Monday, August 2, 2010

On God, Fate, and Metaphor

I recently heard a well-respected author give the following bit of advice at a conference for children's writers:

“I challenge you to write without metaphor. We all know God doesn't exist. We all know that nothing happens for a reason in life. So when you force such occurrences, such literary devices, into a book, it will never be true to life or as powerful as it could be otherwise.” (The quotes are loose, as I was not able to write it down at the time and had to rely on my memory.)

Um...yeah. How's that for an inspiring clump of words? “Nothing happens for a reason”?? Really? “We all know that God doesn't exist”? Forgive me, but I haven't yet arrived at that pitiable state. Why are you writing for kids if you insist on portraying for them a false world, a world without hope? Do you think you're helping them? Do you think that what the world needs is jaded, depressed individuals?

There have been too many occurrences in my life that have proven to me that things happen for a reason for me to fall into doubt. Enough that when I don't understand something, I just have to trust that it is only because I can't see the whole story.

The beauty of literature is that, for once, we are able to see the whole story.

Take one of my favorite kids' books ever: Holes, by Louis Sachar. Can you remember the first time you read that? That tingly, wonderful feeling as everything came into place at the end? Did you get shivers hours later as the full significance (and metaphor, ahem) of the title hit you? Did it take you days and weeks to stop thinking about what a great story it was? Well, that story was ABOUT fate. Full of metaphors. And I think the reason it resounded so strongly with its audience was that we all recognized, somewhere deep inside us, the truth it contained. Things happen the way they do for a reason.

I know that everyone in the world has probably thought, “Why me? Why is this happening to me?” Certainly I have, lots of times. But it is in developing myself as a writer that I begin to find answers. Because, guess what? I have to allow lots of bad things to happen to my characters. If I didn't, they would never grow. They would have no inner strength, no virtue, no personality. No story. So maybe I'll never technically know why...I had to be born with a condition that required major surgery when I was 13. Or why I had to move 10 times as a kid. Why friends and family members had to die. Or even why my softball teams had to be particularly awful no matter how much I prayed that I could hit just one homerun. But I do know that all these things made me who I am now. And I kind of like myself now. I wouldn't trade my difficulties for anyone else's either...probably because I wasn't meant to handle anyone else's difficulties. I had a brilliant author edit them away from my story so I could become me.

So I have a different challenge for you: use metaphor. Allow fate to show its face in your stories. And remember, through every difficult writing day, through every trial that keeps you from writing, through every rejection letter and harsh critique, that things happen for a reason. Look forward to who you're becoming.


  1. What an inane comment for this author to make! "We all know that God doesn't exist" ??? What kind of crap is that? No one told me. Anyway, one of the reasons kids read is to make sense of the world. Books contain an ordered universe. And metaphors help to relate that to our universe, which at times seems confusing. It helps to read. I couldn't have gotten through my teen years without books.

    And Holes is one of my favorite books EVER!

  2. You are very right, and very wise, Karen: "Books contain an ordered universe. And metaphors help to relate that to our universe, which at times seems confusing."
    This is one of the REASONS I write. Like you, books helped me through some of the hardest times in my life. And I hope I can provide that to another child.

  3. This sounds a little crazy to me. Metaphors are one of the most powerful way a person can use words to convey something. They force one to look within and to think.

    Forcing something to happen is one thing. The reader will see through that faster than it takes to read all the words. But when those things happen on their own, that's when you have a book that people will think about, talk about, and remember.

  4. Holes is one of my favorite middle-grade books! It's such a fascinating story, and the characters are so true to life.

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course, but saying "we all know" was really ignorant on that author's part! We all don't agree on anything, lol! Metaphors are a beautiful way to write a story, and realizing its significance is what makes stories, like Holes, resonate with us long after we read it.

  5. I don't hear about situations like that very often. How crazy! My favorite book series - Narnia - is loaded with metaphor. Thank heaven for metaphor, and I'll continue to use it in my own writing.

