Uplift and Illuminate with Metaphors

Evil God Farts and Total Heart Eclipses
By Elizabeth Cutright
© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer

Imagine a world where, instead of straight forward stop signs, we saw messages that warned “Cool your fire” or “give sacrifice to the gods of pause.”  What if, instead of yelling “fire” in a theater, we had to analyze the meaning behind “heat tumbles over the building like liquid sun” or (my personal favorite), “The evil gods finally fart on me.”

Imagine living in an ambiguous, metaphoric universe.  Not suitable for traffic accidents or building fires, but rich with meaning and interpretation.

“Although undesirable in the above situations,” says Gary Hoffman in Writeful, “in other situations metaphor has the ability to do something that literal, dictionary-defined language cannot do.”

Metaphors offer us the chance to concurrently elaborate on our ideas and focus our intent.  With a metaphor, the reader can understand what might be otherwise inexplicable – and that understanding can be both laser-quick and gradual.  That is the beauty of the metaphor.

“In one flash, metaphor is capable of simultaneously informing in three different ways,” explains Hoffman. “It loads many meanings or associations into a reader’s mind, makes the complicated or unexplainable clearer, and it excites the reader’s interest in what is being written about.”

I must admit that I’m a metaphor addict.  I use it in my work(just check some previous posts, where I compare writing to making soup, getting a stamp in a passport, and great sex) and constantly in everyday life.  I find that a metaphor can sometimes explain an idea or an impression or train of thought in a way that’s so much easier to understand and gets right at the heart of the matter.

And because I value the metaphor so highly, I agree with Hoffman’s notion that “in order to become a good writer, to enjoy writing and feel in control of language, aside from smoothing-the-flow and giving-pause, the most important stylistic principle to learn is fine-tuning with a metaphor.”

Are you getting a flashback to high school English, where terms like simile and metaphor and “narrative point-of-view” were bandied about with abandon, earmarked on test papers, written boldly on chalkboards?  Burned into your brain.  Are you panicking because you never really got a hang of all those literary terms and now you feel like an idiot.

Don’t despair.  The metaphor is not as difficult as it sounds.  The definition is actually trickier than the practice: a metaphor combines two disparate things to explain and revitalize one item from the other through the similarities and the contrasts of these two things.

 

What the what?

I think

Hoffman hits upon a great way to illustrate how we unknowingly live with metaphors every day.  Slang.

“The best way to recognize how much we actually live and often thrive in a metaphorical language-world is through an examination of slang,” says Hoffman.  “Slang is a creative, vital area of language that is acquired naturally, without academic scaffolds and braces.” (Nice little metaphor there, Mr. Hoffman!)

And where you can you find a thriving, primordial pool of slang? Popular music is the key. Hoffman describes it as “youth’s language.”

“For over thirty years rock music has had periods of time when there were several rock starts that filled their lyrics with complicated expressions of love and related matters communicated through rich use of metaphor, much of it slang.”

There are so many great songs that play with metaphor to get at a deeper meaning.  Just off the top of my head, I came up with some of the following:

Total Eclipse of the Heart: “I’m living in a powder keg and giving off sparks.”

Sugar in My Bowl: “I need a little sugar in my bowl, I need a little hot dog in my roll.”

Waterloo: “Waterloo, couldn’t escape if I wanted to.”

If You Could Read My Mind: “If you could read my mind love, what a tale my thoughts would tell, just like a paperback novel…the kind the drugstores sell.”

Rio: “Her name is Rio, and she dances on the sand.”

The Ballad of Love and Hate: “Love writes a letter and sends it to Hate. My vacation’s ending. I’m coming home late.”

Fly Me to the Moon: “Fly me to the moon and let me swing amongst the stars.  Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.  In other words, hold my hand.  In other words, darling, kiss me.”

Those examples aren’t perfect, but you get the gist.

And while slang – as Hoffman points out – is intended to be understood by a small group of people, pop culture has a way of informing and influencing language by expanding the reach of slang.  If you think about it, sometimes the most enjoyable word combinations are taken from one context and thrust into another, moving meaning and intensifying ideas.

“Since slang is always to some extent secretive,” suggests Hoffman, “it is fun to use and almost always make written and oral discourse more playful.  In fact, slang is so powerful, at times it makes many mundane, uneventful endeavors and conversations tolerable, making language interesting when the subject at hand is routine at best.”

Thinking in terms of slang – or words-of-art as we sometimes define them in the trade publishing world – can trigger creativity and allow you to find news ways to describe an action or character.  Slang is also the gateway drug to more sophisticated metaphors.

“Getting into a slang-creating frame of mind is one of the best ways to originate interesting metaphor for a piece of writing,” says Hoffman, who suggests the following exercise to prime the pump.

List ten people, activities or events associated with a particular profession – like a quarterback, a touchdown or a referee.  Opposite those occupations, list a slang word or phrase to describe them that is entirely original.  For example, a religious quarterback becomes “a Bible chucker” and a pass thrown too hard becomes a “sternum sticker.”

Here’s what I came up with:

Legal Profession

Process Server…………………………………..Dispenser of Judicial Commands

Oral Argument………………………………….Linguistic Lacerations

Divorce Settlement…………………………….Goodbye Papers

Hospitality Industry

Rental Car………………………………………….Token’d Tires

Desk Clerk………………………………………….Room Jockey

Flight…………………………………………………Winged Wanderings

Writing and Editing

Writing and Essay……………………………Slinging the alphabet

Bad Review…………………………………….Hater half-sheet

Touchy Editor………………………………..Knife Sharpener

And a bonus: Dogcatcher……………..Puppy Pouncer

Now you try…

Cover Photo by Hartwig HKD via Flickr

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