Mirrors are everywhere.
Mirrors are everywhere.


Here’s another example. I recently read the biography of Charles Scribner, son of the founder of the publishing house, Scribner & Sons. Charles Scribner was a very formal person who practically lived in a three-piece suit. He always referred to Earnest Hemingway, as “Mr Hemingway,” because thirty years earlier the famous author had been his father’s client. Hemingway, on the other hand, visited Scribners’ mahogany lined, Manhattan offices in full hunting regalia, complete with fishing rod and shot gun. Can’t you just picture him barging in the door.

“Charlie, Charlie, where the hell are ya?”

“Well, Mr Hemingway, what a distinct pleasure. Can I…a,a,a…perhaps put your hunting piece over in the corner here where it will be a, a, a…safe?”

“Charlie, have I got a book idea for you.”

“Oh, oh, wonderful, Mr. Hemingway. Come, come right into my office.”

Scribner is thinking, please God make it a love story, no more of these hunting safaris. We need a best seller, another Farewell to Arms.

“Well, Mr Hemingway, is there perhaps, a love interest in this new novel?”

“What? No, no. Let me tell you about it. See there’s this old guy…and he’s going out to get this fish, ya know, (Scribner starts to slump),…alone in a rowboat.”

“Alone in a rowboat,” mummers Scribner and mutters to himself, “what about dialogue?”

“He starts rowing, see, rowing for days and days and days.”

Well that is the premise of The Old Man and The Sea. Santiago rows for fifty pages out, then rows back for sixty pages. Imagine if you were the writer, how would you make this interesting, and interesting to an audience who doesn’t care much about fishing?

Well Hemingway does it…masterfully. He uses a mirror. This isn’t just a fish, it’s a fish of mythic greatness, the Moby Dick of fish, the Holy Grail. To catch such a prize the man must rise to that greatness himself. Whenever Hemingway describes the qualities of the fish, by this parallel comparison, he is describing the virtues Santiago must attain to capture the fish. When he talks about the fish, he is talking about the fisherman. When he gets the fish on his line they are literally joined together.

Santiago catches the fish and ties him to the boat to bring the fish back to shore. But, they’re five days out to sea, and as he rows back the sharks start attacking the fish’s magnificent carcass. Now the parallel still holds, so the destruction Hemingway describes applies likewise to the man. We see the story of a man working for the great achievement of his life, attaining it, and then experience his decline. It is no less the story of what it means to be a human, than Oedipus Rex. Presenting this story by indirection makes it rich to read, and Hemingway encourages us–by having one thing stand for another–to make the tale stand for things that have important meaning for us in our own lives.

I remember as a student sitting in the back of my high school English class as Father Ryann would say things like,”The great benefit of literature is that it teaches us important things about our lives.” I’d think to myself: You’ve got to be kidding–guys dancing around on a stage in tights doing Shakespeare has nothing to do with my life. Now, I think what he meant is that literature shows a correspondence between things that at first don’t seem to be related. We can understand one thing better in terms of the other. Principle #5: MIRROR: Mirroring adds richness and encourages interpretive application. We create a touchstone that tests a wider range of real experiences and feelings for our audience. Stretch limits.


The next step in your written exercise is to introduce an appropriate mirror into the scene you have written, and then write a subsequent scene that elaborates on that mirror. One element of the mirror should be more concrete than another. For example, D.H Lawrence used woods and weather to stand for the sexual, the mines and manufacturing were a way of conveying the alienation and dehumanizing aspects of civilization. Placing a couple out in the woods and describing a storm, becomes a mirror for sexual ecstasy. It would be a mistake to have something like a woman’s relationship with a man be mirrored by the woman’s relationship to her daughter–both are abstruse. Another consideration is that a simple mirror, may be much easier to sustain through a long piece, than something that is highly original. A mirror provides continuity, and at the conclusion of a piece, if you tell what happens to the mirror, your audience by inference knows what has happened to subject it stands for.

In our earlier example by the nineteen year old girl (Part 1) of the man in a bar whose marriage has come apart, food is a mirror. He hadn’t eaten in days; thinking back it is the picnic his wife fixed when they were in love that he remembers. Money is a mirror for value, the seasons for the seasons of our life. We make these associations every day, in real life, not just in literature. Why do you think people fight over having the corner office or a certain size desk? Finding mirrors in writing is a bit more self conscious, that’s all. The way we decorate our homes, the clothes we wear–these are all mirrors of something inside. Picking out a dress for a funeral that isn’t too lively or too drab, fits finding the right emotion for an ex-husband who has died.

