In the search for the ultimate imagery for our work, writers dredge up memory and metaphor that surprise and thrill our readers, that surpass cliché. In particular, I struggle with the language of sound and smell because I tire of the common metaphors and descriptors of these senses.
An example: In my thesis, I wrote of a storm that “mumbled” and a note appeared next to it, “grumbled?”
Mumbled. That’s what I meant. I didn’t mean that it grumbled and growled like a beast overhead or an angry old man. I meant that it mumbled like an indiscernible conversation. I was trying to show that it was not imminent. Perhaps if I’d spelled it out that way, it would have worked, but I worry such labored metaphors detract and distract from the action at hand. “A distant storm mumbled, sounding like a conversation in another room.” Meh. I’ve just lost my focus on the fact that my character is lying on a hillside with possible broken bones. Do I worry about how the storm is mumbling by dragging out the metaphor? I changed it to avoid the problem, but I didn’t like going to “grumbled” because I’ve heard a hundred other writers (well, perhaps ten) use that same expression. I’m sure there are other options but at the time, I was just trying to finish a thesis. The point remains, when and how do we break free of what is expected of us in terms of imagery/description vs. what we are trying to communicate? And, of course, what are we willing to do for the critic who comes back and says, “Huh? What does this mean?” So, I keep searching for ways to express these ideas. If “mumbled” doesn’t work, what will? What gets across the idea that a storm is making noise far away without being cliché or common?
To find these ideas, we search in our everyday life, of course. For me, that can be a challenge. I am somewhat housebound. I hate to use that term. Let’s say, “restricted.” I can tolerate some sun, but not a lot. I am perfectly ambulatory; my husband and I walk a couple of miles a night. We fish early mornings and evenings when we take vacations. I’m not stuck in a bed 24/7. I just have some limitations. I can’t go jogging in a park or hiking in a canyon or the woods in midday. I can’t launch a canoe at 9 a.m. and return to shore at 3 p.m. (though I would love to do so). My ability to gather data then is limited to grabbing at bits and pieces as I move from one place to another or in the little two-hour swatches of the world fabric I get here and there.
I get a surprising amount of data from the nightly 1.8 mile walks with my husband. Often, the familiarity of it leads to a certain numbness, but now and then I awaken to the smells and sounds.
On windy nights, each street has a life of its own. This street with its oaks and north-south facing has a stiff breeze and sharp sound. The wind pours unimpeded over the rooflines and sends the odd oak leaf skittering down the street. On another street, the wind is raked fine and soft with the needles of huge loblollies. It’s a ghostly sound that takes me back to childhood every time. Along the creek, the song of the frogs and the power lines mingle with cool air even in the hottest months. And on one street, the houses seem to stack up somehow and form a barrier such that, no matter the direction of the wind, the street is always a stagnant, stifling cave. At best, the very tips of the tallest pines will sway.
On still, damp nights, neighborhood smells bloom. Gardens of sweet or sulfurous blossoms waft through privacy fencing. Hints of Indian, Korean, Filipino, Tex-Mex, BBQ, and other meals leak through kitchen windows. Perfumed laundry fresheners puff from dryer vents. Fresh mulch and lawn clippings scent the walkways. Sawdust and diesel fuel clouds drift from garages. Then there’s trash night. After all those wonderful meals, clusters of “Ew!” sit on the sidewalk every sixty feet or so.
We pass from five to twenty-five neighbors, most of whom have earned a badge for Southern Hospitality. My husband smiles, waves and says, “How are you?” to everyone he sees. He often says, “Happy Saturday!” (Or whatever day is appropriate. Be prepared for “Happy Monday!” and go with it.) His smile is contagious and his friendliness near impossible to ignore. We have won over the most hardcore grumble-and-scowl walkers in our neighborhood. While we know the names of maybe five of these good folk, I believe they think well of us (him) and we trust them in an emergency. Many have dogs and if you have a dog, you can’t be all bad, right?
In all this walking and smelling and greeting and smiling, I am writing. Not literally walking along with pen in hand and composing, of course. Not even rushing in the door to jot notes (though that’s a good idea). It’s all been stored (theoretically) so when I come back to those metaphors like the storm so distant that it sounds like an indistinct conversation, I will have more writing fuel. I will (I hope) prevent myself from slipping into the usual “grumbling storms” or “flashing eyes” or “burgeoning” whatever burgeons.
It’s only a small piece of the collection process. I will always need more. Trips to the beach. Trips to the Hill Country, Las Cruces, Dallas, other parts of the state, the city, the bayou. Early mornings in my own backyard looking at my favorite tree (Happy Tree) and watching the hummingbirds drink from the lantanas while the blind dog tries to catch the fly that’s buzzing him. Still, it covers a lot of ground and for me, in my circumstances, I look for all the opportunities I can find.