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.


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