Method Monday is my weekly exploration of my writing process. Take what works for you; ignore the rest. This week, I’m discussing metaphor.
I guess I should begin with a definition of metaphor. Wikipedia’s definition is clear and concise and should suit our purposes: “A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story, or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea.” There are several types of metaphor, but I won’t get into specifics for this post. My goal here is to show how I develop metaphor in writing.
As described in the given definition, metaphor has two basic parts. The “image, story, of tangible thing” is what readers can relate to, what they already understand. The “less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea” is what we hope the reader understands better after we’ve related it to the first part. This is not to say that metaphor is easy to understand. Sometimes writers are vague about what the metaphor represents. If metaphor were always easy, we wouldn’t have much use for university English departments, but even if a metaphor is difficult to interpret, it provides a starting point for the reader to gain intended understanding.
Why use metaphor? Metaphor makes writing more powerful. If I want to write a poem that talks about loss of a family member, I could be literal. I could say what you already know, that losing someone you love hurts. Readers don’t just want truths laid plainly before them; they want images that they can relate to that lead them to those truths. Metaphor, even though it pulls away from the literal in a way, makes certain concepts more “real.” The following metaphor is an except from a poem I wrote after my great-grandmother passed away:
“And he denies,
even more, time’s persistent current
as it carries, too swiftly, her
humble craft toward
a hazy horizon.
He grows into a man, still resisting,
she will paddle back to him.
As her ship’s mast
fades from sight, and as the
setting sun spills its spectrum on the sea,
he misses Lucy—whom he never knew.” -from “Missing Lucy” by Randall Weiss
This metaphor isn’t difficult to understand. Lucy, the grandmother, is a ship that is leaving the boy/man behind. The metaphor works (at least I think this one works) because you can imagine, even if you’ve not done it, standing at the dock watching a ship slowly fade from site and wishing that you could bring it back. I think this conveys the emotion more effectively than just saying, “I miss my grandma.” It also helps relate to readers; they may or may not care about my grief, but if the metaphor can relate to grief they’ve experienced, then it’s successful.
Writing good metaphor takes practice. I’ve written more duds than successful metaphors. Determining the difference between successful and unsuccessful metaphor also takes practice. Read your own work critically. Does your metaphor affect you in the way you hope it affects your readers? Get additional opinions from your peer writing group. The more I write, the easier it becomes both to write metaphor and to know if that metaphor works.
I’ve talked a lot about what metaphor is and how to use it, I guess I should talk about how I write them. I always start with one side of the metaphor equation, usually the tangible image side. I may see or imagine a particular image that I find intriguing, then I think about what that image means to me. Starting with the vague idea then searching for an appropriate image may work better for you, but I rarely work that way. For example, in my poem “Magnolia Blossom,” I started with the image of a magnolia tree (I have one in my front yard). The image didn’t become metaphor immediately, but I knew that it had something to offer. It clicked, if you will, as I sat on the porch watching the blossoms bloom then wither.
What are your thoughts on metaphor?