Archive | April, 2017

How to Warm Your Imagination Up for Metaphor

25 Apr

Sonya Huber’s essay, “The Lava Lamp of Pain” is included in her collection, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System.

When I was starting out as a writer, I would sit at my computer and think, “Okay, now it’s time for a metaphor.” I didn’t know what the image would be, but I had the strong sense that some kind of cool language thing was needed in that moment on the page. So I’d start brainstorming, something like this: “He was so angry. He was a…gorilla…tornado…freight train.” And so on. Metaphor was not my strong suit. Later, in grad school, I would read poetry by the Surrealists and understand that I had, until then, chained my imagination too tightly to the thing I was trying to describe. My metaphors were either too predictable or not actually metaphors (He was so angry…he was a really angry guy). I needed a way of thinking about metaphoric language that could give me enough energy to break away from the most immediate connotations of an image in order to explore less obvious aspects of it.

Sonya Huber does exactly that in her essay, “The Lava Lamp of Pain.” It’s included in her collection, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. You can also read the essay online at The Rumpus.

How the Essay Works

The opening paragraph sets up the essays premise and the general direction that its metaphors will take:

Pain moved into my body five years ago. It wasn’t the whack of an anvil or the burn of a scraped knee. This pain sat warmly on the surface of my hands, and reached up to my elbows like evil pink evening gloves. It was a sort of swimming cap clenched on my head with blue plastic flowers at the base of the neck, and a nauseating blur in the eyes. At other times the pain was a cold ache at the knuckles, with a frazzle in the stomach and a steady and oblong ache from hip to hip across the pelvis. It was a rigid curled twang in the toes like the talons of a predatory bird.

This language is pretty straightforward, mixing similes (“like pink evening gloves”) with metaphor (pain in her head was “a sort of swimming cap” and pain made her toes “like the talons of a predatory bird”). The passage culminates in this image:

I didn’t know then that I had become a lava lamp of curling invisible storm clouds, filled with a surge of mute motion that might be its own kind of fierce beauty.

This image isn’t so literal. There isn’t the same kind of one-to-one connection between body of pain and lava lamp the way there is with rigid toes and bird talons. It’s the sort of great image that makes readers despair and think, “I could never write something that good.” But Huber didn’t write that image right off the bat. She worked up to it. In fact, the entire essay is filled with sentences that are continually working their way toward something, the way that a car stuck in snow will rock back and forth until it finally breaks free.

Here is another example:

I was the bitchy patient, crying after each doctor’s appointment, crying with fear when they told me they didn’t know what next. I was desperate to be the woman I’d been before. I wanted to claw my way back to the body I knew.

Instead, I was a slave to the sky. I noticed that an impending storm could knock me flat.

The first sentence (“I was the bitchy patient”) isn’t even a metaphor. But it takes the same syntactic form: I was… She uses that form again and again (“I was desperate” and “I wanted to”) until she hits up on “I was a slave to the sky,” an image that isn’t literal and that gets carried on for an entire beautiful paragraph.

She also uses a different syntax. Instead of “I was,” she uses a comma to create the opportunity to riff on an image, becoming less and less literal. Here’s an example:

In place of that quiet physical body, I would have to adapt to a noisy one, a body with the city-buzz of pain always in the background, a chatty zinging body with a thousand-signal radio-buzz jackhammer snatches-of-an-infomercial baby-crying Vincent-Price-ghoulish-laugh violin-cymbals.

When people (and you still hear this sometimes) say that writing can’t be taught, what they really mean is that raw imaginative power can’t be taught. Either your mind can come up with something as great as “lava lamp of pain” or it can’t (or it will come up with something in between can’t and great). But what can be taught is the creative process that creates the opportunity for an imagination to be as great as it can be. This is what Huber does again and again in this essay.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s create the opportunity for imaginative language and metaphor, using “The Lava Lamp of Pain” by Sonya Huber as a model:

  1. Lay out the basic outlines of the subject. Huber does this at the start of her essay by describing what happened (“Pain moved into my body”) and what it felt like. Metaphor and simile only work if you know exactly what you’re talking about, whether it’s a particular person or place or event or state of being. Start with the practical.
  2. Take first steps into metaphor and simile. Don’t swing for the fences right away. Take a few practice cuts at easy pitches. Huber does this when she compares her pain to a swim cap. Try using this sentence starter: “It was sort of like…” We do this in conversation all of the time. Don’t worry about being literary. Just use whatever image comes naturally.
  3. Attempt a bigger image. Huber writes the lava lamp image. But notice that she approaches it from a place of uncertainty: “I didn’t know then that I had become…” Sometimes, when you try to write, “It was exactly this way,” it sets the stakes so high that your imagination shuts down. Use the “It was sort of like” phrase for as long as seems necessary.
  4. Get into a rhythm. Huber writes some version of “I was…” over and over. Yes, in workshop this sort of repetition is often discouraged, but that’s why it’s important to remember that workshop isn’t the real world. Real readers don’t care about workshop rules. She repeats that syntax until something brilliant pops out.
  5. Riff on an image. Huber gives herself the image of a noisy body and then runs with it. You can do this with any metaphor or simile that you write. Simply add a comma at the end and play a kind of game with yourself, like you do with kids (everyone name a fruit that starts with the letter A). How much stuff can you associate with the image you’ve written?

