When I was a child, my babysitter used to offer me fifty cents for each half hour that I’d manage not to talk. Not once did I manage to earn a cent. That love of language, and of the transporting pleasure of storytelling, made me pretty unbearable as a child – but it’s the same reason that I’ve always been an avid reader, and it’s also the same reason that I write.
As both a reader and a writer, the thing that always fascinates me more than anything is the function of metaphor – its ability to transform, and to make you see something in an entirely new light. When I read a really striking metaphor, it has such an odd double impact. On the one hand, there’s the sense of shock, the jolt provided when a metaphor’s utterly fresh and unexpected: I never would have thought of that. And, on the other hand, the recognition that makes you smile and nod to yourself, because even though the metaphor is entirely new, it also has a sense of accuracy: that’s exactly right.
That kind of precision is what Flaubert was talking about when he said that ‘Poetry is as exact a science is geometry.’ I’m far too much of a wuss to get a tattoo, but if I were braver, Flaubert’s quote is what I’d choose to inscribe on my flesh. The ability of brilliant metaphors to combine innovation and recognition creates such a frisson, and for me that’s what I’m always searching for as a reader, and aiming for as a writer.
And because the writer is always present in me, even when I’m just reading for pleasure, when I encounter a wonderful metaphor my joy is accompanied by a stab of envy: I wish I’d come up with that. It’s probably my competitive streak, as much as any idea of ‘vocation.’ But there are few satisfactions greater that the feeling when the metaphor that clicks into place is one of your own.
Each metaphor is a risk: will this work? Have I gone too far/not far enough? When you know that you’ve nailed a metaphor, it’s a real sense of exhilaration. I used to do a lot of rock-climbing. Now I just write, but I think it fills the same desire for risk. If your writing doesn’t involve risk, then what’s the point?
There’s a particular pleasure in writing poetry, for me, because the focus is so entirely on the language. The big-picture things that have to be juggled so carefully in a novel – plot, character, structure, pacing – fall out of view, and instead the language itself dominates. Of course there are other things at play in poetry – plot, character, structure and pacing can all be present, but they turn on a comma, or a carefully executed line-break. There’s a kind of purity in that, and a singularity of focus, which draws me back to poetry again and again. Writing novels has its own pleasures and challenges, of course – a novel is expansive and one can live in it for so long, and develop things that a poem doesn’t permit. But the purest form of writing pleasure, for me, whether in a novel or a poem, is that single line or image that snatches the familiar away while at once making it clearer than ever before.
Francesca Haig is an author and academic. Her first novel, The Fire Sermon, was published by Harper Voyager this year and is being translated into over twenty languages. Film rights have been optioned by DreamWorks. Her poetry has been published in literary journals and anthologies in both Australia and England, and her first collection of poetry, Bodies of Water, was published in 2006.