October 7, 2012

WRITING ADVICE – SL Viehl #10: Two New Lemming Metaphors

I stumbled across the writing of Sheila Kelly (aka SL Viehl, Gena Gale, Jessica Hall, Rebecca Kelly and Lynn Viehl) about eleven years ago with the publication of her first novel, STARDOC. I was looking for a the work of a current writer to replace one of my favorite kind of science fiction – human doctors in a space hospital working on aliens. I discovered this genre as an adolescent in Alan E. Nourse’s STAR SURGEON, followed it into James White’s SECTOR GENERAL books and A.M. Lightner’s DOCTOR TO THE GALAXY. S.L. Viehl’s books satisfied that itch – but I learned about a year ago that she is so much more than just a “space hospital” writer! The bits of writing advice in this new ten part series are used with her permission. This will be the final entry in the series! This one is from: http://pbackwriter.blogspot.com/2012/09/lemming-writing.html

My daughter has taught me many things: how to love the inner city, what a “Miyazaki” is, and popular band names so I can be conversant with my students.

Something else she taught me is to loathe clone stories. The most recent of these is the whole “vampire/TWILIGHT thing”.

SL Viehl echoes a distaste for clone writing by calling it “lemming writing”.

I know everyone “knows” what a lemming is, but do we really know? Is there any more literary wisdom we can mine from this tired old metaphor?

I’m going to try here.

Physically, lemmings look like earless rabbits or tailless muskrats. Nondescript creatures, they would disappear from thought like Box Elder bugs do in mid-winter, except that they supposedly dive off cliffs to their doom into the ocean at the drop of a hat, giving us the grimly pronounced aphorism, “They’re following each other like a herd of lemmings”.

The facts are not nearly so colorful but they point to some inexplicable behavior by the animals nevertheless.

For example, when cornered or confronted by a predator, a lemming – all four ounces (110g) of it will fight rather than flee. In fact, they are aggressive even when Humans cross their paths.

Lemming populations fluctuate chaotically. The standard biological response to an increase in food – lemmings are almost entirely herbivores – is for a population to grow until it reaches a point where the number of mouths to feed overwhelms the supply of food. During the population explosion, the number of predators rises as well. When added to the depletion of the food supply, the predation brings the population back down to the usual carrying capacity of the environment.

Lemmings don’t do that – they keep breeding and breeding and breeding until the entire population is forced to migrate. At that point, they move out, seeking new forage. At times, they have to cross bodies of water and while some are able to make the crossing, many others  succumb to exhaustion and drown.

If they do NOT do this, the population plummets so far that, rather than leveling off at a reasonable number, it falls to near extinction. In particular, the Norway lemming and the Brown lemming follow this pattern – and it seems to happen about every four years.

How can I force these biological observations into a metaphor about writing?

Let’s first do away with the “diving over a cliff to their doom” metaphor. (The Wikipedia article points the direction for an avid researcher to check out the assertion that Walt Disney Studios CREATED the myth by filming imported lemmings in Canada being shot over a cliff with old-fashioned record turntables!) As this is clearly a fabrication of fevered documentary makers perpetrated on a gullible public, it’s about time the thing died.

There are enough verifiable facts here to contribute at least two new lemming metaphors to a writer’s canon:

The First Rule of Lemming Writing: No Matter What Everyone Else Says, Fight For Your Writing

JK Rowling, Stephen King, Shakespeare and Theodore Geisl blazed trails in a writer’s wilderness, fighting through stoat-infested tundra to get their initial work published. Once they’d cleared out the rocks, meticulously smoothed the ground and laid down asphalt, everyone else leaped on to the newly paved road and coasted into fame and glory (or at least financial liquidity).

The Second Rule of Lemming Writing: Once the Population Explodes, Get Out Early

Lavryle Spencer, Harper Lee, Poppy Z. Brite and Jim Crace all left their writing careers behind at the height of their popularity. Others – whose names shall remain unwritten (at least in this blog) – continue to write using fewer and fewer new ideas or with bigger and bigger axes to grind.

Shall we retire the Old Aphorism of Lemming Writing and go with these, or do you have others you’d like to add?

(PS -- I couldn't find a single PHOTGRAPH of lemmings migrating...anywhere...)

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