Murder on the Metaphor Express - Umberto Tosi

Zadie Smith: Intimations on culture and COVID
COVID-19 has rearranged our metaphors, especially for those of my advanced years, and co-morbidities that require lying low. Hunter-gatherer/adventure-hero idioms have taken a back seat to quieter images of fishing (online) and burrowing, surviving on deliveries from FedEx, Instacart, and Amazon. No longer able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, I am a hermit crab in a conch shell, a trapdoor spider awaiting victuals via Grubhub.

I thought about how the pandemic affects me creatively beyond material circumstances while reading Intimations, a powerful collection of six, "shape-shifting," intimate essays about the COVID-related experiences of Zadie Smith. In this slim volume, the British born, NYU literary professor, essayist, and novelist crosses the Atlantic on the high wire of writing with grace and insight about unfolding tragedy whose conclusion remains uncertain. The brilliance with which she succeeds flashed me back to Joan Didion's 1968 breakthrough literary nonfiction essay collection on the contradictions of California hippy life, Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Joan Didion, Brooklyn Book Fest 2008
Smith uses her cross-cultural perspectives to powerful advantage throughout her latest book. First, she observes Boris Johnson's doomed obsession with "herd immunity" as having manifested the British ruling class' presumption that it is "immune from the herd." Another essay riffs to the United States. Of the Minneapolis cop who killed George Floyd so casually in public - seemingly without compassion or concern for consequences - she writes: “You’d have to be pretty certain of immunity from the herd — not an unsafe bet for a white police officer, historically, in America.”

The Coronavirus didn't drive me to solitude. That was always my set point, being an only child. Nevertheless, at first, mine was not the solitary life of a writer that I now presume to lead. I learned to pound out copy on a typewriter oblivious to smoke and chatter of 1960s and '70s city rooms, taverns, and trains. I went solo as a freelance writer later. I had to ease into solitude with a radio playing in the background.

Earth and Moon as seen from Mars - NASA
The quality of this changed again in early March of this year. Solitude stopped being optional. It's a matter of survival - a primary reality, and that shapes mind and body - and how I'm imagining myself. Rather than a reporter gathering material, a me-as-writer waits for packages to arrive. Then he unwraps and assembles what he ordered like Ikea bookcases.

The writing process has always been enigmatic - the invisible examined through a microscope of metaphors. It's that or flying blind - another popular metaphor. Flannery O'Conner famously described her writing as "not knowing what I'm doing until I'm doing it."

Lately, writing has felt like another popular quarantine activity - doing jigsaw puzzles. It's been like that with my latest mystery novel. I make progress, putting pieces together then have nowhere to put them. I have jigsaw pieces of characters, storylines, settings, conflicts, and conundrums, but have little idea to fit these clusters together. Then, presto, I get some new pieces that tell me what to do next and it turns out to look right.

It's like doing a jigsaw puzzle without a picture on the box to guide me, or more aptly, with a picture on the box that doesn't match the one taking place as I assemble the pieces, even though the pieces fit together.

Every few days, I get a package from my subconscious, or from some alien somewhere (or someone). Then nothing. Then a day or a week later, I find the next delivery package of jigsaw pieces leaning against my front door. Talk about mixing metaphors!

I fit each shipment of jigsaw pieces into clusters that, lo-and-behold, fit into narrative gaps in my story that I had almost given up on filling. These clusters rarely, if ever show up when I'm actually "writing." They show up randomly, at the oddest moments. It makes no sense, yet intellectually plausible that they simply are products of work I had done earlier. They arrive while I am binging on Netflix, reading, cooking, brushing my teeth. I rush back to my desk and make quick notes so as not to lose them. I curse the eccentric, tyrannical, Dr. Imagina for his inconsiderately bad timing. But, gradually the novel takes shape - unfolding almost on its now. It is more like retrieving memories than making up stories.

I've always experienced creative fits and starts. BC (Before COVID) my metaphor for writing was that of long-distance bicycling - huffing and puffing up inclines followed by breezing down the other sides. But COVID's cloistering conjures indoor imaginings - jigsaw puzzling, searching cabinets for mislaid items, like your mobile, or that bottle of aspirins.

