I am fishing. Trying to lure an idea, hook it, pull it to the surface. I want to cut it open and see what’s inside. I want to show what I know about this slippery, incandescent, underwater creature.
In writing this, I use the very thing I want to write about as my way of writing about it.
Defined as “a figure of speech in which one thing is identified with another”, the word metaphor originates from the Greek word metapherein – meaning “to transfer“.
So how do I write about this creature, this chimera, that has kept me connected to the miracle of words and stories ever since I could first absorb a story whole, and breathe out wonderment? Ever since I first felt the power of story to transfer my senses, my very being, to another time and place? How do I write about this element of language that to me is like alchemy? (That’s a simile, by the way; when one thing is likened to another.) String a sequence of discrete words together and suddenly it’s possible to create meaning, magic, metaphor. Alchemy. Yet only certain sequences of words will speak and sing to us in this way. Some remain firmly in the realm of the mundane and in plenty of instances, that’s all that’s required; to get a character out of a room and into a forest, to indicate where the gun is kept, or how the dress is unzipped.
But I want to talk about the other use for sentences – when they transcend their form and boundaries, and become more than what they appear at first glance. Although i feel I know more than a little about how to weave metaphor into writing, I know less about how to extract it out of the writing process, to hold it up to the light and discuss it in a way that may reveal something to you – the writer-as-reader. This may be my first attempt. I’m sure it won’t be my last.
Why write with metaphors? Paradoxically, describing one thing as another may be the best way to acquaint your idea with your reader. Metaphors can create a sense of the universal in the particular. Your reader may never have gone sky-diving, but when you describe it as being suspended, weightless, swimming through clouds, they’ve probably floated in some kind of body of water before, and experienced that sense of weightlessness.
Metaphors may shine a light onto the obscure; open doors and windows onto an experience deemed impossible to write about. Finding the right metaphor(s) may help you find the right audience.
Look at Patrick Suskind’s Perfume and his intriguingly complex metaphor of the power and impact of scent; scent as the purest expression of life-force, scent as obsession. Suskind immersed us in Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s perspective right from the opening; describing eighteenth-century Paris via its melange of smells. Why did this work so well? Firstly, because it was an original departure from the predominant tendency for writers to describe setting in visual terms, and secondly because nearly every being on earth has experienced the affective and arousing power of scent in some instance in their lives.
Without this web of metaphor as a driving force in the main character’s psychological and physiological drives, which in turn heavily influenced the narrative action, this story may have been little more than a macabre and unfeeling account of a perverse, amoral serial killer toward which readers may have had little sympathy. Without this evocative use of metaphor, Perfume may not have found its audience.
Having just written two (rather long and significant) short stories that were both rich with metaphor in less than a month, the process left me reflecting on the role of metaphor in my writing; how I harness what might, in initial drafts, be an instinctual (and sometimes random) wielding of them, and develop their presence in subsequent drafts. I also try to harmonise the selection of metaphors I use. This is why the image of metaphors as chords occurred to me as I was searching for a title for this series. The concept was also on my mind, as one of my new stories is about music and was called Chords of Desire.
Chords are defined as three or more notes that combine harmoniously. The notes are melodic in themselves, yet re/sound more intricately when played – and heard – together. In writing, one can work with metaphors in this way, too. The selection of metaphors can create cumulatively harmonious meanings throughout your story. I’ll be discussing the crafting of metaphor, using my work on these stories, in more detail in the second post in this series.
Using metaphor feels instinctual to me. Yet I do encounter work almost entirely devoid of metaphor, or work where the use of metaphor is clumsy or inconsistent; where it appears contrived, or pasted over the top; dislocated from the heart of the story.This suggests to me that using metaphor in writing is innate to some, and not to others. It also suggests that it’s a skill, a way of seeing, that can be developed and deepened. Mark Tredinnick, author of The Little Red Writing Book says this of metaphor:
“But make sure nothing you do just decorates your writing. It should serve your subject matter (by getting at its nature and it soul); it should help your readers (by pleasing them in itself and by making the reading more than a merely literal experience); it should animate your sentences (by giving them colour and attitude and music).”
Metaphor is a non-linear way of making meaning. You weave your metaphors, like certain vivid threads, through the tapestry of your story; through place and plot and the passions and motivations of your characters, their thoughts and feelings, actions and interactions.
At this point, it is useful to discern between strong metaphoric presence and weak metaphoric presence.
Strong metaphor is, as Tredinnick says, not mere decoration to a story. It is integral thread to its fabric; part of the warp and the weft. Unpick it and the tapestry itself would unravel. Its patternings and intricate design provide both beauty and functionality to the story.
There: I’ve created a metaphor. Story as tapestry, metaphor as certain vivid threads, and patternings. Here’s another…
Strong metaphoric presence casts a fine web of meaning over the entire story. All its separate strands are also interconnected; the metaphors have their own perfect geometry and symmetry. The strands give both shimmer and strength to the story; they catch the individual perceptions and associations of individual readers within their sticky threads. Yet they are almost invisible to anyone but the most perceptive of readers.
