Writing Through Metaphor

Metaphors: The Heart of Writing

As writers, metaphors are the air we breathe, right? They’re the ground beneath our feet. They’re our bread a butter. Metaphors are our lifeblood. Should I keep going? Probably not.Metaphor Blog by Justtin

          Though I’m being flippant here, my sentiment is serious. Metaphors are at the heart of all writing. In fact, I would go as far as to say that all language is metaphor. When we ascribe a series of sounds to an object, we are allowing one thing to stand in place of another. The sound is the meaning. Or, as Aristotle put it in his Poetics, a metaphor is “the application of a word that belongs to another thing.” Therefore, since the word, say “torpedo,” is not the thing itself but is rather simply a representation of the thing, proven by the fact that I can drop a page with the word “torpedo” on it from the top of the Empire State Building and not create an international incident, the word stands as a metaphor for the concept it represents.

          Though this argument may seem a bit specious on the surface, I make it because I want to assert that writers need metaphors the way reality tv stars need poor decision-making—they’re the foundation of our means to success. I don’t intend to argue that every writer must craft esoteric comparisons the way that Cormac McCarthy does, nor do we have to write beautiful conceits in the vein of John Donne. But the ability to see the world through metaphor opens us up to descriptions and situations that we might have otherwise overlooked. In a scene from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, the pitifully comic protagonist, Snowman, asserts that “[he is] toast.” For us, with our long history of cliched and hackneyed lingo, we understand his meaning immediately—and perhaps we even roll our eyes at the outdated comparison—but as he is confronted with explaining the comparison to the Crakers, beings who are absent of any knowledge of bread, butter, electricity, or cynicism, an explanation is impossible. If we recognize that a metaphor is formed by a tenor (the subject that is being compared) and a vehicle (whatever the subject is being compared to), then the Crakers lack any conception of the vehicle, and in truth, they perceive the subject (Snowman) in similarly alien terms. What we can see in this example is that metaphor is an essential way in which we make sense of our world—when trying to survive in an unfamiliar landscape, we look for correlations to aid in our understanding. Ever speak to someone when you don’t share a language? What do you do? You listen for cognates, and failing that, you look for gestures or facial expressions you recognize. Since metaphor is so essential to communication, it is likewise essential that, when crafting them, we are certain that the metaphors are embedded in the reality of the narrative voice. A stuffy Victorian lady would not likely describe herself as toast, and if she did, she would come across sounding more like Mrs. Doubtfire than as a dignified dowager. She would be a caricature. If your character were a semi-literate high school jock, he likely would not wax poetic on the significance of the Oxford comma. What would the jock see the world in terms of? Not astrophysics. Not macramé. When he sees triumph on the face of an actor in a film, to him it would be like winning the marathon or nailing the perfect sack. He would not say the actor looks like he won a Nobel Prize.

          Metaphor has been part of literary style since Gilgamesh first sought immortality. We see it in ancient Greece when Homer describes Achilles’ pursuit of Hector as being like “when a hawk in the mountains… / makes his effortless swoop for a trembling dove” and when Sappho explains the beauty of a woman by saying, “Awed by her splendor / stars near the lovely / moon cover their own / bright faces / when she / is roundest and lights / earth with her silver.” What romance! The subject of her poem is so gorgeous that other beautiful women fade into nothing when she is near. In the Scandinavian, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon sagas, poets used kennings, compound poetic phrases, in place of nouns to add beauty and majesty to their language. In Beowulf, warriors must face “the sleep of the sword” and sail along the “whale-way.” In one of the riddles from the Exeter Book, the chain that connects an anchor to its ship is a “guardian tail.” These examples show us both universality and specificity in their presentation. In any culture that recognizes beauty and where there is a moon, one could embrace Sappho’s description of a beautiful woman, but not every culture would see death as “the sleep of the sword.” Still, both serve their purposes, whether they be to carry an experience beyond the here and now or to embed the reader in the culture of the story.

          Metaphors should not only appear in the mouths of poets. They should populate fiction as well, and within fiction, some may appear in description or in the mouths or minds of deep-thinking characters. However, just as in real life, in fiction characters should speak in metaphor regularly. When you take the time to look at it, slang is very often metaphorical in shape. Consider the newscaster who speaks of soldiers as “boots on the ground.” This type of metaphor, synecdoche (when one uses part of something to represent the whole), is present in a lot of speech. The same newscaster may report that Washington announced something important. This is metonymy (when a related concept represents something else) as the reporter really means the administration in Washington. Less formally, listen to teenagers speak, listen to their idioms, and you will hear metaphors all the time. As a high school teacher, I hear new metaphors each year. Last year, everyone was “spilling the tea.” This year, everything that’s good is “lit.” When I was a kid, “I was rubber and you were glue.” Remember? Litotes, a form of understatement where you say the negative of the opposite of what you mean, permeates common speech. That actor is “not ugly,” and if I say the right thing, I’m “not wrong.” Metaphors fill common dialogue.

          If you’re looking to work on your own skill with metaphor, as with every other aspect of writing, study the experts. Read Shakespeare. Jealousy is “a green-eyed monster that makes fun of the victims it devours.” Or consider, “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” More contemporarily, study Cormac McCarthy. In The Road, he describes the sky of his characters’ post-apocalyptic world as “a cold glaucoma dimming away the world.” The beauty of a metaphor like this one is the way that it also alludes to one of the major themes the novel develops: does a loss of resources necessitate a loss of moral vision?

          Altogether, I would urge fiction writers not to overlook the value of metaphor. Don’t disregard its promise, and when you are writing, consider the sorts of comparisons your characters would make or the idioms that would develop in the world and the culture they inhabit. Though writing good metaphors may not be as easy as the ABCs, give it a shot. What you come up with might just be a whole new kettle of fish.

