How is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?

by Nick Jaina
October 19, 2018

There is a famous riddle in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland for which Lewis Carrol never came up with an answer. It occurs at the tea party when the Mad Hatter asks, "Why is a raven like a writing desk?"

When I was young I had an annotated version of this book written by Martin Gardner that explored all the hidden references and puzzles in the text. He offers a few solutions to the raven riddle, and there was one in particular I remembered when, years later, I went to an immersive theater production based on Alice that took place in a multi-story mental asylum in Brooklyn. At times certain audience members would be pulled into a room with one of the actors. And so I found myself alone in the Mad Hatter's office as he wrote on a thick piece of paper with a quill pen in front of a mountain of crumpled-up pages. In the middle of his manic monologue, he said, "And after all, why is a raven like a writing desk?" He paused, looked directly at me, and said. "Well? Why is a raven like a writing desk?"

I was surprised, but also so glad I had done my homework all those years earlier. 

"Well," I said. "The notes for which they are noted are not very musical."

The Mad Hatter paused and considered this. I wondered how often people actually answered his question.

"You need to work on your delivery," he said, and went back to his raving monologue.

I think some great discoveries happen during writing that are similar to the process of answering a riddle that was never meant to have an answer. 

A simile or metaphor is created by connecting two dots that don't appear at first to be related. All of storytelling is connecting dots, saying something like, "Here is how this character goes from rock bottom to recovery," and then making that case and telling that story.

This metaphor-creating muscle is something we can develop and strengthen. Often we think of a metaphor as something that is close at hand. We see a sunset and it looks like a peach, and we compare the sunset to a peach. But what happens when we force ourselves to make a difficult comparison? Some very interesting things can happen.

I believe you can connect a line between any two dots, no matter how disparate. You can trust that, at the very least, the thing they have in common is you. You are seeing these two things, they stick out to you in some way, and your perspective can draw a line between them. We often disregard the value of our own love in our writing, thinking that we are meant to be invisible.

We can do a very simple exercise using this template:

"How is a(n) _______ like a(n) ________?"

Then we can choose two random things and make the comparison.

My examples are below. I made a quick list of things and then chose two at random. Each time I selected them, my first thought was that it was impossible to make a connection. Each time I decided to try anyway, and each time I was one sentence in and loving the freedom of discovery.

The point of this exercise is not necessarily to be funny or touching. We're just trying to develop this muscle that helps us believe that we can find the connection between any two things.

Here are a couple of my favorites when I did this exercise recently:

How is an acorn like a handkerchief?

They can both ride in your pocket. They both unfold into something bigger. They both are present at the beginnings of things, acorns at the beginnings of towns and countries, handkerchiefs at the beginning of weddings and duels. They both are symbols of peace and strength, they both call on men to be something greater and something much calmer than they have learned to be.

How is a lion like a toothbrush?

A toothbrush has its territory of the sink. It claims it with an arc of toothpaste. This is an area where you would not want to step, if you were one of the other denizens of the sink, for you know who is the king of the sink, just like you know who is the king of the savannah. A lion bristles when you pet it the wrong way. A lion is a cat and therefore is obsessed with cleaning, always running its jagged tongue over his own self and his friends, always trying to make things cleaner.