Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Care and Feeding of Metaphors

We have a winner! Laura Davis wins a 5-page weeding of her manuscript by Patti Hill. Thanks to all who commented. We enjoyed the conversation very much!

When sweet Patti and I were at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, MI in April, we heard the astounding story of Kate DiCamillo, who began her writing career as a 29-year-old working in a book warehouse in the children’s section. This award-winning author of Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread related that by reading the books she stocked, she began to have some ideas about what makes good writing. But Kate soon discovered that exposure to good writing was not enough, talent was not enough, and even hard work was not enough (though she says it is a major part of her success.)

DiCamillo said that while people can teach others many writing skills (and Patti’s post on Monday brought out some marvelous techniques for identifying and pruning extraneous language, for instance), no one can teach metaphor. You either have the skill of creating it or you don’t. This isn’t exactly news: Aristotle who lived over 2000 years ago said

The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblance. –Aristotle, Poetics

I … dunno about that genius bit. But I know that my mind has been percolating as I finish a novel (my regular thinking is Mr. Coffee ™ drip system; when I’m writing I’m a Bunn ™ pourover coffee dispenser with the water always boiling ready to spill into brew.) Yep, I’m full of metaphors.

Well, most everyone who reads this blog is a writer. Do you think in metaphors? I bet you do. I’m going to get you started with a list of writing metaphors from my hot little carafe, so to speak.

  • Last week I referred to the oft-quoted saying that writing is easy, all you do is sit in front of a keyboard and open a vein. Writing my present WIP is more like doing your own bone marrow extraction.
  • If I’m successful in luring readers into my literary world, it will be by slathering them with an emollient atmosphere until they feel so weightless in it that I can pull them along with invisible spider threads.
  • Rewriting feels like a heifer chewing cud: I do it because of my faith that the result will be great; but if I have to be involved with the process one more time I fear I may regurgitate and not be able to swallow it again.

Come on! What does writing feel like to you?


Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I always fall back on the one that fits so well - writing is like giving birth. You try to conceive but you're not sure there's any potential, then it takes so long to germinate and you see it taking shape but it resembles an amphibian. You carry it around in your head for months or years, and as you get closer to the end,you think 'that's it, I'm going to be pregnant forever.' Finally, you have your baby and it's beautiful and any criticism seems appalling. But just as our friend was insulted by a foot-in-mouth comment that their baby's profile resembled Alfred Hitchcock's, you need to step back and look at things objectively. It doesn't mean your manuscript is hopeless, but it might need a makeover down the road. (I didn't make the Alfred Hitchcock comment, BTW)

Latayne C Scott said...

I like that one, Debbie. Another aspect is that while you're pregnant, feeling all the sensations, and while you're delivering, it is all-consuming but no one else can feel it. Then when the baby is born, everyone can see the focus of what you experienced only on a personal level for so long.

Same thing with writing a book. I lose sleep, have indigestion, and cry a lot but no one (unless they're reading along in my WIP) has any idea why I react that way. But perhaps when they read it -- when my "baby" is visible -- others will "see" what it was all about.

Cherry said...

Wow! what encouraging reading for a writer. I was once told by a workshop leader that I was very good at metaphor. Now I am spurred on because you have affirmed the importance. "As apples of gold in settings of silver...[ so are words fitly spoken]" I believe that learning is exponential. Each bit of information connects with what has already been learned-sometimes in a seemingly unrelated field, and increases (like math, to the power of 10) It all goes into a well and wealth of informtion. Further,all learning is related, cross-referenced like an old fashioned library card catalog. So, as a writer, I can browse the card catalog to my heart's content and pull from my well the seemingly unrelated events and facts that make up LIFE-which is what we write about.

Cherry said...

Debbie, and Katayne. Nice metaphor! However; I don't think I have ever been as sick while writing a book, or delivered as early, come to think of it:)

Nicole said...

The baby gig never worked for me, but I get the metaphor. Like Cherry, I don't puke for the entire months of writing.

