This month we’re bringing you a series of articles with practical writing tips from Mary Nilsen. Mary has facilitated writing workshops at the Collegeville Institute for several years, and is the author of the book, Words that Sing: Composing Lyrical Prose, among others. The first week, Mary discussed how to turn up the dial on your verbs; the second week, she turned her attention to power sentences; last week, she discussed the transformative power of metaphor; and today, she shares tips for finding fresh metaphors.
Members of my writing workshop at Collegeville stand, notepads and pens in hand, ready to accomplish the assignment I have just given them. As they head toward the window, I wonder how many will take to heart the advice I have just given them. Will they ever get to the point where this habit becomes part of their writing life—something so automatic they rarely will be without the means to take notes? Or will they, like me, assume, when some image or scene startles them, that they will never forget it. No need to carry around a note pad. No need to write it down. No need to keep coffee stained stacks of notes and notebooks on their desk.
The thought flashes through my mind—if only I had taken my own advice throughout my life. How many fresh metaphors would I have saved to notebooks, waiting to be linked with some difficult to describe subject, some deep emotion, some abstraction? After sighing inwardly about ideas and images lost to forgetting, I repeat aloud my instructions:
“Notice what you notice! And write it down!”
Every year the writers I work with at Collegeville stand at the window and look out. Every year they write down what they notice. And every year I am dumbfounded at how perceptions of the same scene vary so widely. Some see the tree fallen in the water on the far bank of the lake, some the lily pads floating atop the water just below the window. Some focus on the frog at the base of the tree, some the dead fish on the shore. Some are mesmerized by the sun glistening off the rippled water, others by the darkness beneath the surface. Twelve sets of eyes. Twelve minds serving as filters. And twelve very different scenes—all from looking out the same window.
Our eyes and our brains filter what we see at any given time. From thousands of sensory images available to perception we see a handful, and from there, we focus on one—for a reason. That one particular image holds some metaphoric truth. It means something. Our eyes lock on it because it has a resonance deep in our subconscious minds. Thus the advice: Notice what you notice. Write it down. You will end up with a notebook filled with images or mini-movies that could, someday, take form as the perfect metaphor.
When I was working on my memoir not long ago, trying to find a way to describe how self-defeating our young son’s behavior was, and, if I were to be brutally honest, how self-defeating my response to him was, I found a stash of old notebooks I had kept when our children were small, long before I imagined myself a writer. They were my sanity scribblings. In one was this scene:
“I heard some loud pounding from the basement. I dashed down and there he was, crouched on the floor, hammer in hand, pounding the wheels off his new red Tonka Truck. “What are you doing?” I screamed. He proudly held up the beautiful new expensive truck with two of its tires bent and misshapen and calmly said, “If I can get rid of the wheels, it will never have a flat tire.”
This little mini-movie, captured in time and space, meant something far beyond a boy, a hammer, and a truck. But what, exactly… ? I’ve come to realize that there is no “exactly.” The possibilities of metaphorical meanings are endless. This scene became my controlling metaphor for an essay about the human penchant for rationalizing destructive behavior. Getting to that point was not easy, though.
I made a chart, as I tell my students to do, putting all aspects of my metaphor—this little mini-movie—on one side and then drawing lines to the other side: Basement is like ???? The boy is like ???? The truck is like ???? The color of the truck is like ???? The hammer is like ???? The sound of pounding is like ???? And gradually it came to me why this scene mattered enough to write it down. And why it still mattered.
I think about Cornelia Mutel’s use of cancer as her metaphor for climate change in her book A Sugar Creek Chronicle and wonder if making the metaphorical connections was a clearer and easier process for her. The earth is like her mother… or maybe it is like Mutel herself. Greenhouse gasses, like cancer, can choke off life. Had her metaphor led her to fall into despair, fearing that we have diagnosed our planet’s problems too late and, as was true with her mother, lost our chance at recovery?
Mutel uses a technique called “extended metaphor,” which means that she names the metaphor a time or two directly, but mostly she just uses cancer-related words to talk about the climate whenever they are appropriate. I wonder if she fretted about whether people would notice. Would get it. Or if it would be too obvious. Or, even worse, if that metaphor has been used so often it has become a cliché. Or if people are just sick of hearing about cancer or, for that matter, climate change.
But she must have plunged on, trying to keep all those distracting thoughts at bay. And, at least for this reader, it worked. After reading her book, I cannot think of our earth without linking it to someone with cancer, changing the way I think about the air I breathe and the water I drink. How precious it is. How much it needs our healing help.
Fresh metaphor or cliché?
Sometimes writers, so fearful of writing clichés, quit trying to use metaphor artfully at all. If that sounds familiar to you, it might be helpful to bear these tips in mind:
- Our language is filled with metaphors, whether we recognize them as such or not.
- When we don’t pay attention, we usually send out a jumble of conflicting images.
- There are few metaphors no one has ever used.
- What is one person’s fresh metaphor is another’s cliché.
What is a writer to do? Notice what you notice!
The image or mini-movie stuck in your mind for a reason. If you dig deep and discover why that scene matters to you, what it is telling you metaphorically, then you can create an authentic, fresh linkage of image to abstraction. And if you write deeply and honestly, the power of that image has the potential to alter the way another thinks or feels. That’s the transformative power of metaphor!