In my Puerto Rican story I would work in the political controversy about statehood. Have it being discussed on television in the background of a scene, or with protesters outside of the employment office, in a newspaper headline, or on a billboard the characters see. At first it may be a strain to work a mirror into your piece. Once you do, you will wonder how you could ever write something without one. One seminar participant, who is a CPA, wrote about compounding tax regulations using the mirror of Desert Shield’s escalating into Desert Storm.

A mirror should be simple and natural: the particular rooms in a house where the different scenes take place, preparation for a wedding, different stops along a trip (any physical journey is easily symbolic for an emotional or spiritual journey), even the stages of a disease can parallel stages of a deteriorating relationship. And, the nature of the symbolism is up to you, provided you make it very clear to the reader, what is representing what. Traditionally black has stood for evil, but in Moby Dick Melville does just the opposite–anything white is to be feared. Moby Dick is also a wonderful example of an author’s starting out with a piece of good writing, then finding a mirror through the writing that transports a travel-adventure novel into great literature. There’s not a great piece of literature that doesn’t have a great mirror, without exception; though there are pieces of writing with great mirrors that aren’t great literature.

You may find in working with a mirror that a much better one develops to take its place or that something that is intellectually very clever, becomes strained in its application. Remember this is a technique to make storytelling more interesting, not more difficult. Like story ideas and scenes, mirrors are everywhere in real life. It’s not a matter of being inventive, it’s a matter of opening you eyes to what is already there.




     We are drawn to writing to find truth we are sometimes afraid of uncovering.  That’s why so much writing is weak.  If we confront our fears we will discover, not only is the known less to be feared than the unknown, but that besides being a tool of discovery,      writing is a means of release.   For example, someone in a seminar last week asked me why I was attracted to the story of the midwestern couple expecting a child in Puerto Rico.  She added, “You’re picking a setting, Puerto Rico, you don’t know anything about; and I’ve always been told to write about what I know.”  Well, the model for the woman in the story was appealing to me.  She had a Botticelli like innocence, yet was dependent on a guy who was likeable, but careless.  I have to admit though, that the story became intriguing for me only when I located it in Puerto Rico.  I saw it as a way of understanding (by comparison) the plight of foreigners unjustly facing hardship and prejudice here.  A good answer? 

     Later that night the truth emerged.  I, myself, was married overseas, and our first child was born in Germany.  Ultimately my marriage failed, and this story is a way for me to re-experience it from a new perspective twenty years later.  Do you hear what I’m saying?  For the two years that I’ve been talking about this piece I didn’t realize what the real subject was.  “Write about something you know?”  My God, this is all I know!  A therapist attending a another seminar told me, “In our profession we don’t treat the patient directly, we always deal with the metaphor the patient uses to understand his or her situation.”  This is the basis of Principle #6, because it also is what the reader is looking for in your writing. 

     That doesn’t mean the result must be fiction or fiction based on actual experience.   I can become intrigued researching the economic or political history of Puerto Rico (or more likely the cooking of that country) and one of these will be the topic of my article or book.  But I guarantee the outlook I take on this subject somehow satisfies an inner personal need.

     This book is nonfiction.  Through anecdotes, I’ve given you my reaction to various “discoveries” about writing, using anecdotes so you might experience those reactions vicariously, yourself.  I’ve used examples, and forced you into some role playing to “dramatize” the subject.  I’ve progressed form writer, to subject, to audience  (a change in perspective) in order to get you “involved”.  The six principles are a “framing” device.  After considering how to get your work published, we’ll look at “mirroring” and “discharge.”  Fifteen years in advertising and marketing have taught me that whether you’re producing a brochure to convince someone to select your accounting firm or videotaping a documentary on mastitis prevention in dairy herds, to get an audience to accept what you are saying you must visualize it for that audience in such a way as to make it as real as their actual experience which you are about to displace.  These six principles do this.  But what makes one so-called “reality” more preferable than another is that it better meets needs which we discover only through the process working with that subject. 




