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.
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history of cliched and hackneyed lingo, we understand his meaning immediately—and perhaps we even roll our eyes at the outdated comparison—but as he is confronted with explaining the comparison to the Crakers, beings who are absent of any knowledge of bread, butter, electricity, or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.
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