  6. Wow. That is quite the quote - I've never heard someone challenge others NOT to use metaphor. Crazy.

    Incidentally I taught 'Holes' to a class of Year 8s (14-year-olds) and they loved it.

  7. Wow, this is a great post. I seemed to read this at a perfect time because I was just thinking the whole "why did this just happen? why me?" And I think the same thing too--everything happens for a reason. Sometimes we just need reminding.

  8. Right... that's why The Lord of the Rings trilogy is so incredibly amazing... I mean, because there's absolutely NO metaphor there... *dripping sarcasm*
    Take the meaning out of life... and you've taken the heart and soul of out it, too. What's left? ...a shallow, empty shell?

  9. Danyelle, you're right about forcing metaphor--sure, that wouldn't work. But one of the signs of a great book is one that can make it all seem there is no way an author could have planned it on his/her own.
    Laura, don't you kust "love" how that author tried to make it sound like we were all stupid if we didn't agree with him? Grr, so arrogant. And probably afraid of something.
    MT, Narnia=awesome.
    And Natalie, LOTR=super awesome. Neither Narnia or LOTR could be, well, even possible without metaphor. Along with pretty much every great piece of literature ever written. We'd have to throw out Jane Austen, Dickens, A Wrinkle in Time....and so on. Along with the Bible, which I'm sure this author would love to happen, regardless of its astounding literary merit. But think about it: Christ used metaphor in much of his preaching...we call them parables. I guess if it was good enough for Christ, it's good enough for me... ;)
    Talli, I've never met a kid who hasn't loved Holes. ANd very few adults, either. Has anyone ever read Sachar's most recent, The Cardturner? Another marvelous story, also full of metaphor.
    Rose, I'm sorry you had a "why me?" moment; they can be so difficult to get through without a little help sometimes. I'm glad my post could be that!

  10. I love this post, Faith! Writing has always helped me order situations and even other subjects in my mind. I'm visual, so it helps to get part of it on paper.

    I love metaphor and Holes. I was going to point out the bit about parables, but you beat me to it in your last comment. One of the Savior's most powerful stories was The Good Samaritan, and it was fiction loaded with metaphor.

  11. Faith, that's so funny, in a bleak way. I occasionally heard similar statements from academics during the time I spent getting my grad degree. What's sad is the assumption that everyone in the world thinks *just like you.* I would never say "We all know God exists" to an audience, simply because I don't want to make that assumption, even to a group of professing believers. Who knows who might be struggling in that moment with doubt, just as there were many in that author's audience who disagreed with his extreme blanket statements. Saying things like that is alienating and doesn't have any positive results.

  12. I don't know if your above mentioned author is as renown or as well respected as those below, but I don't think they had any problems with metaphors. Then again, he may have a special insight that these writers, poets, and great thinkers did not!

    “An idea is a feat of association, and the height of it is a good metaphor.” - Robert Frost

    “All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry.” - G. K. Chesterton

    “Since finding out what something is, is largely a matter of discovering what it is like, the most impressive contribution to the growth of intelligibility has been made by the application of suggestive metaphors.” - Jonathan Miller

    “A world ends when its metaphor has died.” - Archibald MacLeish

    “The metaphor is perhaps one of man's most fruitful potentialities. Its efficacy verges on magic, and it seems a tool for creation which God forgot inside one of His creatures when He made him.” - Jose Ortega y Gasset

    “Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.” - Orson Scott Card

  13. I've been told I create some mean metaphors. I don't try to, they just happen. It's how I think so that's how I write. Great post.

  14. Wow, that is a shocking quote. Why do people ever say, "We all know...." Since when has the entire world agreed on ANYTHING?

    Thanks for the beautiful post, Faith! I agree with you wholeheartedly. It would be a tragedy if children's literature lost metaphor.


  15. YES!!! This post rang so true for me, Faith. Metaphor is the breath and heartbeat of life-changing fiction.

  16. I haven't read Holes yet, but I've been meaning to. I've read books that take the characters through amazing journeys that make me question my own. And when the metaphor is subtle, I appreciate it and the author's skill in conveying it all the more.