Some of us think in metaphor. Is that you? If so, put on the brakes. Not everything is, or needs to be, a metaphor! Sometimes readers just want to know what it is—not what it’s like or represents.
Never think in metaphor? Lots of writers fall in this category. If that’s you, let go. Dream. Compare. Distill. Imagine. Remember. The world overflows with fish in the sea, ants at a picnic, stars in the sky, and so on. All those clichés are simply used-up, non-implicit metaphors, dead because we’ve heard them till we’re ready to you-know-what. Those particular dead metaphors are similes. That’s simply an indirect metaphor containing “like” or “as.” Often, metaphor becomes simile from an instinctive awareness that the comparison is flimsy.
Whether your world brims with metaphor or is empty of it, you can become more adept. It’s as easy as baking a cake—from a mix. Here are three adept examples to admire:
Dark figures hurried past; silent men loaded long trailer trucks, huge tomcats crouched in somnolent wariness in all the shadows and a dog clawed at a box, its stomach sucked in with hunger and frustration. And then a cat, its belly sagging with young, ambled over and brushed her leg with its tail—the one warm gesture in a cold country. — Paule Marshall, Brown Girl, Brownstones
In Rosellen Brown’s Before and After, a character sees “that our lives as a family—no, our life as a family, our single life as an eight-legged graceful animal alive under a single pelt—was over.”
The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan, begins with:
the woman and the swan sailed across an ocean many thousands of li wide, stretching their necks toward America. On her journey she cooed to the swan: “In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch. Over there nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English. And over there she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow! She will know my meaning, because I will give her this swan--a creature that became more than what was hoped for.”
But when she arrived in the new country, the immigration officials pulled her swan away from her, leaving the woman fluttering her arms and with only one swan feather for a memory…. Now the woman was old. And she had a daughter who grew up speaking only English and swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow. For a long time now the woman had wanted to give her daughter the single swan feather and tell her, “This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions.” And she waited, year after year, for the day she could tell her daughter this in perfect American English.
As John Drury notes, metaphor “has to make imaginative sense, however surreal or weird it may be…We don’t want our metaphors, any more than our jokes, explained to us. We want to get them immediately.” Their mystery is part of their charm.
Dorianne Laux suggests that we
Imagine a literal world, in which nothing was ever seen in terms of anything else. Falling blossoms wouldn’t remind you of snow. A dancer’s sensuous grace wouldn’t resemble the movements of a lover; the shape of a cloud would never suggest a horse or a sailing ship. If such a world were possible, it would be a severely impoverished one.