Here’s a guest post from Bluestem contributor Leesa Cross-Smith. Her short story, “Sinnerman,” can be found in the September 2011 online issue here:
Be Kind and Take it Easy
When it comes to writing, if you find something you can do well, milk it. For example, Lorrie Moore. She is a sublime at conjuring the jaw-dropping metaphor/simile. She takes me so far into it, I almost forget what we were talking about. It’s the almost that matters. For example, in her brilliant little collection called Self-Help she writes “Cold men destroy women…they woo them with something personable that they bring out for show, something annexed to their souls like a fake greenhouse, lead you in, and you think you see life and vitality and sun and greenness, and then when you love them, they lead you out into their real soul, a drafty, cavernous, empty ballroom, inexorable arched and vaulted and mocking you with its echoes—you hear all you have sacrificed all you have given, landing with a loud clunk. They lock the greenhouse and you are as tiny as a figure in an architect’s drawing, a faceless splotch, a blur of stick limbs abandoned in some voluminous desert of stone.” Those sentences are basically Russian nesting dolls of metaphor/simile. I don’t want it to end.
In Kathy Fish’s book, Together We Can Bury It, she writes, “We say shit and stamp our feet on the pavement, shoot breath from our nostrils like morning horses.” And later, “Slide into each other like river otters.” In Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon he writes “Undressing her was an act of recklessness, a kind of vandalism, like releasing a zoo full of animals, or blowing up a dam.”
Ann-Marie MacDonald writes in her novel, The Way The Crow Flies, “She rejoins the crowd and watches with her friends, but she feels like an emptied glass—that crestfallen feeling of walking out from a movie theatre in the middle of the day, out from the intimate matinee darkness and the smell of popcorn, which is the smell of heightened colour and sound and story into the borderless bright of day. Bereft.” And “As abrupt as a flock of gulls, a squad of young men jogs past, white sneakers in double-time, billowing singlets and blue shorts, sweat stained cadets all sinews and Adam’s apples.”
Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, uses such tiny folksy metaphors/similies, I find myself underlining and starring and dog-earing a lot. “Pretty as a small brown hen” and “I feel as though I’ve gone hollow as a soap bubble, and perhaps I shall burst with joy.” “She said, in a voice like metal shavings” and “the gentlemen of the Court descended upon me like a flock of parrots on a ripe passion fruit.” “Sun glinting on his hair as though on a trove of gold and copper coins.” “He stared at me intently, like a snake hoping to fascinate a bird.”
In her collection, The History of Vegas, Jodi Angel writes “The river was like white noise on a television station without reception. And “her body was wide as the open prairie” and “The highway shimmered like a broken bottle edge on the beach.” Mary Gaitskill writes in her collection, Bad Behavior, “Daisy was silent and frail as a cattail” and “Her dark hair fell across her face with the graceful motion of a folding wing.”
Of course metaphors/similies shouldn’t be overused—you don’t want to wear your reader out. Sometimes things simply are what they are and they don’t need fancying. But when it works, it really works for me. Something like Galbaldon’s “he looked like an autumn leaf, swirling joyfully wind-borne,” can really lift a piece—a little puff of air that keeps a sentence-feather from falling to the floor.
I read these, study them and try my hand at them, as well. (This is not me comparing myself to these wonderful writers I’ve mentioned. This is me sharing my process with you.) In a story of my own called “Absolutely” I wrote “His mouth tasted like thousand-page Russian novels I’d never read.” And in another called “Whiskey & Ribbons” I wrote “the thought of kissing him is there snapping back and forth like a clean white dishtowel hanging on a clothesline in the wind of my cluttered mind.” In “Sometimes We Both Fight in Wars” I wrote “His heart is a heavy, loaded gun he hands over to me, lets me spin on my finger.” And in “Making Cowboys,” “She shoved all of her feelings into the overflowing suitcase of her heart, sat on it and smashed it down so she could close it, snap it shut.”
In order to grow as a writer, my advice is to do other things. Anything, everything. Pay attention. Look for new ways to compare one thing to another, read the writers who are good at doing what you want to do. Be kind and take it easy. And when you do sit down to work, work as hard as you can. Fight for it, be open, change your mind, be awfully stubborn. Get better and submit and stand back, get out of your own way so your story light can shine.
One of my favorite spots for writing advice is Roxane Gay’s Tumblr but not only for the writing stuff, but also because of how she approaches the process, blending it so effortlessly with the rest of her life. Roxane is a genius (and I don’t throw that word around often) when it comes to being able to engage readers. She writes about writing and books and current events and she also adds a personal touch, mixing writing tips in with recipes and what she’s making for dinner that night. It’s a joy to read. That’s the thing about writing. I wouldn’t have much to write about if I weren’t paying attention to current events, reading work by writers I admire, laughing with my husband on his way home from work, making dinner for my family. Writing is one tiny part of wholeness; life, tessellated—chunky pieces of bright blue and amber and green and black coming together bit by bit to (hopefully) make something ravishing.