Monday, July 16, 2012

The Lit Lab: Jason Lee Miller on His Story "Metaphor"

I first met Jason Lee Miller when we were both graduate students.  We talked at length, but it didn't take long to realize that he had arrived to the program fully formed.  I've always appreciated this about him, and so was more than happy when some years later I began to see his name crop up in literary journals.  Always a pleasure to read, Miller shares his thoughts on his story "Metaphor" today in The Lit Lab here at Bent Country.

To read "Metaphor" before hearing from the author himself, visit State of Imagination, the journal in which it was published.  The story can be found here.


Two things first off: it’s an honor to be invited to post here, and my deepest thanks to Sheldon for the invite; also the invitation was surprising because it means I might have successfully fooled a very smart person into thinking I know what I’m doing. I don’t. Let’s get that clear up front. And I don’t know how to tell you about my story “Metaphor.” It’s more like something I planted than something I wrote, and that means it’s very special to me.

It’s not hard to understand that this story needs some explanation—ironic because metaphors aren’t supposed to need explaining because that defeats the purpose. You’re supposed to feel in your gut what it means to you, and that’s supposed to be okay. Humans have only been doing this for millennia, crafting symbols that could stand by themselves and shape-shift in each observer’s particle-wave consciousness.

That’s not the world I grew up in, mind you. The world I grew up in cherished a small subset of very specific metaphors, contained in a book of 66 chapters, and one doesn’t dare interpret them for himself or invent new ones. What’s the meaning of a fish? Better guess it right, son.

But I’m not here to talk about that or my apparent need for spiritual counseling. Can’t get away from it, don’t guess. This story was a part of that process, though, a healing process, which I think has always been an important function of writing for me. “Metaphor” wasn’t necessarily directed. It wasn’t easy to write, or tend, either. I really just wanted to get my symbols straight. My own symbols. You can interpret them how you like, even though too much explanation is included in the package already, but at least it’s relatively short. Some people seem to be able to write a pure bead of truth in a very small number of words on the first go at it. I am not one of these people, and likely it hasn’t taken you three paragraphs to understand that I sort of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey it and hope for the best. The first draft was 45 pages and just enough to make anybody hate me.

That’s relatively minor considering what I was facing if I didn’t write “Metaphor”: a Terrible Absence of Truth, which is scarier than damnation. I tried to write it straight – the Truth, I mean – and couldn’t get at it, not completely, because it’s like trying to explain which side of a crystal is correct, like trying to shove the stars into a taco shell. I needed a metaphor, or a set of them, some viewpoint-dependent approximation I might eventually find satisfying. In the end, I wrote it – planted it – because I needed it, and I needed a version I could stow in a bucket with a small collection of other satisfying truths: water’s wet; the sky is blue; God is real; I love my family and everybody in it, rotten or saintish; and if I need something, somebody else needs it, too.

I started this mess in the fall of 2006, and didn’t finish it to my satisfaction until the spring of 2011, when while bored at work I had an epiphany landing on the side of dualism. Screw it – let’s just say I was Gnostically neoplatonic before being Gnostically neoplatonic was cool. Took me five years to understand that about myself, and thus five years to finish this story. I could tell you all about that, but if you’re like most, you squeezed out at least one snore before the end of neoplatonic. So instead of that, I give you some heady, maybe post-modern or post-post-modern (hipster?) metafiction and hope you understand me – somehow, somewhere within you.

Here are the basic mechanics: the story started in a lucid dream, the bud of an idea, a man in a fedora and trench coat tracing cathedral brick with his finger and trying to decipher a set of foreign words in his mind. I heard them myself, the words; they were voiced low and deep the way dreams and thoughts are, as though I hadn’t actually whipped them up somewhere in the back of my subconscious: eh lo ee hacindrum khetah bornati forum sin nattadurim.

