Larry Woiwode, the author of Beyond the Bedroom Wall and four other novels and two books of stories, is working on a series of brief essays for the Scholar website called “How to Write a Novel.” What follows is an excerpt from his essay “Metaphor and Metamorphosis.” Watch for his series to begin in June at theamericanscholar.org/woiwode.
Time is the element linking art to metaphor. Time is the primary element that writing, the compilation of metaphor, is measured against. The rhythms of language move through time, and timing, including the arrival of a detail at the moment that detail is needed, is a mark of enduring fiction.
Hearts tick and thud in iambic endlessness until time deals the final shutdown, as it also deals limits on the body—the four-minute mile, the number of Gs one can endure—up to the identical ultimate, death. A shapely body of metaphor can age well or sag at its seams or develop a ring of fat around its belt with the passage of years. It may die in a decade or endure for centuries—time the ultimate measure of its depiction of truth.
A novel is merely an extended metaphor, at times terribly extended, as with Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It’s as surely that as it is Randall Jarrell’s jaunty definition that casts its network of words in the brain: “A novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.”
Imagine a swimming pool and on its surface reflections of leaves of a nearby tree, a chain-link fence, quivering bricks of the apartment building it serves, telephone wires above all that. Dive in, take the plunge, paddle or stroke the length of the pool, and when you step out on the other side, the reflections remain wavering over its surface, unaffected by you, although your senses record the immersion and you’re dripping. You register a metaphor by its ability to engage you in the quaking mirror that pictures the reality of an outside world.
That’s what metaphor is, your swim immersion in a novel.