Unlock Your Writing with Metaphor

This is a special post in a new series on the craft and practice of writing. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be taking an in-depth look at specific areas of the writing craft. These posts will be drawn from questions that bubble up as people write at Voice & Vessel. They’ll also call out tools and points in the journey that hold potential for becoming a stronger writer. 

If something resonates with you, I’d love to know! Or if you have a question I could explore in a future post, please feel free to share.

When we think of writing as a practice, especially if we’re new to the blank page, we tend to go to its nuts and bolts. We think of structural parts we can wrap our voice around: sentences, words, paragraphs, dialogue, word counts, line breaks, and so on. There’s a tactical-ness that helps us get started. Sometimes the focus on structure is helpful for our logic-mind, the same mind that helps us get up for work in the morning and worries about paying the bills. That mind sees structure and breathes easy: “Oh, good—if you tell me every paragraph needs three sentences, then I'll always know if I’m doing this right."

Unfortunately, "doing this right" is not always in harmony with making art that rattles our skin and amps up our hearts. For many writers, beyond the rules, there lies a kind of longing. 

It’s often a longing with an unknown root. It's our voice in the distance, waving at us from the deep. It may show up concretely: a story just feels flat. A character falls apart. Our mind wanders in the midst of re-reading our own poem. We read something gorgeous by another writer, and we wonder why our words don’t spark like that.

It’s not that we want to be a parrot. We simply long for more richness in our own voice. It’s one thing to get something written, but what if we want to make the writing sing?

There are a number of ways you might unlock this. For me, one of the most meaningful practices is tuning in to the images and metaphors in my writing—and developing a relationship with metaphor, so I can embrace it more readily in my still-unearthed ideas.

What is metaphor?

Metaphor is a figure of speech, a symbolic way of giving meaning to the world and your ideas through imagery. Feelings, ideas, tones, and energy can all be created on the page through images and language that double as symbols. They can be simple and used to capture the feeling of a single moment, or they can be elaborate and used as the heart of a whole poem or story.

Sometimes they are comparisons (e.g., the moon was as white as a dove). Sometimes they are direct stand-ins that shuttle us right into an image or idea (e.g., the moon is a dove tonight). As the poet Jane Hirshfield says in the video included here: "Metaphors give words a way to go beyond their own meaning. They're handles on the door of what we can know and of what we can imagine."

Why think about metaphor in your writing?

To be clear, “doing metaphor” for metaphor’s sake would probably feel awkward and forced. The idea is not to force symbolism or deep meaning into your writing. The idea is to begin to trust the images that emerge in your writing… and listen for the metaphors they may hold. Sometimes a tree is just a tree in a story. But sometimes a tree stands in for a relationship, a forgotten family moment, or a dream you once had.

I’m inviting metaphor into this conversation on craft, because it’s a doorway I notice many writers passing by naturally that they could open more directly. (It's hard to practice a thing or open a door if you don't realize it's waving at you!)

The hope is to become more aware of when metaphor shows up naturally in your writing. Metaphors are another tool in your writing toolbox. They're another hammer you can use... but rather than taking the hammer to the empty page and hunting for nails, the idea is to remember you've got a hammer for those times when a nail shows up. Each of us carries lots and lots of nails yet to be tested on the page. Every workshop seems to pour out images, all unique to the writer who carried them into the studio.

Metaphor in Practice: Two Ways It Works

Metaphor can be a powerful way to unlock more of a story overall.

Let's say you start writing about your Aunt Lucille, and you write about her a few times. Maybe you're even working on a book of Aunt Lucille's life. As you do, you notice that animals, especially wild ones, are showing up a lot in the writing. Interesting, you say. And you keep writing.

Now, if you know of that "metaphor hammer" in your toolbox, these animals start to seem like more than coincidence. Somehow these connections between the wild animals and Aunt Lucille add up to something... and by approaching them with more awareness, you start to find new language and new images. It's not just about comparing Aunt Lucille to a fox one time. Suddenly you notice how even her body moves like a fox. You see how misunderstood she is... how people think she's sly and cunning when she's so much more. Maybe she's protecting something. Why? Is there a story there? Maybe she outran a hound early on and always has something at her heels. Thanks to this metaphor way of seeing, you're unlocking much more material. The fox is leading you into the woods, instead of you groping for the next line.

You may not have started with saying, "I need to write a metaphor for Aunt Lucille." But certainly, because you knew it was a tool, you were ready to play with the metaphors when they showed up. Your gut was tuned to spot the clues.

In that way, metaphor works on a big level, to move a story forward and crack open a subject, character, idea, or memory. People often have lots of objects, images, symbols, etc. in their writing that could be a doorway deeper into their story. But sometimes in the pursuit of "telling the story" in a linear way (the plot), we miss those gems! We think they're just descriptions or parts of the setting, when in fact they have tons of material to share with us. To the extent we're open to unearthing the story, I really believe the bones, shadows, and thumbprints will keep revealing themselves. 

Metaphor can lead to vivid writing and new language.

If you read something by a writer you love and feel a punch in your gut, pause and take stock of how they might be using images and metaphor. Often the metaphor delivers the punch without us noticing a hand was involved. When I hear people longing for that kind of snap to their writing, the first thing I do is listen for how they are (or aren't) putting images to work in their writing. Compare these two sentences: 

  • He moved around the room secretively and seductively.
  • He was a snake wrapped around the chair of anyone who would accommodate.

In the first sentence, we get information, and the mood is set off with adverbs: secretively and seductively. All of it might be accurate, but does it spark as much as an image?

In the second sentence, the metaphor gives us a direct image, and the connotations associated with that image follow. Snakes represent something immediately. Their symbolism is "overlaid" on this person. I didn't know what I was going to write for these examples, but once I saw the snake, I quickly saw the man wrapped around the chair... and the rest poured out from that one image. The image gave me body language, which then gave me a connection to the scene, which could then unravel into a deeper metaphor for how this person behaves in the story. 

If I kept writing, holding that image might influence how the man's voice sounds in my head, what words he chooses, how other people in the room perceive him, etc. Even if I never say the word "snake" again, the image has already gifted me a universe of related feelings, words, and possible scenarios.

Of course, if you wrote a whole novel where the man was a snake, that might get to be too much, or it might become an allegory! The idea isn't to get trapped by metaphor but to bring awareness to its presence in your own writing. It's another way to listen for the images that most call to you, and then go further with one or two, to dig up more material.

A Practice for You

Return to a piece of writing that originally called to you but has gone quiet. Find one image in that writing. Maybe it's an animal, a tree, a vehicle, or an object in a room. Just find one, with no judgment or expectation. Write the image on a new sheet of paper. For 10 minutes, make a sprawling list of words, sounds, other images, phrases, memories, and flashes of thought that rise up as you rest with the image. Let yourself sink into this, without thinking about what shows up.

When you're ready, pause and look up from the page. Of all this new material, what stays with you the most? Is there a new phrase that caught your attention? An overall feeling that seems new or surprising? Carry this back to your piece of writing, and write into it for at least 10 minutes. You may choose to expand the piece within what it already was, by injecting the phrase or idea into a sentence that felt tired before. Or you might begin with a new line on a new page. Think of this material as a new point on the map that you can write from.

Thank you for reading and writing with me! If you liked this post, you might enjoy receiving
studio letters from Voice & Vessel, where I share more prompts and practices that aren't published on the blog.