Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned by Alan Alda, Another Lesson in Style

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

One of the last chapters in Alda’s autobiography, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned, is an account of surviving a life-threatening bowel blockage that first made itself known atop Cerro Tololo while filming for Scientific American Frontiers. The film crew carried Alda, in critical condition, to the nearest city hoping for a diagnosis by a capable physician and facilities equipped to treat Alda. Good fortune was on Alda's side. He survived to fly home and regain his strength. With bowel uppermost in mind, especially because his carry-on included the diseased section of bowel for further testing at home in the U. S., Alan Alda observes the mythic Amazon and writes:

At first it looked like a fat, brown, curving snake glinting in the sun. But then it became obvious what it really was. How could anyone miss it? The Amazon is a giant ileum. It carries nutrients and waste downriver through loops and folds and, pulled by gravity, it experiences a kind of curvature of space (Alda, Alan. "Down in Chile." Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned. New York: Random House, 2005. 3417. Print.)

The river that makes Lake of the Ozarks
Seen from a Missouri fire tower
Al Griffin Photography
Alda opens with a simile: the Amazon looks “like a fat, brown, curving snake,” but later defines the Amazon with a metaphor: it “is a giant ileum.” As the small intestine--the ileum--carries nutrients and waste out of our bodies, aided by gravity’s pull, the Amazon performs the same function for Chile.

Such simple, original comparisons enlighten readers. Appropriate comparisons based upon context are even more vivid. We readers understand a comparison to a snake, and we appreciate the comparison to the bowel for Alda has just experienced the loss of some.

Such simplicity is also mindfulness. It is an author letting thoughts speak in words and words speak to words.

Reading Challenge:

Read nonfiction, searching for the rhetorical tricks and devices making all writing delightful.

Writing Challenge:

Create a new metaphor to replace a standard one. For example, comparing rivers to snakes is standard. Alda refreshes that comparison by using the small intestine.

What are some standard comparisons?

Foxes are sly.
Rocks are dumb.
Safe places are havens and harbors.
Knowledge is a bright light.
Fear is a caged animal.