I was in a writing workshop five or so years ago and we were reviewing a short story or a portion of a longer piece of prose written by someone in the workshop. The workshop setting, if you aren’t familiar, works like this: a story/poem/essay is distributed by the writer to each of his or her classmates during a meeting session. The piece is taken home by each person, read, considered, marked with suggestions and reactions, and then brought back to the next meeting where everyone discusses aloud their impressions of the piece in hopes of enlightening the writer about their work. I’ve seen this both work and fail. Sometimes the counsel is beneficial and illuminating, will fuel, like coal from the hopper, will push the writer’s thoughts forward, which, in turn, pushes the story forward. And then there are times the suggestions don’t offer ideas for polishing but take the form of an adolescent movie review–thumbs down, that was neat, I don’t like that character’s name. At times the writer will get defensive and respond to a remark with a counter argument and the discussion moves away from within the borders of the story and starts to focus on whether the story can live in the real world—someone may comment on the palpability of an event and the writer will respond with, “I know it can happen because it happened to my aunt.” The intention and hope for the discussion of the work has now been guttered.
So during this one meeting the writer described a character in her story as having fingers like Milky Way bars, which was supposed to inform that they were brown and thick, tempered, masculine. But the comparison was too far off. Many of us said that the association didn’t fit; the sensual evocation gave us smells that we’re wrong and visuals that were surely wrong. But the writer defended their metaphor and the rest of us shrugged and continued along.
The issue here wasn’t so much the association of fingers to chocolate bars (actually, it was, yes, but, first, and more, there was a comparative step that was missing). The path from hand to Milky Way was absent of important intervals of ribbon. It’s natural and common for us to use simile and metaphor in our writing; they are useful tools in our creative relaying. But many writers, often young writers, will over-rely on these elements so much that the focus, the thing will get lost in description and details will sort of just lay out there on their own instead of blending and harmonizing. It’s important to remember that the “thing” must first be the “thing,” by itself, before it can be something else, before it can be a simile or a metaphor. Chekhov talks about the writer getting worn out when reading too many modifiers. And writers so much want to transcend their subject —good, that’s what art should do—that they get crazed in describing everything in their story as something else. Eventually, the modifiers will not only be applied to things but, more dangerously, to moments and to what should be quietly shared between characters, to something naturally artful, to something real and heartbreaking.
As writers we need to consider the thing first and use the right words to deliver it, all the while recognizing that it’s easy to strew leaves and over-dirty our pathway, pushing the reader to focus on the crackle and brush and not the direction, the walk, the right way.