The goal is to warm up your imagination and let it run for a while.

Good luck.

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An Interview with Katie Chase

20 Apr
Katie Chase is the author of Man and Wife, a story collection that Edan Lepucki calls "comic and horrific."

Katie Chase is the author of Man and Wife, a story collection that Edan Lepucki calls “comic and horrific.”

Katie Chase is the author of the story collection, Man and Wife. Her fiction has appeared in Missouri Review, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, Prairie Schooner, Mississippi Review, and the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she was the recipient of a Teaching-Writing Fellowship, a Provost’s Postgraduate Writing Fellowship, and a Michener-Copernicus Award. She has also been a fellow of the MacDowell Colony and the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San José State University. Born and raised outside Detroit, Michigan, she lives currently in Portland, Oregon.

To read an exercise about creating suspense with stand-ins for characters, inspired by Chase’s story “Man and Wife,” click here.

In this interview, Chase discusses the “authority” wielded by a writer in a story, flashback, and differences between stories and novels.

Michael Noll

A word that often gets thrown around by writing students is “authority,” as in “the writer shows such authority; where does it come from?” I thought of this when I read your first line: “They say every girl remembers that special day when everything starts to change.” It’s so in-your-face in its irony—because, of course, we know the narrator isn’t talking about the change that immediately comes to mind  As soon as I read that line, I was hooked. Did the story always begin with this line? Or did you write it in some later draft?

Katie Chase

It’s funny, the first draft of this story is nearly eleven years old, and I couldn’t have told you the answer to this without digging it up. No, the story did not always begin this way. It went through two different openings before landing on this one: the second was similar, but still did not contain that first line, and the first was a version of a paragraph I later moved deeper in, one that gave away what “the change” really was. So, clearly, I realized (or perhaps was told in workshop) that it was better to build up to that revelation. As for “authority,” that too I had to work up to. From conception, I knew this would be an audacious story, but that I didn’t want it to read as audacious or, I suppose, “gimmicky,” and so a level, evenhanded tone would be key to pulling it off. I believe that by the time I was shaping up the story in revision, I had recognized that the point of connection in the story for me was the change that immediately comes to mind, or more generally, the process of having to grow up from a girl into a woman and all the expectations that attend that process. That point of connection was an even bigger key, and perhaps what lent me whatever authority the story may seem to have.

Michael Noll

At the beginning of the story, you use a bit of slick sleight-of-hand. You flash back to a really important scene (the party when the narrator met Mr. Middleton), and you make the leap with a single line of dialogue: “Well, do you remember Mr. Middleton? From Mommy and Daddy’s New Year’s party?” Did that scene always take place in flashback, or did the story ever start earlier so that the party scene appeared in the present moment?

Katie Chase

It did always take place in flashback. I wrote this story just before beginning graduate school, which taught me (among other things) the habit of more fully scrutinizing all of a story’s choices, and I don’t believe that I considered this one very consciously at the time, particularly during early drafting. What I would say now is that the reason for keeping it in flashback is to promote the sense that Mary Ellen, just a child, had not yet faced the inevitable. Her world is the water she swims in, etc., and she takes its qualities for granted, yet it still comes as a surprise when her turn to take part in it comes. She’s in denial, I suppose, if a child even has anything like the psychology an adult has. It feels to me that the story really begins with her opening her eyes to her fate, and as they say, a story that opens too early will feel slow, too late will feel disorienting or, again, gimmicky. Also, if I had added it as a present scene there would be two quite similar party scenes—and the strange bachelorette get-together that occurs in the present and is really for the parents, exists in part as a way to allow that first party onto the page.

Michael Noll

Man and Wife is the debut story collection by Katie Chase. The title story appeared in Missouri Review and Best American Short Stories 2008.

Man and Wife is the debut story collection by Katie Chase.

