Metaphors Be With You

I’m obsessed with metaphors. Also, I hate them. But also, I love them. This is me writing every day:

*Type along at a brisk pace, realize I need a metaphor, can’t think of one, click over to Facebook, immediately lose an hour of writing time, come back to manuscript finally, give up and put a place holder and keep writing*

I’m not kidding. It happens literally every day.

This is me every day that I’m revising:

*Read through and make a dozen tiny tweaks per page, get to a note I left myself while drafting: Put metaphor here about togetherness. Curse former self and my laziness and lack of wordsmithiness, threaten to punch laptop*

Also literally every time I have to revise.

And yet. And yet I love them. They breathe life and voice into writing. They are the ichor of imagery (ßthat’s a metaphor because why just say they’re essential when I can cast them as god blood?).

So how does one do them better? Or at all?

Two answers: Poetry and Play.

Let us pausefor a moment and pray..png

First, if you’re not in the habit of reading poetry, start. I recently discovered Mary Oliver. I know. It’s a shame that it’s taken me so long, but here we are. And every morning I read a few of her poems before I get start my own work, and she just blows me away. I feel giddy, like I’m going to open my mouth and cherry blossoms or pink balloons will spill out (metaphor!) because I can’t contain the happiness at what she does with language, the way she evokes images and feeling.

This morning, for example, I read a poem she wrote about goldenrod, that maligned flower that is a borderline weed—if you’re my grandfather it’s definitely a weed—and she said this about them:

All day

On their airy backbones

They toss in the wind,

They bend as though it was natural and godly to bend,

The rise in a stiff sweetness

In the pure peace of giving

One’s gold away.

I mean. . . . COME ON. “Their airy backbones”? That’s a metaphor, which I guess I should define. A metaphor is a figure of speech comparing two things that don’t initially seem alike. Backbones? Vertebrates have backbones, not flowers. But she gave the goldenrod one, and now I see it, and that is metaphor. Suddenly the humble goldenrod, even the lowly goldenrod (if you’re my grandfather) becomes majestic, a benevolent god bestowing its gold upon us.

Just . . . gah.

So that’s the first thing: read lots of poetry. Try on different poets until you find the ones you like. Feel the way they work with language. Any time a poem evokes a strong feeling in you, stop and look at the language the poet used to do that. Any time you find your mind’s eye conjuring an image with perfect clarity, examine how the poet drew the image with words. Poets pack so much into so little. Take it apart, find the invisible stitches, and see how it’s done.

Then play. Play, play, play.

I’ve seen several writing exercises for working with metaphor but one I found most effective for easing my creative writing students into greater use of metaphor was to give them a disorder for a day called synesthesia. This is when someone’s sensory wires get crossed. Some synesthetes associate colors with certain sounds, others see colors when they taste certain foods. Imagine you’re a synesthete, or in other words, that you had to describe something using senses you would not normally use to experience it.

For example: stars. We experience stars strictly with our eyes. But what if you had to describe the way a star feels in terms of its sound? Does it sound like shattering glass? The tinkle of a silver bell? The roar of a fire? How would a star taste? Because a star that tastes like wintergreen gum is far different than a star that tastes like spring water.

All of that? It’s metaphor. The next time you’re stuck on a description for something, explore it with a sense you wouldn’t normally use and then figure out how to explain the feel of the thing rather than the literalness of it through a non-dominant sense. Can’t think of a fresh way to describe the way an oak tree looks? Then describe the way it feels through the sense of taste. “The oak tree was Sunday pot roasts and winter flannels.” “The oak tree sang forgotten hymns and whispered wind stories.”

The internet is rife with writing exercises to help you practice metaphor. Here are a few to get you started playing. Try one every day for two weeks and see how it manifests in your writing—clearer voice, fresher imagery—because it will. You’ll find your groove, the ones that feel write to you, and then you’ll have it: the next level of developing your unique writing voice.

Go forth and explore! (Scroll down for the exercises)


Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and shoe addict. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Her seventh novel, Southern Charmed, released in October. Melanie is pursuing a Masters degree in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin..

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