Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 2, 2008

Writing and Thinking-Maybe-Not-so-Much

What do we know as we write fiction and poetry? What surprises us in the process? I just heard Jonathan Safran Foer talk at UMass-Amherst, mostly about his novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, in which almost every word trembles as a possible metaphor, and blooms into batches of them on rereading. How much of this was planned?

Joanathan Safran Foer says almost nothing. He began his talk noting that we may see him dodge questions, and so be it. “An ornithologist is not a bird, a flower is not a botanist… and a writer doesn’t always know what’s going on while facing a blank page or screen.” He mentioned that the language of writing is not the language of criticism, and thank goodness, I would add.

Was he doing that dodging, was he being disingenuous, as some students insisted on asking about the meaning of scenes, and he replied, “What do you think?” and when they replied, saying something to the effect of: that works.

My students were generally happy with this talk, and a few mentioned that though they’d come expecting some kind of explanation of the text, they felt happy and strangely enlightened not to get it. I do believe published books belong to the reader, and we can let things wash over us or dig into us or plow us over. As a writer, I find that some metaphors and layers of meaning happen in the heat or semi-warmth of creating, though I don’t set out to plant them. Within one of many drafts, an image may rise, and I may catch it, then can choose to cut or point it out. Usually I try to keep it semi-buried, the way it came to me, in some kind of grit or dusk.

That’s the grace, that’s the challenge. This morning I got an email from a student with the ominous (at least to me, due to a previous bleak email) heading: So this is the creative process, huh? Then she went on to describe scenes of head-banging and hair-pulling. Ouch, sorry, I’ve been there. Then she mentioned how dull some of her scraps of stories seem, but she’s waiting for magic to rise from the mundane. Yes! Yes! That will happen, those are the moments we bang our heads for.

Have you caught metaphors beating or fluttering around your desk? Do you have tricks for spotting the magic in the mundane?



  1. This makes me think of The Life of Pi, which both my husband and I read, and some friends, and I’m not sure any of us agree (or maybe I just disagree with all of them!) about that story.
    I think I probably have some metaphors, etc, but that word just frightens me. I skipped all those classes, so I never can remember what does what and how it is supposed to show up on the page. I think I tend to just call everything “layers.” Then I don’t have to worry about whether I did it “right.” 🙂

  2. Layers: good word!
    I guess I need to read LIfe of Pi.

  3. It blew me away. Of course, I read it while I was in Iceland, which might have added plenty to the surreal feeling. 🙂

  4. Re: trust
    I’m with traciezimmer. For some reason, my subconscious works best when I just let it run and stay out of its way. But when I go back to looking things over–something shows up that lets me take it to the next level.

  5. Re: trust
    Not lazy at all! Trust: it’s not easy. When you’ve got it, something to be grateful for.

  6. Re: trust
    I guess the subconscious does like us to stay out of its way. Though maybe it doesn’t mind some quick thank yous when we got back and find small treasures. Good luck with both processes!

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