A Bad Metaphor is like a Night in an Airport. . .

- by Elaine Isaak

A friend of mine wrote his Phd thesis examining metaphors in the Bible & other places, considering the differences between metaphors we used then, and metaphors we use now.  It’s interesting stuff, considering how often we use them, many times without even thinking about it.  Much of our metaphorical language comes from occupations or situations that we no longer relate to or understand (“three sheets to the wind”,  “the whole nine yards”).  These phrases just tumble from our lips (or our keyboards) without consideration for their past or whether they are truly apt for our current needs.

One of the most interesting and troubling aspects of this ingrained metaphorical thinking is the extent to which we can become trapped by our metaphors.My friend’s favorite example is that of the “ladder of success”.  We can break this down by speaking about which rung we are on, or comparing our relative height on this imaginary ladder to someone else who appears to be higher or lower (and even the idea of elevation being good or bad is another level of metaphor).  But the metaphor contains some inherently dangerous ideas.  For instance, the idea that there is only one pathway to success and that it’s dangerous to move to the side:  lateral movement = falling off.  People can become trapped by the metaphors they use to think about their lives, and conversely, they are freed by replacing that metaphor with a different one, or by shifting the meaning of the metaphor to open it up.

Some time ago, author Ellen Kushner hosted a session at Readercon where we spoke about our metaphors for writing.  It turned out that many people thought of writing a book in terms of having a baby:  conception, gestation, labor, joyous result.  But this metaphor involves many aspects less suitable for the reality of writing: the idea that it takes a long time, that you can have only one book in process, that it is physically and psychologically demanding, that the result is precious, and perhaps not subject to revision or judicious trimming.  That whole “my book is my baby” thinking can limit our ability to work with an editor or to see the book for how it really is, rather than how the doting parent wished it would be.

At the time, I spoke of writing as like dating.  You’re attracted to an idea & flirt with it for a while (maybe more than one at a time).  You get closer, you still love it, but you find it has flaws.  Some idea-relationships are brief, the one-night-stand of a flash fiction piece, while some require commitment, the extended learning curve of writing a series.   The notion in both dating and writing that what looked good in the heat of passion may not stand up to the scrutiny of a cold morning. . .

What’s your metaphor for writing?  Is it helping you to guide your process and your career?  or could it be secretly tethering you to limiting beliefs?  Break free–try out a different metaphor  and see where the writer’s mind might take you.

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