I’ve written a very long lyric essay this week, so, rather than tax anyone’s attention, I’m posting it in two parts. It’s annoying that ultimately the second half will precede the first half because of standard blog layout, but maybe that doesn’t matter. Lyric essays are meant to be rearranged.
A recent dream cast me as a bad soldier. I accepted the minor tasks given me—moving ammo and gathering weapons in anticipation of attacks—because the other soldiers were right about how unsuited I was to warfare. And they didn’t resent me but slapped me on the back, treating me as a talisman of good fortune.
But I had a healthy bit of schlepping to do because we weren’t doing well and had to snake into new trenches nearly constantly as the enemy pressed us harder and harder. Finally the other army was less than one hundred meters in front of us, close enough to see their commander exhorting his troops to charge us. I could hear him. Normally no one would be audible from that distance, but, in a dream, you know what’s convenient to know, though you don’t always figure out how handy your knowledge is until later.
I picked up a rifle on the ground beside me and spied the commander through its scope. He turned to his men and raised his arm. The cross hairs danced over his rectangular back—I was nervous, maybe—and then, adjusting my sight slightly upward as I imagined I’d been taught, I squeezed the trigger. The gun made no loud noise. It clicked. But the commander fell, and, though I didn’t see it, I knew I shot him in the head. His men ran, so I also knew we’d won somehow.
This dream woke me up, anxious to account for its troubling story. I’ve fired a weapon maybe six times in my life and imagine myself the soldier who started the dream, the genial, incompetent roadie to true warriors. The outcome, I assumed, must mean something. Each of the dream’s particulars must mean something. Because it unrolled as if already written and because no digression or distraction pulled it from its path, the dream felt like a visitation, not psychological straightening up.
That’s my problem. I have to take aim and weave my way toward targets, intent on lessons even when I don’t know where the story is going.
I’ve been writing parables for some time now—maybe always—but I wouldn’t have named them that if someone else hadn’t used the term. Like most labels, the name is convenience. It establishes a category and pours cement. I thought I wrote stories and preferred to define them so—but they won’t or don’t stand up that way.
From what my labeler said, writing parables means telling with too much purpose. It’s hiding in the open and speaking in an earnestly cryptic but calculated way. It says you have something definite to communicate but leave clues to your meaning instead.
For the etymologists out there, “parable” comes from Middle English via Anglo-French—its first use was in the 14th century, but it has roots in the Late Latin parabola and the Greek parabolē meaning comparison, from paraballein to compare, from para- + ballein to throw.
If that means nothing, notice a parable parallels, making implicit comparisons between what’s described and hidden causes. This story, it says, isn’t really about a vineyard, the 84th problem, or a coffee cup, but about everything that travels with those stories, matching its every move like a shadow… even when the sun barely shines enough to produce one.
In the parable of the vineyard (Matthew 20:1–16), a landowner goes out at daybreak to hire workers. He promises a penny a day and gathers many laborers, yet later he wants more and goes out again at the third hour to hire workers at, he tells them, whatever rate is right. He does so again at the sixth and ninth hour. Then, an hour before the sun falls, he goes out and asks some idle laborers why they aren’t working. They tell him no one hired them, and he sends them into his vineyard with the same promise he offered others during the day.
Work ends. The landowner instructs his steward to pay everyone a penny, those who came in the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hour included. Naturally, the workers who have put in a full day grumble, saying that isn’t fair. The landowner replies they all agreed. “Take that thine is, and go thy way,” he says, “I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.”
If you think of this vineyard symbolically, as the kingdom of heaven, the parable is plain. It matters little when you’re welcomed to salvation, only that you are welcomed, and those who come first experience God’s grace just as those who come last.
But the parable is also stubborn. Though it makes sense symbolically, its literal level is perverse, unsatisfying. Who among us wouldn’t resent working all day for the same wages as someone working an hour? In what human reality would anyone accept such inequity?
And perhaps that’s the parable’s deeper meaning. We aren’t talking about our reality here.
Confusion and mystery aren’t entirely different—both compel someone to answer—but mystery is a single shoe by the door and confusion re-labels the door as, “A portal to destinies estranged from here.” Mystery sees something hard to fathom. Confusion makes seeing difficult. One is poetic. The other poeticizes.
Examples of “parables” include plotlines with clear morals and stories—or even semi-stories—that invite head-scratching. One way to define “parable” is to apply it to any story bigger than its specific terms, a narrative that exists on a literal and a figurative level. Kafka’s Metamorphosis is a parable. The Old Man and the Sea might be one too. Cat in the Hat, Lord of the Flies, and Wise Blood all work as parables.
It’s enough to make you ask, “What story isn’t a parable?” Good question.
In high school, my brother wrote a story about a recluse who refused the gifts of a concerned community. Worried that he couldn’t subsist without them, the townspeople left gifts of food on his porch, which rotted when he pointedly ignored them. The story ends when—disgruntled by his ingratitude—they chase him over a cliff.
I liked that story and spent years trying to write something similar. Its clarity twisted my head to look and, when I looked, I understood. Nothing remained in doubt and, yet, nothing direct had been said.
My sincere attempts at fiction seem cartoonish. They mean rather than evoke, and the settings never quite stretch to the horizon. They repeat in obvious ways during every chase, and the characters sit half inflated, bobbing on the surface, ballooning or sagging as needed. They move like forms, their behavior abstracted, barely what people really do.
But once a parable alerts readers to its identity, every detail appears boldly, deliberately outlined, vivid not for its depth or verisimilitude but for its defined edges and black exclamatory rays shooting outward shouting, “I am not flat, but symbolic! I AM significant!” Parables plead forgiveness for unreality and say, “I’m not even trying to be a story.”
They are the perfect dodge.
I worry about wearing readers’ patience thin. I edit endlessly and eliminate every extra “that,” “the,” and prepositional phrase. If my prose isn’t good, at least it will be clean.
My worry extends to readers rejecting my emotions as just so much whining, more melodramatic, angsty confession, self-doubt, or thinly disguised self-importance. I tell myself I can’t write more self-loathing. I can’t write another essay on alienation or loss. No more sturm und drang, no more jeremiads, no more laments or plaints.
Writing a story—at least what I call one—is such a relief… though I’m in the story still… trying to be just clear enough.
I once thought the best use for parables was addressing what couldn’t be said, but it turns out I only use them to say what must not be said aloud.
The second part of this post will appear on Saturday 2/23.