville crafted an explanatory one that dealt with the art of whaling or whales: harpoons, compasses and blubber have entire chapters to themselves. It is impossible to imagine a publisher in today’s world who would be hunky-dory with this. But a writer who allows structure to define narrative will quickly allow it to define theme: the path to cliché., No wonder, then, that the mind-blowing depth and breadth of Moby-Dick would lead to such structural digressions.

So what was Melville’s theme? Many commentators have tried to tear apart the book and find its nub, from the book’s rediscovery in the 1920s to now, but its structural variance defies such a rudimentary summation. What is the whale? Everything and nothing. What does Ishmael want? Truth, companionship, love—the list goes on. Any book with an entire chapter dealing with a whale’s penis is understandably hard to swallow, but as Ishmael opines to the reader, we must look closer.

Amidst myriad chapters of whaledom, let us look at “Fast-fish and loose-fish.”In whaling, Melville/Ishmael explains, a whale is either a fast-fish, meaning that another boat has already spotted it and has first poaching rights on it, or a loose-fish, meaning it is still up-for-grabs. Ishmael believes these terms were introduced in the British fishery for economic reasons, and were modeled after the legal practices in matters of land ownership and marrying women (harpoon puns abound). However, these whaling terms soon became popular with competing religious sects about new converts, or the dynamics of communism, or in philosophical circles (loose-fish retain free will!). Finally Ishmael asks us, are we not all a fast-fish or loose-fish?

Whatever truth Moby-Dick ultimately aims for, we see these kind of rhetorical questions in nearly every chapter, and slowly the reader realizes that Melville’s theme is the search for meaning itself. Ahab’s hunt for Moby-Dick and Ishmael’s digressions are both attempts to understand and quantize the universe. Therefore, such digressions are hardly nonsensical, but instead essential to theme. The anatomy of a whale’s head is itself meaningless to the story, but given a contrast, or a history, or an idea, and suddenly Melville can confront the tenets of transcendentalism. Symbols are meaningless without context. Such a radically changed structure is merely Melville’s decision to let the symbol carry the structure. The divorce of narrative and thematic development is therefore superficial. The epistemological chapters provide character development, philosophical possibilities, and even narrative foreshadowing (I was surprised to find while rereading the novel that Ahab’s fate is revealed in a chapter on harpooning). These two halves of the novel need each other to coexist and point to the philosophic implications of the plot.

We are taught that theme should be woven into a story seamlessly, that the reader should only experience a story’s raison d’etre like the sherbet after a five-course meal, or else the reader will be distracted by inefficient storytelling. This method flows well and sells well, and Hollywood is defined by it. But Melville’s complex structure, which appears to subvert his narrative, is truly in service to his theme.

1 Comment

Filed under craft, technique, fiction, narrative, structure, symbolism, theme

Deeper into meaning

Ian Frazier tells an amusing story in The New Yorker (May 26, 2008) about a man at a soup kitchen who dismissed Frazier’s credentials as a writing coach. The guy blew off Frazier, sitting at a card table soliciting for a writers’ group, saying he’d already had a famous teacher, novelist John Cheever. Frazier asked him what he’d learned, and quotes the guy:

“Cheever, you understan’, he was a brilliant writer. When he wrote something he always had two things going on at a time. He told us, when you writin’, you got this surface thing, you understan’, goin’ on up here”—he moved his left hand in a circle with his fingers spread apart, as if rubbing a flat surface—an’ then once you get that goin’ on, now you got to come up under it”—he brought his right hand under his left, as if throwing an uppercut—“come under this thing here that’s goin’ on up here, you understan’. That was how John Cheever said you write.”

I tell my students we’re made of stories; they’re in our DNA. So it’s puzzling why it can be so hard to tell a story well—until you consider what’s beneath the many interlocked skills of basic craft: that subsurface thing goin’ on. Our caveman ancestors listening around the fire surely grasped implicit meaning. So do you, probably, when Dad launches another tale about Uncle Billy. But to touch strangers with a written story’s message amid narrative’s irresistible “and then” takes insight by the writer herself into her story’s depths. She has to know what she’s really writing about. Readers go to work on her text with that in mind, whether consciously or not. We’re made for such decoding.

We impulsively search for meaning, and life responds with images that epitomize this or that. I remember an incident the fall of my son’s freshman year of college, trying to get him to take a bag of his favorite corn chips into his dormitory, and his puzzling refusal. I was annoyed driving away that night, going back to our hotel room—my wife had bought the chips in our town and we’d carried them 500 miles. He settled into his new life that night without us, as we knew he must—but doing so without his favorite snack was an entirely optional decision. He would have plowed through the treat in fifteen minutes, sure, but we were sad. And the meaning of that poor sack of Red Hot Blues was clear, though it meant something different on each side: our love, his independence.

There it was again, right there, as we drove out of Chicago the next morning. I clutched the steering wheel and we drove into a blinding sunrise: the dawn of the first day without our son, our Tom. It’s kind of funny the way life lays it on thick sometimes.

Emotions, in any case, do attach to things; and the charge carried by things and scenes is at the heart of writing’s meaning—which beats in its subtext, observes Alice LaPlante in The Making of a Story. “Our very important goal as writers is to transfer by whatever means possible important and complex emotions onto the sensory objects and events we’ve chosen to render in our story or nonfiction piece.”

4 Comments

Filed under metaphor, symbolism, teaching, education, theme