Andromeda: The problem with faulty metaphors — on avalanches and editing

Two weeks ago precisely, I mentioned that I was busy getting my husband and 12-year-old daughter out the door for a winter camping trip — one they were doing for school-related reasons. (In other words, this was not my husband’s idea of fun, nor was the timing ideal.)

Blogging is not like methodical essay-writing. Hurrying on a busy bloggy morning, one often reaches for the quick conclusion or the facile metaphor, and ends up with something lame like this:

…to be fair, one of the pleasures of winter camping, I’ve been told, is that once you’re all properly set up, in your bag/tent or snow shelter, you’re not all that cold. One’s imagination of what it will be like is worse than reality. … And isn’t that how so many aspects of the writing life are as well? You moan and groan about getting started, stalling in every way possible, but once your mind makes a connection with the story, you’re rolling. It’s actually pretty warm and comfortable inside that story, novel, or memoir you’re creating.

You can probably see where this is going.

No, winter camping was not comfortable for my husband and daughter, nor was it easy. And in that sense, perhaps it was a good metaphor for writing, though not the one I had glibly intended.

Two weeks ago, we’d just broken out of a cold snap and the day in question had dawned surprisingly warm, maybe 20 degrees or so, but with a stiff wind. (I do not trust winds.) The radio announced — then cancelled — a high-wind advisory. I mentioned this to my husband and our friend, an experienced mountaineer, and they insisted it was a warm wind. Pleasant even. When I dropped them at the trailhead with their sleds and their snowshoes, this wind was blowing quite fiercely. By evening, it was a “pleasant, warm,” 60 mile-per-hour wind.

Still, the stoic foursome (two men, two daughters) had some fun building their snow shelter in a broad, empty valley; and erecting their tent next to it, in a somewhat protected spot that seemed to be collecting the swirling snow at a considerable rate; and eating their Hamburger Helper inside the tent.

All good, until our very good mountaineer friend, who has twice summited Denali and nearly lost his life years ago during a winter trip on South America’s highest peak Mt. Aconcagua — and who did, in fact lose a few fingers on that trip — noticed that really quite a lot of snow was burying the tent. He went outside and started to dig, remembering (a little too clearly) how this familiar situation turned out last time. A little valley in suburban Anchorage is not Aconcagua, but still. There were two young girls along for the trip next time — two young girls who are quite fond of their fingers and hope to have them for several more years.

Soon after, a very small (very small!) bluff near the tent let loose its snow load. Down came that heavy, wet stuff, crushing the shelter (luckily, no one inside) and pushing the bulging, collapsed shelter into one side of the already-snow-burdened tent (everyone out, packing quickly, searching for the extra warm layers of clothing that were hard to locate at that exciting moment). The tent was recoverable– just barely — ripping as it was pulled free from the weight of the fallen snow. Outside in the dark, the blizzard was blowing so fiercely that it was hard for the group to see anything at all.

The foursome snowshoed the two miles to safety, with a little story to tell, and spouses (this one anyway) a little keyed up with questions both geographical and semantic, for example: “Was that really the right place to camp?” And: “If it’s just a small snow-slide (snow slough?) can we call it something other than an avalanche, so we don’t freak out my mother-in-law?”

It’s taking me a while to bring this back to the subject of writing, but back I go now, with the anxiety of that two-week-old adventure now fading in my mind, having faded already in the minds of my daughter and husband, who continue to insist the trip wasn’t such a big deal, just a nuisance (perhaps an instructive one, I’m still hoping).

Since their healthy return, I’ve been trying to find time to finish editing a novel, and I keep remembering how I claimed in this blog that it was not so hard — actually cozy once you got “rolling.”

Well: hogwash. I mean sure, there are flashes of ease, but it’s often a slog. Even the smallest tasks, like editing a hundred pages or so from present tense into past tense (my current aim) takes a long time. Even simply re-reading a long work takes many hours — days in fact — and when you’re like me, and re-read a novel draft no fewer than a dozen times through revisions, that’s a slog. It’s terribly hard to know whether sections are too dull for the reader when you’ve read them so many times yourself. After the fourth or seventh read, every draft seems dull.

This week, I started worrying about my own revision process, and envying those writers who (supposedly) labor hard on every sentence but then end up with a draft that is basically complete the first time around. While fretting about this, I heard an interview with poet Billy Collins in which he described two kinds of drafters — the no-revision and the major-revision type — and he compared them to cooking styles. There are people who clean every dish as they cook, and people who leave a big messy pile of pots and pans at the end. I’m the latter kind. So is Billy Collins. That makes me feel a little better at least.

I end this blogpost with an apology, or at least a modest retraction: Winter camping isn’t easy. Writing and editing aren’t easy. Avalanches — and messes — happen. And multiple drafts, like a midnight snowshoe through a wind-tunnel of a valley, are tough. But you handle them the way you handle everything: one step at a time. That’s all I know for sure today; retractions, perhaps, on another day. Now back to work.

1 thought on “Andromeda: The problem with faulty metaphors — on avalanches and editing”

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top