Thoreau said “some must work in fields if only for the sake of tropes and expression, to serve a parable-maker one day.” Call it reactionary (Rory will, though he’ll recant privately) to regret the loss of old tropes, but I often see young writers whose work suffers because they have no metaphors with which to think.
Many haven’t had much direct contact with the natural world. They’ve never seen a snake eat another snake, or a grackle pull strips of red muscle from the wren under its foot. They’ve never raised a crop through a tedious season, or been forced to keep swimming because to stop would mean death.
Protected by technologies, they’ve never known inescapable cold or heat; supported by affluence, they’ve never known real hunger or thirst. Many have only worked fast food or retail, occupations short on specialized processes and tools. They ride in cars sealed against breeze (who can take a 75 mile-per-hour breeze?) and road noise; they run on treadmills in the corner of a gym, iPods turned up loud so they can’t hear their own panting, or the thump of blood.
Last week in writing workshop I had three students like this. The first had written a story about kids fooling around near a “mansion.” There were few details—a problem in itself—but what was there was false. I felt it, because the neighborhood didn’t sound right for a mansion, whatever that might mean. During Socratic questioning, I revealed that the writer meant, simply, a Victorian house, though he’d never heard the term. How big was it? I asked. How old? Was it frame or brick? Did it have gingerbread?
He didn’t understand. I explained how my neighborhood was a mix of various styles, built over 150 years. I did a bit on post-and-beam versus balloon frames in our area, and how the former required craftsmanship that the latter didn’t, which meant expense back then to build it and, paradoxically, less demand for it now, and…ah, yes, we do need to continue class. I suggested he at least walk around Inner Station to try to find the words he’d need to describe the neighborhood he had in mind. Fictional characters, like the living, have a hard time living in abstractions.
The second student desperately needed the details for two characters cooking a meal together. “I don’t how people make food,” he said, looking surprised and rueful at his own admission. “Come to my house and I’ll show you how to cook a meal,” I said. The class laughed because they thought I was playing the fool. I often play the fool, but I meant it. Cooking has taught me more ways to think about writing than all the how-to books combined.
The third student had (what I consider) a problem in his writing common to many young men in my classes—a fetish for cartoonish, melodramatic violence. It boasted a pornography of rich details about shattering the kneecaps of a guy stretched across a table, yet didn’t consider human pain as a topic, let alone take up the emotions involved in revenge. As I do sometimes when I get frustrated with this tendency, I recounted how young men in love with the idea of violence stood in lines around the block to enlist for the Great War. In London, Paris, Berlin, no one wanted to miss the grand adventure. It would be a lark, and they’d be home in a few months with tales to tell their children someday. Several million dead later—nearly a generation of potential leaders, scientists, artists, teachers, parents, wiped out—those young men didn’t regard it merrily. And I didn’t say this, but I cannot imagine anyone who’s known pain—anyone human, that is—writing lovingly about torture. Our bodies are our first metaphors.
Everybody in the academy wants to talk about The Other. Want to talk about Hegel. Want to talk about Sartre. I want to talk about the carrot.
I don’t mean those slick little buggers the size of my pinky fingers, those carrots bred for the lathe that planes them smooth and skinless. They’re oversweet and tender, and I eat them by the pound while I’m blogging. I made the mistake recently of putting them in a stew, where they blanched and grew spongy.
I mean real carrots, which teach you about hierarchies of force, most of them beyond your control. A real carrot—I’m eating one now—is shocking. It’s what it is: A texture all its own, flavor that’s not-quite-earth and not-quite-woods, with the strong aroma of anise. Like a real tomato, so hard to find in stores now, it’s food for those who want to taste life.
This is probably why our society has been sold on the idea of paying a 5000% markup on bottles of water. Most of them taste like something, from Nestle’s Ice Mountain with its aftertaste of vomit, to Aquafina, which tastes like it was pumped from a cold well through cast iron (and actually makes me nostalgic).
This is what we know, so it’s how we think.