Is that a language? No idea, but it does sound Hebrewish, Latinish, or Necronomiconish enough to pass as the real thing. Do the words mean something? Doubtful, but they will if you look at them long enough – they will! They will take shape as symbols of something; meaning will take shape on its own, despite you. The moment you wonder what those words mean is the moment the meaning is born and grows in you. It’s either beautiful or a kind of virus or both.

This is also the moment Nathan Gestalt is born, and his twin, the Bad Idea. Bad Idea isn’t a character in the story – it is the story itself. I call his twin that because as a storyteller I felt this obligation, as instructed in Storyteller School, to anchor the reader down in reality and then I ignored that completely. The rule, says Joseph Campbell, is that one cannot begin in unreality. One does not start in Oz or Narnia. One begins in Kansas or outside the wardrobe and walks the reader into unreality. This story begins at the Nothing – as far away from reality as one can get, and the reader gets only glimpses of reality, mostly through memory, which is nearly as false a reality as the Nothing.

The writer has many jobs, I suppose, and one of those is producing a reasonable mirror of reality. This is where I have two giant issues. The first is that I’m bored by and don’t really believe in reality (this is complicated), and naturally struggle trying to navigate it and don’t want to anyway. A writer writes what he knows, and what I know has nothing to do with the ground we walk on or the lilies of the friggin’ field. I’m still working on walking the reader to Narnia – that’s my next growth area, but for the time being all I know is Narnia.

The second issue for me was that Nathan is not real. I can see him. He’s a handsome, slender, tall fellow with a Roman nose, and he admires the men in old movies, their hats and suits and the way even paupers look cool in old photos, patched up knees and extra wooly coats. But, I must remind myself, he is not real no matter how much I can tell you about him or how much I entertain quantum theories about alternate universes formed with every choice we make. Where we are now, in case you’re lost, is the outer edge of imagination – vital root word: image – and to save myself from appearing crazy, I have to say to something smart about the difference between solipsism and solipsism syndrome. One is an unbreakable philosophy and the other is a certifiable mental illness. Let’s say it’s the first one, shall we?

As Nathan tried to understand the words, I tried to understand him, and soon he was not only an illusion, but a self-conscious one, imagining himself, dreaming himself. It wasn’t long before I discovered Nathan was in a coma on Earth, which is why he couldn’t tell me much, and why it was from this dream-state point-of-view that his story must be told. It was now just a matter of finding the right symbols, their meanings, if they had any, figuring out why he’s in a coma, which never happened for me because it didn’t matter, what he’s trying to understand, who cares about him, and why he might want to come back to earth at all.

And I had to do that without being preachy.

In, say, fifteen pages or less.

Without mentioning Plato’s cave.

After five years, I finally liked it, or 99 percent of it anyway, enough to send it out somewhere and stop profusely apologizing for it. It wasn’t perfect – especially the part about mosquitoes – but I found it satisfying enough, was okay with not quite understanding mosquitoes yet, even if I faked like I did. I hoped it might be a noticeable flick to the ankles of Kafka and Borges. I hoped that though dead they’d hear me, that they’d see I was trying to join their conversation and answer the same questions and come up with some maybe good-enough-explanation even if nobody but me understood it. This was my Message from the Emperor caught up in the Circular Ruins. This was my metaphor for unspeakable truth, my hope of making the ineffable, well, effing effable. It’s a failure. Such things always are, but it’s mine, and the irony of the failed symbol makes me smile for reasons I could never explain to you fully. To quote Borges: You who read me, are you sure of understanding me?


Jason Lee Miller is a technical editor and curriculum developer for the Rural Domestic Preparedness Consortium at Eastern Kentucky University and an adjunct English composition instructor at EKU and Bluegrass Community and Technical College. His creative work in short fiction and poetry have appeared or will appear in The Accolade, Blood Lotus, Danse Macabre, Dew on the Kudzu, The Copperfield Review, The Legendary, Ontologica, and State of Imagination. In April 2011, Miller accepted an invitation to be a book reviewer for the literary e-zine Gloom Cupboard.

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