Skip to content

Reflections of a working writer and reader



Making Metaphors

Lauren Kirshner, whose first novel will be published in Spring 2009, remarks:

I don’t know how I come up with metaphors. Anytime I’ve consciously “tried” to make a metaphor the result has been a little, uh, forced.

She gives examples of very bad metaphors, but it prompted me to think of some of the best ones:
Orwell’s Animal Farm uses animals as metaphors with great success. The pigs, animals which are usually regarded as inferior, are used to show the human lust for power and capacity for cruelty. While the horse, an animal which represents nobility for us, is seen reduced to the state of a commodity.

“(T)he greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor.” Aristotle in Poetics

The clouds were low and hairy in the skies, like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes. Robert Frost, Once by the Pacific

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—
nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. Shakespeare’s Hamlet

A woman is a person who makes choices. A woman is a dreamer. A woman is a planner. A woman is a maker, and a molder. A woman is a person who makes choices. A woman builds bridges. A woman makes children and makes cars. A woman writes poetry and songs. A woman is a person who makes choices. Eleanor Holmes Norton

Death is a distant rumor to the young. Andrew A. Rooney

Do you have a favourite metaphor of your own, and, like Kirshner, do you rely on intuition for your metaphors, or simply wait for them to arrive?

10 Responses to “Making Metaphors”

  1. Jim Murdoch says:

    My advice to her is to read more poetry, especially a poet like Dick Jones who manages to pile them one on top of another and gets away with it. I tend to work with extended metaphors. It depends what she’s looking for. And, of course, an absolute master of the metaphor is the writer William McIlvanney. I found a copy of ‘Strange Loyalties’ in a bookshop the last time I was out and someone had gone through it with a pencil underlining all the good bits. And there were a lot.

    jb says: Proof, if it were needed, is amply provided by Dick Jones’ poem, Christmas Eve.

  2. SpaceAgeSage says:

    I grew up on a farm, lived in the mountains of Colorado for years, and taught the martial arts for a long time. The result is I see metaphors everywhere. They leap out at me all the time because I use them to connect with others. What better way to teach than to take a subject someone knows (ex. home construction) and turn it into a metaphor so they can understand more easily (“A karate stance is like the foundation of a building …”).

    jb says: Thanks for that, SAS. A teacher is always on the way.

  3. Dick says:

    (Gulp!) Thanks, boys. Walking tall here too now.

  4. john baker says:

    It seems like a Jungian synchronicity, but Jacob Russell, on his Barking Dog blog brings some quotations from Robert Musil’s novel, The Man Without Qualities, where Musil talks about figurative language. There are several insights in this piece and if you’re interested in the metaphor you should read the whole article, but this is the one that struck me:

    These two basic strategies, the figurative and the unequivocal, have been distinguishable ever since the beginnings of humanity. Single-mindedness is the law of all waking thought and action, as much present in a compelling logical conclusion as in the mind of the blackmailer who enforces his will on his victim step by step, and it arises from the exigencies of life where only the single-minded control of circumstances can avert disaster. Metaphor, by contrast, is like the image that fuses several meanings in a dream; it is the gliding logic of the soul, corresponding to the way things relate to each other in the intuitions of art and religion. […] No doubt what is called the higher humanism is only the effort to fuse together these two great halves of life, metaphor and truth, once they have been carefully distinguished from each other. But once one has distinguished everything in a metaphor that might be true from what is mere froth, one usually has gained a little truth, but at the cost of destroying the whole value of the metaphor. The extraction of the truth…has had the same effect of boiling down a liquid to thicken it, while the really vital juices and elements escape in a cloud of steam. It is often hard, nowadays, to avoid the impression that the concepts and rules of the moral life are only metaphors that have been boield to death, with the revolting greasy kitchen vapors of humanism billowing around the corpses.

  5. Gary J says:

    Metaphors are not as easily created as they are learned. I love your example of metaphor in Orwell’s Animal Farm, I believe that is a great use of the metaphorical language. Shakespeare used a great deal of metaphors as well. I agree with a previous commenter who advised to read more poetry. Metaphors will come more naturally if you start learning to think in them.

  6. Cathy @ 3 at 1 Copying says:

    “A woman is a person who makes choices. A woman is a dreamer. A woman is a planner. A woman is a maker, and a molder. A woman is a person who makes choices. A woman builds bridges. A woman makes children and makes cars. A woman writes poetry and songs. A woman is a person who makes choices.” Eleanor Holmes Norton

    I just love this one and it completely true in all accounts, this is one thing that I was never good at in school, that being poetry, as much as I did in fact love reading it and comprehending the meaning behind it all.

  7. Penny Calendars says:

    Death is a distant rumor to the young. Andrew A. Rooney

    This could not be more true. I wish that I to could write half as well as what your other commentators do here JB, this is site is uplifting and enjoyable.

    jb says: Thanks, Penny. Flattery will get you everywhere.

  8. Rethabile says:

    This one of Spender has to be one of my favourites:

    “the watching of cripples pass
    With limbs shaped like questions
    In their odd twist.”

    And if I may share a link to the poem in which the lines appear…

    Sir Stephen Spender

    jb says: Thanks for that, Rethabile. And for the link also. It’s good to have things in context.

  9. Shawna says:

    In my writing, the best metaphors occur accidentally, haphazardly, naturally, without thought or care for how they arrive.

  10. paisley says:

    To me, metaphors are the unseen layers laid bare. They are revealed when the time is right because you have always carried them with you.