Monday, November 28, 2005

metaphor, originality and finding one's voice

Young writers worry about "finding their voice." For instance, someone (in an online forum) recently asked how to write original metaphors. He quoted Orwell's advice: "Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. " I'm a huge Orwell fan, and I generally agree with his ideas about writing. Certainly, I admire his push against hackneyed expressions. But I think he was attacking the problem from the wrong angle.

Good writing blooms naturally if you (a) have a story to tell and (b) try to embed the reader into your story. The story must be so compelling to you that you want everyone to share your excitement. But they won't unless you get them to see what you see, smell what you smell, taste what you taste, etc.

Bad writing generally stems from one's attempts To Be Original. I agree with Orwell that one shouldn't imitate what one sees in print, but I'd add that one should also try not to avoid using prose one sees in print. One shouldn't care one way or another what one sees in print, because that has nothing to do with Telling The Story. Being original -- or forming any sort of relationship, imitative or reactionary, between one's own writing and other, published pieces -- has nothing to do with telling a story. And originality attempts generally weaken the story, because it's very hard to complete two goals at once. If you have just ONE goal (your story), and you're clear about what it is, then you'll follow it straight to its target. If a phrase from someone else's story is the best type of bullet to load into your gun, you must load that bullet. Otherwise, you're serving your egoistic need to be original, rather than serving the story.

Instead of "Never use a metaphor ... which you are used to seeing in print," I'd advise avoiding metaphor altogether -- until you NEED one. What's the point of metaphor, anyway, beyond some vague poetic impulse (trying To Be Original)? What is metaphor's purpose? Remember, you're trying to get the reader to smell the shit on the workman's boots, to taste the diner's bitter coffee. There will come a point when you can't convey the sensual details through journalistic, descriptive language (how do you describe a man's love for his wife this way?), so you'll need a metaphor. Metaphors are comparisons. When we can't describe something directly, we compare that thing to something else -- something familiar and evocative to the reader -- so that he can experience the original idea via a proxy. Maybe the readers can't feel what your protagonist feels when he sees his wife kissing another man, but they can understand what it's like to step in a bucket of cold, filthy water?

Without trying, your metaphor WILL be original. It will have to be, or it won't work. Just remember that the point of metaphor is to make the reader FEEL. This is similar to the point song in a musical. Producers tell their composer/lyricist collaborators to make the hero break into song only when speech will no longer convey the emotion. ("I just met a girl named Maria!"

As for finding one's voice, it also happens when you quit trying. Don't make the mistake of trying to look natural when you're posing for a photograph. You can't do it. But you WILL look natural if someone snaps your picture while you're busy measuring a cup of flour for a muffin recipe. You'll look natural because you'll be actively pursuing a goal -- other than Being Natural. So simply by telling a story as vividly as possible, your voice (which you already have, because you're a human being) will emerge.

By the way, I'm NOT advocating laziness. I agree with everyone who says writing is hard work. The hard work involves selecting words that advance your story -- that engage the reader's senses. The hard work involves pruning away all those elements that don't serve your story. This includes ego, trying to Be Original and trying To Find Your Voice. What does finding your voice have to do with the history of France in the Middle Ages? What does being original have to do with fleeing from robots on an enemy planet?

When I write, I purposefully delete phrases that sound "too original." This is really hard to do, because such phrases are rare and I'm generally really proud of them. But I mistrust them, too. I worry that the reader will think, "Wow, what a cool turn of phrase." At which point they've lost the thread of the story. As Hemingway said, you must kill all your darlings. As Orwell said (though I realize he put this in the mouth of an antagonist) the destruction of words is a beautiful thing.


graycie said...


You have explained something delicate and complex in a clear and graceful manner. Like your piece, good writing must be transparent. As soon as a reader notices the writing in any piece, it is no longer good writing.

Well done.

Nick Smith said...

Thank you. I am attempting to write my first book and get a sense that this advice is just the thing for me.

This piece of writing in itself perfectly illustrates you point. :)

Marcus said...

Thanks, Nick. I had forgotten about this piece. It's neat when you come across something you wrote a long time ago, read it, and feel like you're reading something that someone else wrote -- AND you like it.

Other than the typos (I'll have to fix them), I like and stand by this advice. And I need to remember to follow it more often!

nancy said...

It's not all about story. It's about language too, language for its own sake in addition to language that serves the story. And no, good writing is not necessarily transparent. Only someone who is tone deaf could read Nabokov without noticing his writing. Or Marilynne Robinson, or Cormac McCarthy. Yes, you spend more time with their books, in part because you pause frequently to muse on the beauty of their words and what language is capable of, but that's what it's all about.

I do agree, though, that straining to be original and to come up with the perfect metaphor usually gives a bad result. Most of us have to accept that our writing will never approach that of writers we love to read, even as we work like the devil to improve it.