And sometimes, metaphors are also invisible to the writer. Sometimes, the hardest thing to see in one’s own work are the latent metaphors, lying dormant or only half-awake in the narrative, and the themes that the narrative inevitably suggests and begets.
Researching metaphor for this post has involved a re-write of my initial posting. Although I studied film, literature, and play-texts in the various subjects of my Arts degree, and metaphor was discussed constantly, I don’t remember coming across the following terminology to deconstruct and discuss a metaphor, and thought it would be useful information to include. When analysing a metaphor, it can be broken down into two components. These terms originate from within Gestalt therapy.
The ground is the subject of the metaphor.
The figure is the object or concept from which attributes are borrowed.
To use an example from Chords of Desire which centres around a cellist and her cello:
“She makes love to me each night on stage, each performance a fresh seduction.”
This is from the perspective of the cello, and has a separate (though related) metaphor for each clause. The ground in the first clause is the concert (inferred by the words ‘on stage’); the figure is ‘makes love’. The metaphor lends the attributes of sexuality and sensuality to music, the performance itself and the relationship between the cellist and the cello (and also gives life and feeling to a supposedly inanimate object).
In the second clause, ‘performance’ is the ground, and ‘seduction’ is the figure. She (the cellist) is also the subject of the sentence, thus casting the cellist as the seductress, and once again imbuing the attributes of sexuality, sensuality and possibly, foreshadowing an element of control or manipulation, to the cellist, and the performance. The attributes of seduction – becoming aroused, receiving sensory pleasure – in performance are also subtly implied to the off-stage character in this sentence: the audience.
See how incredibly hard metaphors work in fiction? They convey so much information, in both context and subtext; so much more eloquently and elegantly than if we tried to describe all of that literally. Now, we start to see the power of metaphor.
So, how do you draw out your metaphors? How do you make them more alive and apparent in your work? Writer Lidia Yuknavitch proposes (and I agree) that all writers have an internal “shortlist” of what she calls metaphors. She lists singular words, such as “water”, so strictly speaking they are only one half of a metaphor. I do admire her overall approach to writing, and in the here-and-now of the exercise Lidia proposes, it doesn’t matter so much what you call them; what’s important is that you identify them. So I’d simply humbly suggest here it would be more accurate to call them themes.
Theme: main idea or underlying meaning of a literary work (or any artistic medium) that may be stated directly or indirectly.
As writers, we are constantly turning over and (re)working these core themes through all our stories, all our writing. Of course, other metaphors will crop up to serve individual pieces of work, but we all have our inner shortlist that essentially drives our creative explorations. But many writers are not aware of them, and so miss opportunities to mine them – like a vein of gold buried deep in rock. We miss opportunities to deepen the work by not honing in on these metaphors.
A decade or so ago, in another life as a passionate young theatre director, I had been invited to guest lecture to a class of adults studying poetry. The lecturer knew I also wrote poetry, but he simply encouraged me to talk on anything relevant to all artistic practices. I centred my lecture on the use of symbols and symbolism in creative and artistic practice. In the class discussion, I extended this initial idea to include themes. This exercise is based on what I did with the students in that class.
TAKE PEN IN HAND
Try this. close your eyes, and reflect on symbols or themes that fascinate you, obsess you, haunt you. You will notice yourself drawn to work that has these elements: in films, books, theatre, or the visual arts. If you have a body of work, you will inevitably have written about these yourself. Open your eyes – and list 5 – 10 of these.
Here are mine:
- The Feminine
- The Underworld
- Sexuality (particularly feminine sexuality)
- The Body
- Absence / Loss
- Secrets / Speaking the Taboo
(Looking at my list, it becomes obvious why I am drawn to the genre of erotic fiction. It’s an apt framework to explore many of my themes.)
Now, take the list, and write a short poem, incorporating the themes and symbols on your list. If poetry is a “block” to you, try three paragraphs. If you are blocking on how to begin, start with the prompt:
“Again and again, I find myself drawn to … “. Keep writing until you’ve used them all in some way.
Here is the poem I wrote in that class while giving the students time to write their own poems (you may have read it elsewhere on this blog):
She pries the pomegranate apart
full of fertile questions
and sucks each seed for its secret
Drowning in the viscous sweetness,
Scarlet juices spill waxen over lips
Sealing the contract of her subterranean affair
I didn’t know it back in 2005, but Persephone, and the many symbols and metaphors, inherent in her story, would continue to haunt me, until I started to see the shape of a novella, telling the myth as her story, in her voice. I keep this small poem on the wall above my desk. I’m working on that novella draft now.
Look at your list. Look at your poem or piece of prose. Feel excited? The list can be a like the legend on a map for expansion of creative projects and possibilities. Here there be secrets. In this ocean lies loss. On this continent, transformations.
The poem may be a starting place for a larger work. Let it breathe. Let it gestate. Re-visit it periodically. See what happens.
In the next instalment of this series of posts on metaphor, I’ll be looking at themes as a starting place for developing metaphor in fiction, and I’ll be further unravelling my thoughts – and threads – of metaphor’s meanings.
As the astute Mr Tredinnick says, we create metaphor and other forms of figurative language “to throw a light on the nature of the thing, and to bring the thing, in your writing, alive.”