Metaphorical coffee

I complain sometimes about how doing my website/moderating the board takes up time I could be working on my fiction, but in other ways, the ATPo board has greatly enriched my fiction. I’ve made it one of my goals in life never to take a literature class (don’t ask me why, I have no principled reason, the thought just makes me squirm with the potential for sheer boredom).

Talking to ATPoers with literary expertise has taught me a lot about metaphor and symbolism. I never purposefully tried to incorporate those literary elements into my writing until recently. And now I seem to find interesting symbols and metaphors in passages I’ve already written.

Like this weekend. In one of the very last chapters of my novel, I have the protagonist (Valerie, a brassy graduate student) coming to a truce with the antagonist (Elizabeth, her control-freak advisor). The setting of the chapter is Valerie’s apartment. I wrote the first draft of this chapter years ago, and in it, I naturally had Valerie wearing no shoes, just socks. It’s her house; Elizabeth comes over unexpectedly.

But reading it lately, as I’ve been working diligently on details and descriptions, I noticed there was something symbolic in Valerie wearing no shoes. When she wears no shoes, her feet don’t clomp against the kitchen tile. Valerie is always clomping. She wears cowboy boots, and they are always heralding her entrance into a room. In one big early confrontation scene between Elizabeth and Valerie, Valerie ambushes Elizabeth in the laboratory where they work, and Elizabeth’s first awareness that Valerie has entered the room is through the clomp of those boots.

Naturally, Elizabeth tenses up at the sound. So in the final scene between them, Valerie’s new softer, emotionally spent attitude is symbolized in her lack of boots. Even as she and Elizabeth seem to clash one more time, they are on the verge of an understanding, and it is symbolized by the lack of clomping.

Pretty cool.

Now I find myself actually trying to incorporate more symbols and metaphors into my novel. Like with coffee. Nearly all my characters drink coffee (maybe too much, maybe I overuse this little detail). But each of their preferences in coffee says something about who they are as a character.

Felicia, who is in love with a playful artsy blonde, drinks her coffee with cream and sugar. At one point, her lover even comments of Felicia’s morning cup, “Just the way you like it. Blonde and sweet.” As the novel continues and Felicia starts having problems with her lover, the coffee she drinks becomes increasingly luke-warm and acrid.

Elizabeth, who is abrasive and a work-a-holic, drinks her coffee strong and black and bitter.

Elizabeth’s husband Arthur, who wishes his marriage was better than it was, douses his black coffee with sweetner.

Valerie, who wants to think she is nothing like her mentor Elizabeth, also drinks her coffee black.

Lisa, a teenager being drawn into Valerie’s more adult world, at first drinks orange soda, but later orders coffee and douses it in cream and sugar to make it palatable, but then doesn’t drink it. At the end of the novel, when Lisa has started coming into adulthood, she orders an mocha espresso and drinks it down. Grown up, but still sweet.

10 thoughts on “Metaphorical coffee

  1. Now I find myself actually trying to incorporate more symbols and metaphors into my novel.
    We call that ‘salting the mine.’
    You’re not supposed to tell people when you’re doing that! They’re supposed to think they just flow effortlessly out of your pen. (Oh, God. If only I were born with the gift for metaphor like Masq! … ‘How long did it take you to write this wonderful masterpiece, Masq?’ ‘Oh, it took me at least a couple of months. Busy, you know.’.. Etc.)

  2. Well, I have to admit, most of what I talked about was not written consciously, it was more “found symbolism” after the fact that tickled me upon discovery.
    Now, future readers of my novel may be chagrined to read about my little discoveries, but in the Biz, we call it “sharing our process”. Writers’ (or artists’) shop-talk.
    And since I’m just learning all this stuff that experts do (sometimes) effortlessly, I just have to tell people about it! ; )

  3. Well, I have to admit, most of what I talked about was not written consciously, it was more “found symbolism” after the fact that tickled me upon discovery.
    The best kind… and thank you for this, wonderful. If it works right, you’ll get both the conscious analysis here, and the people like me who read “in” the book.

  4. People reading “in” the book
    That will be interesting indeed. I’ve never had my text analyzed in that way. It seems to me like it would be a bit like psycho-analyzing the author. After all, there’s nothing in my novel that I didn’t put there from my own personal experience and imagination.
    I had a writer friend, a poet who also does writing consulting work, read through my novel as I wrote the last draft. My “writing coach”. She was able to find the over-arching metaphor of the book that I had never noticed. When I asked her what she thought the novel was about, she said it was about control. People controlling others, people controlling themselves.
    My character Elizabeth is a control freak, always trying to hold her students by a short leash, and very inhibited herself, unwilling to “give into” what she sees as scary impulses within herself. My character Valerie is very outgoing and highly reactive, acting-out inappropriately, and given to strong emotions.
    These characters are a professor and her grad student, respectively, studying neurophysiology. Specifically, the neurophysiology of something called “motor inhibition”. This is the process whereby our brain turns the signals to our muscles on and off to perform coordinated movements.
    But it also, as my writing coach pointed out, serves as a sort of metaphor for the inhibited/disinhibited behavior of my characters, who are all dealing with issues of control in some way or another in the novel.

  5. Re: People reading “in” the book
    Remind me (maybe tomorrow when I’m a little more awake/sober) that I owe you a response on this, as it’s not _quite_ what I meant, and I do want to come back to it.

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