In Search of the Wild Metaphor
Each of us is living many stories. The writer-artist of fantasy or speculative fiction makes some of them visible.
Of course we’re aware of the events of our day-to-day world. But as writers and artists we learn to listen for the drama that goes on in the parallel universes of the unconscious: the “paracosm” that exists for each of us. The unconscious is more broadly aware than is our prejudiced conscious mind, and because it employs intuition instead of logic it tunes in to the oceanic flow of life that is the sea we swim in, and helps to keep us flowing with it.
The unconscious speaks to us in stories. Those stories are clothed in metaphors that play out deeper issues.
An example I’m fond of: My mother, when she was almost ninety, began to seem a little crazy. But if you listened, you’d realize she was perfectly sane; she’d just mislaid the usual metaphors and was employing an alternate set.
For example, a few days before her death she told me happily, “I’m waiting for the train to Wales!”
” Wales, Mom? Sounds exciting.”
“Yes! Dad’s gone on ahead, and we’re going to meet up there. But I don’t have my ticket yet.”
She could intuit that she was soon to go where Dad had gone—just not quite yet. Her mind, as it began to unmake itself, had mislaid the “realistic” explanation (itself a metaphor) for her situation, i.e., “I’m dying.” So it groped around and found another, quite creative one, a train journey, to express the same thing.
The writer of speculative fiction—and its subsets and relatives, fantasy, science fiction, magical realism—deliberately invites the unconscious to dress itself creatively from the costume-closet of new metaphor, and then, when it has thus been made elusively visible, to take the writer with it on a journey.
This practice is wonderful, terrifying, humbling.
A common mistake is to confuse metaphor with allegory. Both use symbols; the difference lies in the degree of conscious control. Allegory, most often used as a tool to teach dogma, is a known equation: in it, A always equals B. Allegory is tame; it takes place in the controlling conscious mind.
Metaphor, however, springs from the sub/unconscious…and never leaves it. Metaphor is a wild creature, an emissary from the universe in which we are, and always have been, wild creatures ourselves. It’s a horse that may grow wings and then, in mid-flight, turn into a condor.
You use an allegory. You ride a metaphor—if you can—as part of this living world.
You can kidnap an allegory from the wilderness of the unconscious, put it in your petting zoo, and charge admission. But a metaphor can’t be removed from its original habitat. To experience a metaphor you have to stay in the wilderness…and in the wilderness you will find you are very small, your servants have deserted you and taken the cell phone, and some of the wildlife would like to eat you for lunch.
The writer-artist of speculative fiction travels alone into the wild places. There, if she’s lucky, she may approach the wild winged horse of metaphor; if she’s luckier, she may ride. If she’s wise, she’ll mount humbly, in holy terror. Other than honesty, which is not a windproof garment, there are no leathers and no crash helmets for that journey.
Metaphor carries us, inevitably, straight into the best and worst of who we are. We’re as afraid of our best as of our worst, because both are passionate. Busy tamers of allegory, we want our horses to stay horses, for how could we explain condors to the neighborhood association?
The Morning Series
When I began to paint the images that would become The Morning Series, I didn’t know I was hiking off-trail into wilderness terrain.
But I did know I wasn’t in Disneyland.
I could feel that the stories I’d written as a teenager—see Early Work—were full of passions, angers, and loves of which my parents and my society would not approve. Otherwise why had I hidden them, torn them up, and set them aside so completely in order to “grow up and be sensible”?
I suspected that when I’d tossed those stories aside I’d also tossed aside ideas, intensities, and tasks that were embedded in them—and that those lost poignancies might be as important to me as an adult as they’d been to me as a child.
Besides—they were stories. I love stories. So I set out to explore them.
Ignorance is bliss. Which is another way to say that if we weren’t naive we’d never risk anything. Naive, and stressed; at a time when life had me backed into a corner, I finally got reckless enough to go looking in my memory for the stories that as a teen I had hidden in a tin box under my bed, torn up, and thrown away. I got desperate enough to scramble onto the back of a wild metaphor, never dreaming it would take off at a gallop, and then fly.
I took up those stories where I had left off almost two decades before, and began to re-imagine them. I was a professional illustrator, so I decided to tell the stories in pictures. I had a job, so early morning was the only time I had to paint. I called the story-pictures The Morning Series.
I wasn’t far into the project before the stories were telling me—telling me how to tell them, that is.
This wasn’t my first experience of the willing obedience that artists live for, but it was an intense one. I had only two rules:
1. I would look into the story that was revealing itself in my imagination. Then I would paint whatever image I was shown, no matter how bizarre, frightening, or shocking it seemed to me.
2. I would love it. By this I mean I didn’t allow myself to say, “This is no good, I can’t draw, this stinks.” I would love each painting the way I would love my child: even if her ears stuck out, if she had three arms and no feet, still, she would be beautiful.
I painted and painted. The tales and images did indeed hold the energy, danger, and excitement of my early stories—so much, in fact, that I painted almost every morning for two years. Three hundred and fifteen paintings.
At last I came to a stopping place. Not to an end; each lifetime has the vastness of the universe to wander in. (A Spanish proverb says, “Life is short, but wide and deep.”) Rather, it was as though I had been given so many stories that some of them itched to creep out of paintings and into writing: to finally be let out of that tin box under the bed.
They have become—so far—four novels: Long Night Dance, Dark Heart, Listening at the Gate, and Roadsouls.
The complete Morning Series is too long, too varied, and too personal to be displayed on a website, though I sometimes present it to groups interested in art therapy, women’s growth, and creative process. But it’s interesting to look at some of the themes that emerge in its dreamlike visual narrative—archetypes that appear, in many guises, in the art and stories of all human beings:
Earth and Sea: and sea:
Entering the unknown:
The confusing dance of relationship:
Confronting the Beast:
Finally, and most importantly, Growing Up.
Growing up into an adulthood that doesn’t hide or throw aside the passion, terror, and vitality of being young, but owns it and shares it: adulthood as a mature artist, a teller and painter of stories.