When I can’t find a way into a story, sometimes I write another story to crack it open. One becomes a metaphor for the other, and the two bounce off each other, creating a third story. I discovered the value of this while helping my teenage sister with an essay for her college English class. She was supposed to create a metaphor that described her and then write about herself.
She wrote a metaphor about being a seashell that adapts to changing tides. Then she got stuck. When we say our minds are blank, it’s often because we’re thinking too hard. The most creative writing comes from our subconscious, where we do more dreaming than thinking. I get my best ideas by dreaming them onto the page.
Sometimes I have to trick my brain into doing that. That’s where telling another story comes in. Dreams are metaphors: I may dream I’m a waitress working alone in a restaurant full of angry customers because in reality people are asking too much of me. Stories are similar: I may write about a harried waitress and her customers, when really I’m telling a story about me and some project I’m working on.
So which comes first: the meaning or the metaphor?
Sometimes metaphor is easier to face than reality. Here’s what I mean: when my 88-year-old grandmother broke her femur, I knew I needed to prepare for her passing. I wanted to write about that experience, but on the other hand, I didn’t want to face it. That week, I had a plumbing disaster at my house. So I started writing about that instead, and it opened a way into my grandma’s story. The two stories became one, which Connotation Press published.
Here’s an excerpt from Subterranean:
The murky tide fills our old basement: from hot showers taken in lonely shifts, cold rinse cycles of separated laundry, clandestine flushes of waste.Destruction rises from our drain.Cause unknown: maybe the roots of our unruly mulberry tree, strangling the household that tears off her limbs.Like an adult child of aging parents, used water is not welcome to return home.
“Which pipe is it?”
“The main line, the biggest in the system.”
Last week my father called. “I don’t know if you heard, but my mom fell and broke her leg.”“How would I hear?” I said. “From who if not you?”Dad’s mother is my mother. When he called her Mom I called her Mom, because I didn’t have another and thought it was her name.She’s a mocking old momus, so it’s almost a relief. Soon no one will say my pie filling is too low or my breasts look good now I’ve gained weight. Maybe it’s a relief to her too, after so much breakage: her mother who died before memory, consumed at seventeen; her father who denied she was his, though he hired her to wait tables for tips.
I helped my sister adapt the braided concept to her essay. We started with timed writing prompts. That gave her less time to think, forcing her subconscious to take over. With the prompt of “adaptability” she listed a few objects and experiences. She spent three minutes describing each. Then we researched fun facts about seashells.“Which bone is it?”“Her femur, the biggest in the body.”
The result was an essay in which she started each section with a fact about how seashells adapt, followed by personal experiences in which she had to adapt. My favorite moment was when she described seashells as protective casings for invertebrates, and then described a photo of herself as a baby in the arms of her mother. Her mother died when she was two and she had to adapt to a stepmother. She didn’t have to think about the meaning. The metaphor appeared on its own, as dreams do.
|Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles Times , Denver Post, Connotation Press, and Rivet Journal. She’s a book editor, a writing coach, and a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Denver.|