Do you write about life, love, the meaning of family, and relationships? Do you include ideas about education or politics or spirituality? All of these topics are abstract concepts that readers understand according to their lived experiences. This means that the concept of “family” will be understood in two completely different ways by two different people, based on what their families of origin were like.
As a writer, your challenge is to communicate your particular version of these ideas in a way that your readers can grasp. Metaphor is one of the most effective ways to accomplish this task.
When we use a familiar object to stand in for an idea or concept, that is metaphor. Let me give you a few examples for “metaphor” itself:
- Metaphor is the rock upon which our mutual understanding is built.
- Metaphor is braille for those who cannot see what you see.
- Metaphor is a river that carries us to new shores, allowing us to experience places we’ve never been before.
- Metaphor is the lens through which we view life.
In each of those examples “metaphor,” a concept, is embodied by a concrete object. The object we choose to stand in for an idea provides a visual and/or tactile reference point for us and our readers. From there, if needed, we can choose to extend that metaphor for additional understanding. For example, if metaphor is a rock, a solid place upon which to build our mutual understanding, what does that understanding (another abstract concept) look like? Is it a hut, a home, or a tall tower?
There are metaphors we share as a culture. For example, time is money: we spend it, save it, and waste it. Other cultures may have other metaphors. In Hungary, time is conceptualized as a container. They “fill” or “empty” their time. In the same way that different cultures use different metaphors, different regions (mini-cultures) use regional metaphors or colloquialisms, and families have their shared metaphors. Even the concept of “culture” has its own metaphors based on where we live. Here in the U.S., our culture is a “melting pot.” But it can also be described as a “salad bowl” or an “operating system.”
You even have your own personal and unique metaphors. And these metaphors, when used in your writing, can provide a fresh approach to ideas and bring your stories to life in a unique and personal way.
So how do you go about discovering your personal metaphors?
- First, think about your family. Does your grandmother or other family member have a favorite saying? What is the underlying metaphor? My mother always used to say, “Everything comes out in the wash,” a saying she inherited from her grandmother. It means, “Everything will work out.” The underlying metaphor is that life is a washing machine — whatever goes in dirty, eventually comes out clean.
- What about the region in which you grew up? Are there regional colloquialisms? Make a list of these sayings and then ask yourself what the underlying metaphors are? Here are a few examples of regional colloquialisms in the U.S.:
- “Squeaky cheese” for fresh cheese curds
- “Cannibal sandwich” for steak tartare
- “Pigsticker” for a sled with a pointed front
- “Sneak” for tennis shoe
- “Slug” for a hitchhiking commuter
- “Sewing needle” for dragonfly
- Make a list of concepts in your writing. These might include loneliness, a desire to belong, love, family, home, adventure, happiness, sadness. Then, for each of these concepts write down the first images that come to mind. List several images for each concept. These images of real objects are your metaphors. Which ones seem most authentic and true to your subject?
Exploring how you use language in your daily life, your family, and your region, as well as how you personally visualize concepts will reveal your personal metaphors.
As you start to use these metaphors in your writing, first set aside clichés, which are simply metaphors that have been overused to the point of meaninglessness. Employing the remaining metaphors in your writing will keep your writing authentic and fresh and help your readers understand what you are working so hard to communicate.
Have you discovered some of your unique metaphors? Please share in the comments section below.
Other articles on WritingThroughLife about Metaphor:
- Writing in Metaphor
- Creating Fresh Metaphor
- A Week’s Worth of Journaling Prompts: Metaphors for Life