About the Guest Blogger:

Justin Jones has taught high school English and Creative Writing in Canton, GA, a northern suburb of Atlanta, for over twenty years. Until recently, he has spent his spare time raising children, grading essays, and taming ill-behaved felines. He has a BA in English from Oglethorpe University, a MS in Educational Curriculum from Walden University, and a MFA in Creative Writing from the Etowah Valley Writer’s Institute of Reinhardt University. His fiction and nonfiction have been published in The Blue Mountain Review, Family Life Publications Magazine, and Sanctuary.

Interested in Guest Blogging Here?

If you are a writer with something to say about a particular element of writing or the craft of writing in general, please contact me at dwnmjr@comcast.net. I will be happy to consider your guest blog post on my site.

Happy Writing!

Writer Mentorship Opportunity in Atlanta- The Wren’s Nest Scribe’s Mentor Program

Creative Writing Mentorship to Support Young Authors: The Wren’s Nestnest

I’ve been blessed with amazing writing mentors, writers who went beyond my expectations to support and help me become a better writer. Mentorship has been one of the most rewarding experiences during my journey and I will never forget their sound advice–whether it was editorial, creative, of about the industry in general. Mentorship has made me realize that to give is as satisfying and beneficial to my writing as to receive. It truly is give and take. I am reaching out to my fellow writers because an opportunity to mentor young writers (5th- 8th grade) through the Wren’s Nest in Atlanta has come my way and the program needs more mentors. The Wren’s Nest was the former home of Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Brer Rabbit Tales, and is now a cultural center used to promote the art of story telling, African American folklore, and to preserve the legacy of Joel Chandler Harris.

The Wren’s Nest Scribes is a middle school writing program in partnership with KIPP STRIVE Academy. The students participate in one-on-one mentoring with writing professionals to learn how to write creative fiction. Each year the students are given a new theme to write about and the stories are published in a book which debuts at the Decatur Book Festival during Labor Day weekend. Orientation is January 25th at 2:00 at the Wren’s Nest. Currently, they need about eight more mentors. The mentoring takes place at KIPP STRIVE Academy, a charter school off I-20 in the westside, and lasts for twelve weeks between January 30th through April 23rd (with a week off for spring break). Sessions last one hour.

Don’t let Atlanta traffic or the time commitment stop you from helping out here, because much of the work can be done remotely via Google classroom. They only ask that you be present for the initial couple of weeks in order to get to know your student(s) and choose a subject, and then the last couple of weeks for the final edits.

For emerging writers and grad students this would be a wonderful addition to your CV. Plus, it’s fun and you are helping sculpt and support young writers. Last year I participated on a guest judge panel for a writing contest for young writers and I got to meet so many talented kids. They were so excited and grateful. I wish I had had these types of mentorships when I started writing awful poetry! These are bright kids who want to be writers. You would be helping them achieve this goal. Imagine the joy you will feel watching them sign the anthology at the Decatur Book Festival. This year the Scribes program celebrates its 10th anniversary: 117 students and 100 mentors have participated to produce ten volumes of stories. The 2020 anthology theme is fantasy and imagination. How can you resist that?

To sign up or for additional information please contact Jim Auchmutey at jimauch@gmail.com.

Happy Writing!

Thinking Beyond Your Critical Thesis?

criticial thesis images

Five Points, A Journal for Literature and Art: Thinking Beyond Your Critical Thesis?

When I started working on my critical thesis, my thesis advisor wisely suggested that I choose an author to research and write about who was less prominent in the literary world.  What he meant by this was that if I selected an author everyone had written about (Hemingway, for example), the probability of finding something new or something unsaid about the author was unlikely. When you’re in the middle of it, you just want to see the end. A critical thesis is daunting, a lot of hard work. However, I took his advice and chose William Gay. I had already been reading and writing small essays about Gay’s work, so it was a natural fit. I went fully down the rabbit hole with Gay. Halfway through my critical thesis I realized that when I was finished with my thesis I would never be finished with Gay, and moreover, as a writer I felt compelled to make others aware of Gay’s writing and artwork. I was able to take sections from one of my chapters on his paintings and write an essay about Gay. In addition, I asked Gay’s archivist and biographer, Michael White, whom I met while working on my critical thesis, at the request of the editor to provide an unpublished interview. The archive houses Gay’s paintings, but here again, the contact through my critical thesis was already there. Your essay, review, or article may not have as many moving parts as mine did. That just makes it all the easier.

Gay passed away in 2012, and if it wasn’t for the endeavors of those preserving his memory, as well as his diehard fans, I could see him fading away in obscurity—not overnight, but eventually. So, for those MFA students who are contemplating writing their critical thesis, or have proudly wiped the sweat of your brow because it’s finally done, think about your options and don’t let it sit too long before going back and visiting a chapter or two. This is what I did with Five Points, and while I had to tweak quite a bit in tone and add more details regarding Gay’s paintings, it paid off. Literally, I got paid for something I loved doing and had completed most of the research anyway.

I’m very proud of the Five Points publication and wanted to share this achievement with everyone. I hope you consider purchasing it (only $15). Obviously, it supports literary journals and writers, but it may also give you an idea of  how to make your critical thesis pay back some of your invested time. The cover is one of Gay’s paintings. There is also an unpublished interview between Gay and Michael White, eight internal images of more paintings, plus a map of Gay’s fictional town. If you are a teacher and are wanting to introduce your students to Gay’s works, this would be a great educational tool, because it showcases a little bit of everything related to William Gay.

To purchase and support the Five Points, A Journal of Literature and Art, visit: http://fivepoints.gsu.edu/

Happy Writing!