Perhaps the creepiest scene in the story—and maybe the entire book—is when Mr. Middleton stops by the house unannounced and asks to see the narrator’s Barbies. What I find remarkable is how much foreboding the scene contains and, yet, how little actually happens. He simply asks her to do certain things with her Barbies—and it’s so intensely creepy. What was your approach to this scene? 

Katie Chase

Mr. Middleton and Mary Ellen needed, I thought, to have some time alone, to share a scene that could explore what the dynamics would be like between them in a marriage and show more specifically not only why Mr. Middleton has chosen Mary Ellen, but how she is compelled to go along with him, beyond that she is a child without much choice. As you suggest, the set-up itself is inherently discomforting for the reader: the sheer fact of them being alone, along with the persisting question of whether such an encounter is aboveboard or not. The Barbies, too, as sexualized, anatomically idealized dolls, as vehicles for playing house, are already laden with import. In the scene, I wanted to push the potentialities of those elements, without going what I saw as too far. That inherent tension and anticipation for all that could happen can have more impact than showing any of it actually happen. And although this story presents a society with norms the reader will in all likelihood find repellent, it still has its rules for what is proper, and to even write this story, let alone in a way that was provocative and not merely lurid or sensational, which is what I wanted to do, drawing such lines was necessary. My intention, I won’t deny, was to disturb, but I wanted much of that disruption to be happening in the reader’s mind, and less so on the page.

Michael Noll

So many of your stories feel like they could be the first chapters of novels. This isn’t to say that they don’t feel finished. Instead, I mean that they end with a clear sense of conflicts yet to come. I think a lot of writers struggle with knowing what they’re writing–something short or something longer. How did you know these were stories? Or, to put it another way, what does the story form offer in these narratives that the novel form doesn’t?

Katie Chase

I have never sat down to write something and experienced the phenomenon of it growing, as if of its own will, much beyond the length I thought it was. I have tried to write novels, or turn stories into novels or novellas. Perhaps it is simply that I exercise too much control. But the stories I write, especially those in the book, are often based on certain premises, with certain potentialities, that seem to me to have a limited life span on the page. Any longer, and the premise would start to lose its impact and feel watered down. Often a first line suggests an entire arc to me—not that I already know all of what will happen, but I do know that the narrative will hinge on a shift and that this can be achieved in, say, twenty to thirty pages. For me, stories work by containing all of the fun stuff and none of the belabored. The creation of a world, its borders and its tone, the culling of a situation into a conflict, the “channeling” of a voice and culmination of a character’s potential for growth or revelation—the brick building in a story is faster, sentence by sentence, not chapter by chapter, and it holds together less with mortar than with magic. I suppose I like to end with an opening up, a sense of conflicts to come, in order to achieve that sense that a story is ostensibly just one part of a whole life, and to enlarge that sense a story already has, that in existing only in its pared-down essentials, a lot has been left off the page. Perhaps, again, it is temperament, but more often than not, a story doesn’t continue into its new conflicts because I don’t have the patience or interest in following them step by step. The very point is that shift that initiates a new momentum. I’d rather let those next steps stand as stars do in a constellation, as suggestions, and move on to a new set of constraints. If a writer isn’t into those things, they might be more of a novelist!

May 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

Create Tension by Using Character Stand-ins

18 Apr
Man and Wife is the debut story collection by Katie Chase. The title story appeared in Missouri Review and Best American Short Stories 2008.

Man and Wife is the debut story collection by Katie Chase. The title story appeared in Missouri Review and Best American Short Stories 2008.

For my money, one of the most intense scenes in any film is the moment in Ridley Scott’s Alien when a character goes into an air duct with the goal of pushing the Alien toward an air lock so it can be sucked out into space. (If you’ve seen the film, you know the scene; it’s everybody’s favorite.) We barely see the Alien. Instead, we track it with a motion sensor which registers both the man in the air duct and the Alien as dots on a grid. One dot draws closer to the other. It’s terrifying—as suspenseful or more than if we saw the actual Alien racing toward the man.

A lot has been written about the scene, in particular how it resulted from Ridley’s small budget. He couldn’t afford crazy special effects. In prose, writers often work under similar restrictions. Every word costs the same, but they aren’t always equally available. So, it’s useful to keep the dots from Alien in mind. A stand-in for the real thing is often as effective or more than the thing itself.

A great example of this approach can be found in Katie Chase’s story “Man and Wife.” It’s included in her collection, Man and Wife, and was originally published in Missouri Review and Best American Short Stories 2008. You can read it online here.

How the Story Works

The story begins with a bold sentence: “They say every girl remembers that special day when everything starts to change.” You don’t have to read very long before realizing that the change isn’t the one we expect. (If you don’t want details of the story spoiled for you, stop and read it now. You’ll be glad you did.)

