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Memoir Monday: The Metaphor

A hallmark of literary fiction and memoir that distinguishes them from genre fiction is figurative language. While genre fiction (mystery, sci-fi, chick lit, fantasy) focuses mostly on plot and narrative, literary fiction focuses more on character and style, and style is often achieved through the use of fancypants language like metaphors and similes. I am a huge fan of literary fiction and an even bigger fan of a great metaphor or simile. In fact, right now I’m reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for the first time, and the lack of figurative language is making it a very dry read.

I’m not gifted at writing metaphors. They don’t come naturally; I have to think long and hard to come up with a good one. But I love reading them. And I’m always impressed by readers who are good at writing them. Here are a few that I’ve come across recently:

From Laura Fraser’s travel memoir, All Over The Map: “From the air, Savai’i seems much bigger and wilder than Upolu, matted with rain forests, its jagged ridge of volcanic craters raised like the backbone of a dark and ancient sea monster.” And another: “He helps me off with my jacket and his sure, gentlemanly touch makes popcorn explode under my skin.” I love both of these images—the dark and ancient sea monster and the popcorn exploding under the skin—because they’re both so perfect and because I never would have come up with them on my own.

What makes a good metaphor is that it not only conjures an image, but that it is unique. If we’ve heard it before, or something similar, it’s not unique. Sometimes metaphors are so tenuously related to the noun they describe that I never would have made the association on my own. And yet that is what makes them unique. For example, in How Fiction Works, James Wood quotes Virigina Woolf’s The Waves: “The day waves yellow with all its crops.” The day waves yellow! I think it takes a poet’s sensibility to come up with something like that. As Wood puts it, “The secret lies in the decision to avoid the usual images of crops waving.”

From Gretel Erlich’s Solace: “Leaves are verbs that conjugate the seasons.” I love that line, although it’s a bit more difficult to get my head around than “the day waves yellow” or “popcorn exploding under the skin” because, well, verbs don’t conjugate, do they? People conjugate verbs. So I get caught up in trying to understand the exact meaning of the sentence. But I still love it.

And from the first page of Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: “The December yard is gray and scratchy, the trees calligraphic”—the scratchy yard! The calligraphic trees! Fabulous! And can’t you just see them? Both of them? And on page four, Eggers describes his mother’s cancer: “It was staring out at them, at the doctors, like a thousand writhing worms under a rock, swarming, shimmering, wet and oil—Good God!” More than a physical description, an emotion is conveyed—the horror of this thing growing inside his mother, like a thousand slimy worms.

From Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors: “He had the loving, affectionate, outgoing personality of petrified wood” and “This makes everything she says sounds like it went through a curling iron.” Both brilliant descriptions!

I could go on and on, but you get the picture. The trick is to come up with metaphors that are original, that the reader hasn’t heard before, and that convey either an image, a feeling, or both. The metaphor has to compare the noun to something ordinary, something that we’re all familiar with and can picture (like a curling iron), not something obscure or abstract.

So how does one learn to write great metaphors? You go to metaphor school, of course. No, really, I don’t know. You practice, like you practice any writing skill. You take an ordinary description, like snow hanging heavy on a branch or the ruler-straight bangs of your first grade teacher, and you practice writing it more originally. And you practice and practice until you develop a “knack” for writing metaphors. Listen to me, I sound like I know what I’m talking about!

What about you? How do you come up with original metaphors/similes? Do you have any favorites from other books? Or authors who are particularly good at writing them?

15 comments to Memoir Monday: The Metaphor

  • I love the leaves and the crops one! And the worms. And the best is the popcorn. Great examples, Meghan, thank you! (I know Sarah will love this because she just blogged about wanting to use more metaphors.)

    I think, as you said, the key is to be unexpected. I'm not so great at that yet, but (also as you said) I'm pretty sure it just takes practice. 🙂

  • Kristan directed me over here and I'm so glad she did…we are definitely on the same wavelength with our posts!! So many great examples of metaphor and figurative language. I love poetry and really want to find a way to get my writing to accomodate it. I'm not sure my current novel is the place to do this, but there are some moments where it works.

    I'm with you…I don't know how some people write like they do. It is literally paying attention to the world, to a moment and comparing it to experience. Perhaps in unusual pairings. Finding the way opposites seem to be the same? I don't know. yes, it takes practice, but I think it's one of those tools I'll definitely be sharpening because I LOVE metaphor. simile I have less patience for, for whatever reason. Maybe because someone is telling me like it is instead of showing me or allowing me to see it on my own. dunno yet.

  • Sarah, I will head over to your blog right now! I LOVE beautiful metaphors. I think it's what really excites me about a book, and what separates really great literary writing from genre writing (I'm sorry to those genre writers out there. This is just my personal preference!) I dream of being a great literary writer someday, to write the way my favorite writers do. Practice, practice, practice.

    And Kristan, thanks for sending Sarah over! I used to record beautiful metaphors when I stumbled across them in my reading. I need to start doing that again.

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