Writing is like the possession of other souls, living within their journeys.

Writing is like an unexpected storm that crashes into your presence slashing and pouring and leaving you empty in its wake.

Kathleen Popa said...

Edna St. Vincent Millay said that to publish a book is to appear willfully in public with your pants down. It's true. Not only are all your literary weaknesses on display - beyond the reach of your editing pen - but your personal issues creep into your stories as well.

Anonymous said...

Cherry, I'm glad this encouraged you. Always nice to find out that you have an asset you didn't know you have! And we'd have to assume that it's a gift from God, since you didn't set out to learn how, right?

Nicole, I REALLY like your possession metaphor. Cool and creepy.

And Katy, part of the reason I feel so sick while writing is that I am afraid my baby will be born really ugly, the kind that you blink and grimace at.

And that people will see the resemblance between me and the baby right off. Now, that's exposure.

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Katy, I'm with you. Writing is like emotional streaking. To tell a good story we have to strip down and put ourselves on display. Talk about vulnerability.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Congrats to Laura!

I can definitely see how writing would be like giving birth. My metaphor isn't all that poetic but I love to hike (especially the tall mountains here in Colorado) and writing to me is much like climbing a 14'er. There's pain and progress in each step. No matter how much you train (or practice your craft) there's still challenge with every new mountain. Sometimes the peak seems so far away, even impossible and yet something propels me to continue. And above all, every moment is rewarding. Reaching that pinnacle (or finishing a book) fills every place of your body with accomplishment, with purpose. With the knowledge you've done something (or created something) worthwhile, even if you and God are the only ones who get to experience it (or even if that work never gets published).

Anonymous said...

Ariel, I wonder if editors and agents realize just how exposing writing is for the author -- if the author is dealing with authentic emotions and ideas, not just with fluff.

Cindy, I love your metaphor. I've backpacked in and climbed the two highest mountains in New Mexico (both over 13K.) I can't imagine going another thousand feet up. Pain and progress indeed.

Bonnie Grove said...

Writing novels is telling the truth by lying.

I suppose that isn't hugely metaphoric, but every time I approach a novel, a chapter, a scene, I am the Storyteller gathering the people around the campfire. I lean in. "I'm going to tell you a terrible truth. A beautiful truth."

Ahhhhh. Yes, tell us.

"And every word is a lie."

Ahhhhh. Yes, tell us.

Martina Boone said...

Writing is pure joy where sparks of inspiration are going of in your brain like fireworks, but rewriting is like rebuilding a sandcastle one turret, one drawbridge, one grain of sand at a time.

My moat runneth over.

Love this post! And I love the comment about telling the truth by lying!

Anonymous said...

Bonnie, Bonnie, Bonnie. Pure genius from you as usual, dearest girl.

And Adventures -- which of you talented ladies answered? -- how clever. I like the sand castle idea.

Jan Cline said...

I would have to say right now being a writer feels like a roller coaster ride. Just when I think I might be coming to rest on top of the mountain that cart starts it's downhill slide and Im hanging on for dear life wondering if Im going to be sick. OK so that's a bit drastic, but it's been one of those days. :) I'd like a few more walk in the park writing days myself.

Laura J. Davis said...

Writing is like never ending homework.

Kathleen Popa said...

Ha! Laura, it is, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Hey Jan! In our emails to one another here at NM, one of the most-repeated words lately is the word "hurl." So I know what you mean!

And Laura, it's worse than never-ending homework. Being a writer means you never leave your workplace -- because it's inside your own head.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

I take up my Lover's hand and His soul mingles with mine in the ink.

I am a young colt kicking up my heels until my Master comes with halter and cinch and I would do anything to feel His encouraging caress and hear His tender praise.
(can you tell, editors and publishers are a long way into my future)

Anonymous said...

Henrietta, I love the image of the mingling ink! That's a keeper -- and the kind of metaphor that speaks to the reader's and the editor's heart.