My space dream
Outside there is sunshine, summer heat, and thunderstorms, but now, in the time of COVID lurks the threat of infection, social, economic, and political crises. Our unresolved racist history goes critical under the ignorant, corrupt, authoritarian incompetence of Trump and his enablers. I Skype with family and friends, all doing our best to keep each other strong. People out there - and next door - are dying. So far, my inamorata and I are among the lucky ones, having each other's backs, carrying on with our lives and creative work.

The other day I dreamed of being on a video chat with my daughters, who now live at widely scattered North American locales. It was a particularly vivid dream typical of naps. We filled our screens with laughs, everyone talking at once, as is common with our clan. Our family chat wound down. We said our goodbyes and closed our video quadrants one-by-one until only a screenshot of the night sky remained.

I didn't recognize the night sky at first. It showed the earth and moon in space, as seen from Mars, then the NASA logo, morphing into my face on a real-life gag "Starfleet" emblem that I Photoshopped for my kids years ago. And still, I did not wake up.

I had been video chatting from Mars where I found myself stationed in the dream. Like settlers who sailed the seas hundreds of years ago, it dawned on me that I would never return to my faraway homeland, nor see its people, skies, seas, cities, and mountains in person again. Tears rolled down my cheeks.

"Earthsickness," a fellow colonist told me.

I asked: "Will I get over it?"

"No," she said, "but you'll get used to it."

Then I woke up. Another COVID quarantine metaphor, I thought. But where does it fit?

Umberto Tosi is the author of Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, and Milagro on 34th Street. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes, covering the Silicon Valley 1995-2004. Prior to that, he spent eleven years as an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine, West. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine. He has written more than 300 articles and stories for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children. He resides in Chicago. (He can be contacted at


sandra horn said…
A fascinating insight into your creative process, Umberto - this apparently random 'stuff' that floats up from the deeps and makes pieces of what will be the whole at some point, even though it can't be seen as such until later. At least, I hope that's what you wrote, or something like it. I've liked the isolation, mostly, and I think I've used it to some good effect, but I'm not sure what it has done to my brain function, this cut-off-ness.
I love the extended jigsaw metaphor - it's very apt for writing a mystery.
Like Sandra I am not sure about brain function at the moment -it seems better but maybe that's an illusion!
Bill Kirton said…
What a pleasure to read, Umberto. Your anxiety dreams (I'm assured by people wiser than myself that that's what they are) are of a more comforting nature than mine - probably because my Starfleet ranking is far less eminent than yours. Your working practices, as well as your perceptive assessment of how metaphors evolve also reassure me that there are still some constants on which we can rely. Thank you.
Jan Needle said…
All I dream about is sailing. But reading this piece helps, thanks Umberto...
Griselda Heppel said…
I found your dream vivid and heartbreaking. That feeling of being cast adrift from a way of life we’ve taken for granted for hundreds of years. People have always greeted each other with a handshake or a hug. Grouped together in close spaces, celebrated public festivals in huge numbers, enjoyed happy family and friend gatherings, planned or impromptu. Now all that is on hold and while of course things could be far worse (we can still meet up in tiny groups, outside, for instance, and it’s all a small price to pay if it saves vulnerable people from dying from COVID), the loss of that ordinary communal human life together is real. Your image of looking back at an unreachable Earth from Mars is poignantly apt.

BUT we will get through it and adapt (maybe that could be your next dream!).
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Umberto, this sounds like a chaotic way to write, and I love it. I'm a pantser so it's perfectly logical to me.

That you are so tuned in to your subconscious is a great thing. Mixed metaphors and jigsaw puzzles come together to form a cohesive story -- how rewarding!

You must feel especially gratified to read your words when they are finally laid out on the page.

Happy Covid dreams,

Enid Richemont said…
Good to see you're a Zadie Smith fan, Umberto. I've just done a re-read of her "N-W". Her ear for dialogue is impressive.

I've had no Covid-related dreams as yet, but feel haunted by the "That was then, and this is now" feeling. Looking at a writing-related magazine in my bathroom, it suddenly felt irrelevant as it came out before the Lockdown.

Writing-wise, as with Eden, I'm a pantser, so only the vaguest of planning, but it is amazing, and sometimes very uncomfortable, to discover in retrospect how much the subconscious has influenced my work.
Peter Leyland said…
Hi Umberto, I’ve already put this on twice but hopefully now it will stick!

I just wanted to say that I really liked the jigsaw metaphor you mentioned as a way of describing the creative process. It echoed with me as I have used the idea of a mosaic for life-story writing.

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