     Watch for something very specific in the three paragraphs of the next example.  They’re about a woman torn between conflicting emotions.  Halfway through the writer introduces a motif of light and darkness that carry the conflict. It reminds me of some German expressionist films of the thirties, in which you don’t need to understand the dialogue, the drama is portrayed through characters moving in or out of shadow.  See how light and darkness in a  concrete way embody feelings which are real, but less tangible.


    The baby cried and she picked it up.  Lisa cradled her daughter in her arms and swayed gently back and forth, speaking in a sing-song voice of “everything’s going to be all right.”  In a minute, the crying stopped.  The child slept in her mother’s arms.  Lisa became aware of a small spot of peace lodged somewhere under her rib cage, pulsating to the quick even breathing of her daughter.  It was something she never felt before Adrianna’s birth.  At least not that she could remember.  But there it was.  The baby breathed in and out, and the rhythm worked its way deeper into Lisa’s heart. 

   A tug at her memory, like the gentle tug of Adrianna at her breast, began to pull an unfamiliar sensation to the surface.  She was safe.  She was cradled warm in her own mother’s arms, rocking.  It only lasted for a moment before the more familiar arms of fear threw themselves around her again.  Lisa shivered and tightened her grasp upon her own sleeping daughter.  “No one’s going to hurt you, ever,” she whispered.

   The light was fading.  Lisa reached over and turned on the lamp beside her, then clicked it off again.  It was too much.  She could see that right away, glancing back an forth between her sketch pad and Adrianna, who lay asleep on a quilt on the floor.  The light had been so perfect–when was it? A half an hour ago?  She looked at her watch and was surprised to see it was almost seven.  She’d been sketching for over an hour, and she hadn’t even meant to start. 

   Lisa was standing by the window clenching her fists when Tom’s car pulled into the driveway.  The headlights lit up the garage door as it rolled upward.  Then the car drove in and the door moved down again in darkness.  She stood, as if rooted to the rug.  And then Tom was standing behind her, gently encircling her shoulders with his arms.  She felt herself relax against him, involuntarily, before pulling herself around to toss out the words she’d been holding close for more than an hour. “Where the hell have you been?”


We have explored how to tell a story directly (by having two major characters together in a scene), and also how to tell it in an indirect way (through the reactions of secondary characters).  Mirroring is yet another option, a way of advancing the story by association.  It involves finding something in the setting that symbolizes and develops elements of the conflict.  I’m avoiding the use of words like “symbol” and “extended metaphor” because we need to think of mirroring as a practical technique, not a cipher to hidden meaning.  Here is an example:

     This is from the movie, To Catch A Thief.  Cary Grant is a former cat-burglar of expensive jewelry.  Grace Kelley is Grace Kelley, with low cut evening gowns and strings of diamonds across her heaving bosom.  They have a love-hate relationship through most of the film which is the charm of the movie.  That is up until a particular scene.  In that scene the two are standing on opposite sides of a room.  Cary Grant with his eyebrow arched.  Grace Kelley’s beauty seeming to actually glow.  The camera goes between the two and out on the balcony.  It’s Monaco and as we look  over the beautiful Mediterranean cost, ptuiiiii, ptuiiiii–a few fireworks are being set off.  The camera pulls back inside the room, between Cary Grant and Grace Kelley.  They are no longer twelve feet apart, they’re six feet apart…and there’s a different look in their eyes.  The camera pauses for a moment then moves back out between them, onto the balcony again.  Now it’s, KAPOWWWWWW, KAPOWWWWWWWW–major firework clusters light up the sky.  The camera retreats back inside and the two are in each others’ arms. 

     What Hitchcock has done is to let the fireworks mirror a passion igniting between them.  This is pleasing for us because it would have been unconvincing to directly show the characters going through such a drastic change, and this technique allows us to use our imagination.  Here is the ultimate audience involvement: the director, or writer, giving an audience the chance to be an artist.  There’s also a third advantage.  A mirror brings the outside world into a piece, prevents a work from being “stage bound,” prevents its isolation from weather, news, the routines of daily living so woven into the fabric of human experience.  And a mirror is fun.  It’s saying one thing can stand for another, don’t take things only in their literal sense–that’s too limiting.