Martina Boone said...

Sorry, Latayne, forgot to accept the blame on this one. Marissa and I do try to remember to sign, but half the time I feel like it's just dorky when no one else has to do it. Love being part of M & M, but it makes commenting awkward sometimes.

And I am so with you on fearing the ugly baby. The worst part is that a parent is supposed to love their kid, but during the rewrite, you can't. At least I can't. I want a fairy godmother to dress it up in a beautiful gown and wipe the ashes from its face and send it to the ball where everyone can fall in love with it. But I'm sad for it because the only fairy godmother it has is me, and I'm afraid I'm not good enough to really make it shine. (That's the current stage I'm in. And can you tell I write fantasy? :D)


Anonymous said...

"...and no one can teach metaphor." I know good writing is supposed to be seamless and not draw attention to the writing. But when I come across a really good metaphor when I'm reading a novel, I stop and savor it, and think, "Oh, if I could only do that." It's true, you can't teach metaphor, but my hope is that the more I write, the more I stretch myself, perhaps I'll grow in that area too.

Marcia said...

For me, writing is like a fire in my bones that's burning, burning, BURNING and won't go out. Life (on swirling note cards?) provides the fuel, God's Spirit fans the flame, this shell of a woman holds the angst of it all.

Surely I've been hopelessly scorched, inwardly burned out. But no, I must be like the burning bush—always inflamed but never consumed.

I wonder—is there just an awful lot of dross in me that can only be purged by fire?

“How long, O Lord, how long?” I pant. Months have stretched into years and years into decades. Thirty two years of child-raising just came and went, my sky-soaring eagle of a husband is now a broken-winged sparrow, God has set our feet on unfamiliar paths in Nebraska, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and now Texas... yet the fire burns on. Some days it burns high, other days it merely smolders. But it's always hot enough for me to cry out for relief.

That's my fire metaphor.

I can identify with the birth metaphor, too. This thing of mine must weigh two tons right now and it's going to split me in half when it finally pops out!

And a Samson metaphor just came to mind... Yes... I feel like blind Samson, having worked years at the grindstone, pummeled and beaten up by life, now standing at the temple gates, on the verge of accomplishing a Herculean task. Unlike him, however, I'm unable to do anything but grunt and strain and groan. Can't bring the big thing down!

Oh, by the way, hi. I'm Marcia. While I've been reading this blog and greatly enjoying my subscription for about a month, I've just now marshaled the courage to participate. I confess I'm too right-brained to keep up with the real world, so I'm often late in reading my e-mail. I was so disappointed when I saw I had missed the chance to toss my name in the hat--for Patti to read 5 pages of my manuscript and take a crack at my verbosity. That'll teach be for being so slow! But maybe another contest will make its appearance one of these days.

Anonymous said...

Martina, I see we share many of the same fears. I guess it's cross-genre.

Sharon, the more I've thought about it, though apparently metaphor can't be taught, I wonder if the awareness of them, like the awareness of worldview (which you probably wouldn't know you have one untl someone shows your its architecture) --I wonder if that sensitivity to metaphors can be caught. I know that when I read really good writing I don't copy it but I become infected with something that comes out in better writing of my own.

And Marcia -- welcome, welcome! Like me, you are bursting with metaphors. Love it! Isn't it just a kick?

Tahlia said...

Oh yes I think in metaphors, but one of the first thing I had to learn in writing was not to put too many of them in. It's easy to give the reader indigestion and loose the magic of each one by slamming it right up against another.

I had to kill my babies and I had to be so ruthless. What a murderer I am. But the book was better for it and the babies I left, blossomed becasue there was more room for them to shine.

That said, the whole of my first novel is a metaphor. If you're interested you can have a look at ch1 of 'Lethal Inheritance' at

Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Tahlia, on completing a novel and getting representation for it! I read the first chapter and it has lots of action and vivid descriptions. Way to go!

Anonymous said...

thanks, very good =)