We learn that the narrator, Mary Ellen, is remembering the day when she was nine years old and was told that her parents had promised her in marriage to a much, much older man, Mr. Middleton. From this point, we meet the husband-to-be and follow Mary Ellen through the elaborate process that will culminate in their wedding. At all times, we’re aware of the looming prospect of sex. It’s mostly addressed obliquely, as in the wry first line, but there are moments when it’s brought to the forefront of the story. For example, Mary Ellen’s mother hands her a book titled Your Womanly Body and says, “This will tell you some of what you need to know about being a wife. I imagine Mr. Middleton won’t expect much from you at first. After all, you’re still very young.”

Yet the prospect of sex presents a problem for Chase. If shown in detail, such a scene would push away many, if not most, readers. So, we never see any sex. But there is a scene like the one from Alien, and it conveys all of the creepiness and horror that is suggested by the premise.

Chase uses Barbie dolls. Mary Ellen loves to play with them, and one day Mr. Middleton comes over to her house unannounced and asks her to take him to the basement to show him her dolls. We’re shown the dolls in close detail:

Mr. Middleton dropped my hand and approached the Barbies’ houses slowly, as if in awe. The toys sprawled from one corner of the room to the other, threatening to take over even the laundry area; the foldout couch, which I maintained took up valuable space, sometimes served as a mountain to which the Barbies took the camper. There was one real Barbie house, pink and plastic; it had come with an elevator that would stick in the shaft, so I had converted the elevator to a bed. The other Barbie home was made of boxes and old bathroom rugs meant to designate rooms and divisions; this was the one Stacie used for her family. The objects in the houses were a mixture of real Barbie toys and other adapted items: small beads served as food, my mother’s discarded tampon applicators were the legs of a cardboard table. On a Kleenex box my Barbie slept sideways, facing Ken’s back; both were shirtless, her plastic breasts against him.

In Alien, there’s a pause when the Alien’s dot disappears and we’re left to wait breathlessly for it to appear again. The same thing happens here. Mr. Middleton chats with Mary Ellen about the materials used in the construction of the dollhouse—the threat has disappeared. And then, this happens:

Then he leaned down and stroked Barbie’s back with his index finger. “Do they always sleep this way?” he asked.

In Alien, when the Alien’s dot reappears, a character screams at the man in the vent to leave, to get out of there. But he’s not sure what to do or where to go. The same is true of what follows in this scene, except that we’re the ones who are freaked out, even as Mary Ellen stays put. We never see the thing itself, unlike in Alien, but the sight of the dolls standing in for that thing is just as unsettling.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a pivotal scene with character stand-ins, using “Man and Wife” by Katie Chase as a model:

  1. Know what is implied or promised by the premise. A good test for your story is to finish this sentence: “We know the characters are going to ____.” Or finish this one: “I hope that ___ doesn’t/does happen.” As a side note, if these sentences are impossible to finish, it may suggest that your story isn’t building suspense. After all, dread and hope can only exist if it’s possible to imagine what will happen next.
  2. Search for possible stand-ins. In Alien, the stand-in is an element of technology, which makes sense in a film about space ships in the future. In “Man and Wife,” the stand-ins are Barbies, which, again, makes sense for a 9-year-old character. Perhaps both were planned from the beginning, but it’s just as likely that both Ridley Scott and Katie Chase made use of the objects at hand. So, figure out what sort of objects/items/materials are important to your characters. What would they feel attached to or compelled to keep close?
  3. Incorporate the stand-ins into a scene. Both scenes start with the threat of something and then introduce the stand-ins. Mr. Middleton shows up unannounced (creepy!), and then they go into the basement to see the dolls. This order may be important. If he’d shown up while Mary Ellen was playing with her dolls, it might have felt too heavy-handed. Because he arrives first, creating the tension, the introduction of the dolls is unexpected, which further ratchets the tension because we’re not sure what’s coming. In your story, start writing a scene that feels as though it could be important. Then, introduce your stand-ins. You may not be sure which ones you’ll choose. Try several until one feels right.
  4. Focus on the stand-ins, not the rest of the scene. The scene from “Man and Wife” works so well because everything is channeled through the dolls. In Alien, we can’t see the Alien and so we’re forced to look at the dots. Force your characters to use the stand-ins. Give yourself and them constraints. If they must use the stand-ins (if we’re forced to pay attention to the stand-ins), what happens?

The goal is to create tension by showing an expected scene in an unexpected way. You may eventually reveal the thing itself, as in Alien, or you might not, as in “Man and Wife.” Either way, you’re using stand-ins to build suspense.

Good luck.

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