Nugget: Metaphors are golden

You know when you spend more than a few pages on a metaphor that you really like it.

Like, I’m wondering at this point if Neal Stephenson was an old miner, or if he had been one of those tourists at some point, where he decided to try gold mining with a little metal pan and a bucket of dirt, only succeeding in getting those tiny flakes of gold dust. (You know what I mean if you’ve tried it.)

But Stephenson loves gold. Almost as much as he likes metaphors, and he’s really good at it. He spends a good portion of this chapter-set in the Newtowne, Massachusetts Bay Colony on October 12, 1713-talking about his gold metaphor. Exactly four pages of it. Which doesn’t seem like a lot, but it gets hilarious when every flashback to a memory begins with

Nugget:

But, here’s how his series of memories starts. Or, at least part of it. 

In years since he has rarely gone back to those old memories. As he does now, in the tavern near Harvard College, he’s startled to find that the muddy whirl has been swept away. The mental pan has been churning for fifty years, sorting the dirt and sand to the periphery and throwing it off. Most of the memories are simply gone. All that remain are a few wee nuggets. It’s not plain to Daniel why these impressions have stayed, while others, which seemed as or more important to him at the time they happened, have gone away. But if the gold-panning similitude is faithful, it means that these memories matter more than the ones that have flown. For gold stays in the pan’s center because of its density; it has more matter (whatever that means) in a given extent than anything else. (47-48)

I know that was a rather long block quote, but I really love it because of the metaphor he aligns with his memory. A person is prone to forget, and it is similar to gold, where only the worthy pieces (the ones with more weight) are left behind, where everything else is thrown away, back into the sand and water.

It makes me wonder how much time he spent on this metaphor. Whether he knew he wanted one here; if he initially wrote this in; or if he went back and changed this after he had come up with the idea of gold.

Either way, he was happy with it, because he used his “Nuggets” to begin each memory in order to literally create a quick history for Daniel for information we might need to understand him. Literally a sentence or two to create a brief image that can help us understand his beginnings.

And before I go, there’s one more metaphor I want to show you that I really liked. Again, also related to memories.

The conversation might not have gone precisely this way. Enoch had the same way with his memories as a ship’s master with his rigging-a compulsion to tighten what was slack, mend what was frayed, caulk what leaked, and stow, or throw overboard, what was to no purpose. So the conversation with Clarke might have wandered into quite a few more blind alleys than he remembered. (33)

So for my last question to you, how do you come up with metaphors like these? Or, what are your favorites?

Happy reading!

Stephenson, Neal. Quicksilver. New York, NY: William Morrow, 2003.

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Juxtaposition of beauty and need

What’s considered ‘right and proper’? I feel like this phrase is the equivalent of asking what’s normal? And that’s a weighty statement, one I’ve been asking myself right now. After all, it’s hard to judge what’s normal when no two people are alike.

This is the question the short story, “Right and Proper,” raises within Matthew Buscemi’s book Transmutations of Fire and Void. In “Right and Proper,” the reader follows along with Kailey, a meticulous manager whose emotion has almost been completely removed in her practical, opinion-less job. For someone working in quantum decoherence, they remove the possibility of an object’s existence in order to generate energy. Unfortunately, this means the elimination of art, creativity, of this spark of existence – the thing that gives us life.

I like how this story brings this fact of life to light, that without creativity and enjoyment, the world be an expressionless, boring place. You can tell immediately that the characters have the bare minimum of emotion – happiness at order, sadness in the face of chaos. I think what I liked most in this story is the contrast between beauty and need.

“The interior is a simple lattice, but it grows more
angles and curves as you go outward, until the edges, with those helices and spirals. Oh Su Ges-Limnu-Nis-Limmu. It’s amazing.”

The hunk of transparent tungsten remained to Kailey nothing more than a hunk of transparent tungsten, despite the recruit’s description.

Kailey produced her computer, and instructed the nanite control system to synthesize a glass of water into her hand. (7)

In this scene, we witness the superior diss the imagination of the inferior intern, although internally, who even though is inexperienced, imagines beauty in the creation of complexity. But while the superior explains this object is just for power, ignoring its beauty, she uses that same power to generate a glass of water.

To me, contrasting the justification of creativity/beauty/enjoyment with the necessity of food/water argues that some elements of life are hard to achieve without first moving past the sacrifice to necessity. Where the need to survive comes first, art will always come second, only after comfort has been first achieved. This juxtaposition I really enjoyed, which didn’t take more that putting the two actions side-by-side. A relatively simple solution.

Buscemi, Matthew. “Right and Proper.” Transmutations of Fire and Void. Seattle, WA: Fuzzy Hedgehog Press, 1-10. Print.

Concrete versus Abstract

I think for today, this topic works best by example.

Abstract:

I was careful with my new body, timid, where I once was brave, and careful, where I once was daring. I always feared what was to come because I knew what was coming before it was here.

I know. Not my best work. But it’s really difficult to write in abstracts. Maybe this isn’t the best example, but you’ll get the picture. Prose can also be much better than this. (Or poetry.)

Concrete:

“Holes and crags that I climbed along and leaped in my first life, to my more conservative elder brain suddenly seemed places of danger, and I wore my child’s body as an old woman might wear a skinny bikini bought for her by a fragile friend” (North 10).

What’s the difference?

If you don’t see it, read my next I’m-sorry-this-couldn’t-be-better example.

Abstract-2:

You take a bite of the fruit and continue to eat, the taste reminding you of sweet beginnings, a continuous loop of life that keeps going and going, an endless repetition until it finally comes to an end at the center – the single finale that reminds you of the contrast of new and old, birth and death and back again. Always bitter and sweet. Never too much of one side but a balance in the middle.

Concrete-2:

It reminds you of a grape, except this fruit is of the larger variety, always covered in a skin of orange and red, swirling together in a constant mirage of sunset that feels like the fuzz on your face if you were still a baby or hadn’t yet experienced puberty. The perfect ending to the perfect meal – a peach.

Not the best of examples, but bear with me. What do you notice?

It should be that abstract always outlines abstract concepts – things that are more akin to thoughts and feelings, not really defined as a hard image, taste, smell, or sound. Abstract concepts are thoughts or ideas and are usually the most difficult things to convey, where as concrete examples are easy to define. When I say a peach, you think of the fruit. It’s a concrete example. Easy to paint a picture with color, taste, feeling, and smell although I can’t even begin to comprehend how to describe that.

Because abstract concepts are so difficult to communicate, they need concrete images to attach to, which is why abstract things are hard to write. They’re just as hard to read. Even while writing it, I couldn’t help but include concrete images: bite or loop, even birth and death to an extend.

Even if I was talking about “birth” and “death,” by relating it to a fruit, I’ve made it more definable. Just as North did the character’s loss of innocence. I’ve just turned a phrase into an image, making it more relatable to the readers.

This is a good trick on how to talk about big ideas – metaphors, images.

North, Claire. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. New York, NY: Redhook Books, 2014. Print.

Edit on 11/16:

Mixed example of concrete and abstract descriptions by BJ Neblett – You take a bite of life and continue to eat, the skin sweet and tangy all at once. Crunching into the meat you find it difficult at first, soon learning the subtle nuances of the texture, the run of the grain. Savoring as much as possible, you can feel the juice seep from the corners of your mouth. Finally, with great expectation, you reach the center and find a hard sour pit. Disappointed at first, you realize from this core will spring new life.