When I was a boy, I was once in the forest that was nestled on my grandpa’s farm. I remember it being cold, despite the summer weather. My mind was swimming with worry and anxiety. I was far away from home, for starters—grandpa lived in Ontario, long away from my home in Alberta. I was also traveling without my parents, and having just survived a horrid week of summer camp, my attachment issues were only growing. I was also scared of a lot of things at that time: storms, aliens, vampires, asteroids, the end of the world, etc. and being on my own, all these fears were just magnified. On the outside, though, I tried to keep it all together.
As I stood in the forest, I looked at one of the trees nearby. Just moments after I did, I saw the bark suddenly bulge outward and protrude like a muffin. Somehow, the tree had collapsed inside of itself.
I scrambled out of the way. A cacophony of bark breaking and branches sighing followed, reaching a crescendo as the torso of the tree broke in half and crashed against the detritus on the forest floor.
When the panic had subsided, I cautiously approached the fallen tree. On the remaining stump, I could see a glob of tiny black things scurrying around the spires of bark: ants. They had chewed away the tree from the inside until it finally gave out, nearly falling on me in the process.
That night I dreamed that the walls of my bedroom were black like pitch, covered in writhing and scurrying ants.
Much like that tree, beneath the surface I was always being eaten away by worry. You wouldn’t notice it on the outside, but inside there were a million tiny, little things chewing at the recesses of my mind, trying to make me snap.
This is a story that actually happened to me, so this marks my first non-fiction entry into Story Dice Sundays. The dice I rolled almost immediately reminded me of that.
The last sentence as an example of what not to do when trying to create a metaphor: that is, explaining it. Lynn Coady was once a writer in residence at my school, and she told me not to “guild the lily” (not “geld the lily” as I first thought, which would be a completely different meaning).
To “guild the lily” means to over-explain a metaphor whose meaning should be apparent from the context of the story. It would be like Tolkien writing in the middle of Lord of the Rings, “Frodo said, ‘The ring is a symbol of human greed and corruption and so that’s why it is weighing me down and damaging my psyche.'” It’s too obvious, and shows that either a) you don’t trust your reader to understand the meaning you’re trying to convey in your metaphor, or b) you are trying too hard to hammer a metaphor into your reader’s mind.
In short, subtlety is key. Convey your metaphor through:
- character actions
- word choice
But never convey your metaphors through narration. Your reader may not understand your metaphor, and that’s fine. But it’s a great treasure for those who are fine-tuned to seek them.