Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Cougar in My Head -- (or the Gift of Metaphor)

I attended a storytelling workshop today for business people. Fantastic experience, for a number of reasons, not the least of which was this discovery: Other people don’t think automatically in metaphor.

OK… I can hear you thinking, “Whatever. She thinks she’s tough you-know-what, doesn’t she?! Thinking in metaphors…Bah!” OK -- so maybe I don’t automatically convert events or people or circumstances into metaphors all day long, but I do find myself making comparisons often in my writerly brain. It helps me sort out reality, I think. Handle and parse and prioritize.

So I was taken by surprise when, during this class, we were asked to come up with a metaphor for a particularly sticky work situation. For me, it was harder to decide on the situation than it was to find the words to make the comparison come to life. I settled quickly on comparing my difficult situation to feeling like a sheep climbing a mountain, while cougars leapt out at me from behind random boulders. Not the most elegant (or eloquent) of metaphors, but for a 30 second exercise, it worked.

Here’s the thing – others in the class couldn’t do it. Or they struggled a lot. A LOT.  Many couldn’t wrap their heads around how to describe something by catching the essence and comparing it to a seemingly unrelated item. Something I guess I’ve taken for granted in my own “toolbox” in my head.

After the class was over, I stood chatting with the speaker, Ruth Milligan. (Ruth is the curator for TedX Columbus and my newest storytelling-geeky BFF!) She had some great insight: People who don’t read, struggle with that metaphor exercise. This makes great sense to me. It was, as they say, an “a-ha moment.”

I read about a novel every week. I write a lot for my day job and my dream job. Thinking in metaphor is part of my bread and butter. But like any skill, if you don’t tend it –if you don’t practice creating metaphor or recognizing good ones – that skill will wither and die on the vine. (See that? Metaphor right there! I’m too cool….)

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading a lyrical novel called The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Simply lovely language. There is magic, love, regret, action, spell casting, shape shifting, and sprinkles of Oz, Narnia, Hogwarts, and almost every other classic fantasy story mixed in. Quite a brilliant ode to the genre.

Here are some quotes from Mr. Grossman’s work that I’d marked in the novel simply because I thought they were beautiful. Some are metaphor or simile, but some are just lovely use of language. And considering my self-discovery today about practicing with recognizing and using metaphor, it seemed like a good thing to share with all of you. Here goes:

“Martin stalks away into the dense Darkling Woods, weeping wimpy English schoolboy tears.” – page 75

“A gang of wild turkeys patrolled the edge of the forest, upright and alert, looking oddly saurian and menacing, like a lost squadron of velociraptors.” –page 79

“Are you kidding? That guy was a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking fucking time bomb. He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog.” – page 107 

“Once in a while, an entire sub-sub-category that had long been thought safely dormant would take wing with an indescribable papery susurrus.” – page 128

“It had a clean, industrious air of a room that had just been vigorously swept with a birch-twig broom.”  -- page 150

“His head felt huge and diffuse and empty, like a puff of cloud hanging above his shoulders. The cloud began to drift away. He wondered if he was going to pass out.”  --page 285

I mean, seriously? Lost squadron of velociraptors? Papery susurrus? Puff of cloud hanging above shoulders? Hit somebody or start a blog? This is great stuff! The kind of writing that makes me smile, dog-ear the page just a tiny bit, then go back a day later to find that magical (forgive the pun) sentence or phrase, just so I can smile about it again. (And I'll give any writer bonus points for susurrus. One of the best words. Ever.)
Have you found any great metaphors lately? Do you think they are hard to write? Or do you, too, tend to think in them more often than others? Maybe it’s a writer thing. Maybe we are lucky enough to be wired to think in metaphor, poetry, and description. If so, it’s a gift I never realized I had…until today.



  1. As you know, I'm reading Seize the Story with my nephew, who just wrote his first book. We are doing the exercise of interviewing the characters.
    Here's one of the things he said today:
    Sharky was stopped by "yellowish eyes that floated in the dark like fireflies" and "the creature had hair so dark and brown it was like cockroaches crawling up his arms" and "his mouth was so cracky and yellow like day old popcorn"

    He loves similes!

    1. Very cool, Nancy! Sounds like your nephew is a creative young man. Keep writing with him! Every budding writer should have an inspiring aunt like you. :)

  2. I wake, sleep, teach, and write...I understand and I explain my time in the world... in metaphor. It helps me put things in relationship to see the bigger picture and make sense of what surrounds me--to say nothing of helping me describe it to others. "The combination of flavors in that meal was a New Orleans brass band strut that leaves a soul a little bit tired and a little bit electrified."