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Clare Sestanovich on Desire and the Dangers of Metaphor


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Clare Sestanovich on Desire and the Dangers of Metaphor


In Old Hope,” your story in this week’s issue, the narrator, a young woman “halfway between twenty and thirty,” lives with a bunch of roommates in a large house. A slight sense of aimlessness abides. One day, she decides to e-mail her high-school English teacher. Why does she do that?

She’s looking for something. And—like many people, I think—she’s looking less for substance than for structure, the shape of a story. The past is an obvious place to start the search. Circularity is so often irresistible, in art and in life.

Later on in the story, the narrator tries to persuade herself that the English teacher has been “cruel.” I suspect that one of the most insidious forms of his cruelty is in encouraging, without ever really advancing, the possibility of a complete narrative. A loose end, an open door: these are ambiguities that can become the most enduring kinds of wounds. Sometimes, of course, they are also the truest kinds of grace.

The woman wonders if her e-mail is “in character,” by which she means “like herself,” but in what sense is she also talking about the formation of her character? And to what extent were you thinking about fictional characters, as we understand them?

I’m always thinking about fictional characters! But I’d argue that we all are. The binding agent of character in the literary sense (the thing that makes someone in a book seem “real”) is also the basis of character in the ethical sense (the thing that makes someone in life seem “good”): it’s all about consistency. The narrator in my story is beholden to this vision of morality, but she’s not ignorant of the ways that it entraps her, and she’s not immune to the desire to break out of that trap. It’s such a small but profound desire! The desire to be, for once, not a character but an author.

“The problem with horticulture,” the woman says, “is the more you know, the more things you’re obliged to dislike.” In her process of self-discovery, throughout this story, what does she come to know, and what does that knowledge oblige her to dislike?

In this scene, which takes place in a garden, the knowledge is very literal. She discovers that a lot of flowers are weeds, a lot of beautiful stuff is wild, a lot of growth is out of control. These facts are most legible to her in the physical world, but of course they’re also truths about interiority—that other dense and overgrown terrain. For the narrator, the wildest part of the terrain is desire. Sometimes she calls desire “yearning,” which makes it sound more profound but doesn’t make it any less confusing. What does she want from her English teacher? What does she want from her friend Max? (These might be ways of asking, what does she want from the past, and from the future?)

When I’m writing, I think about these sorts of questions while sitting in front of a blank or semi-blank page. These are weird conditions! They have almost nothing to do with the way I come up with questions, or answer questions, in my own life, which so rarely resembles a clean piece of paper. So one of the hardest and most important parts of a story, for me, is altering these conditions. The narrator is obsessed with desire but also afraid of it—of what it might do to the well-tended, carefully cultivated idea of her life. What will make her stop avoiding them? In early drafts of this story, she didn’t stop avoiding them. And the details that pushed her—or pushed me to push her—to face them were all physical ones. The smell of onion grass on your fingers. The hair on your body you wish you didn’t have. Sometimes I include details in stories because they seem beautiful, or just because they seem true. But mostly I include them because I need them, in fiction as in life, to be transported, to see what I would otherwise forget or ignore or be afraid of.

The woman has to remind herself “not to make everything into a metaphor,” which is an interesting thing for the narrator of a piece of fiction to say. What are the dangers of metaphor, both in the woman’s life and in fiction in general?

Metaphors do the hardest thing in fiction. They make fake stuff concrete; they make boring stuff exciting. They are a writer’s greatest tool and gravest lie.

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