Monday, October 18, 2010

The Search For The Marvelous Metaphor

Metaphors can be a writer's good friend. A writer might be struggling to come up with a fresh and interesting way to describe a specific thing, and his buddy the metaphor can come galloping to the rescue. Suddenly that painfully dull phrase now has a little excitement, in order to protect the reader from drifting into a coma of boredom. As useful and helpful as the metaphor can be for the writer, there is times that the metaphor stops being a friend, and rather starts becoming a bit of a hindrance. You invite the metaphor to stay the night, but by the end of the next day, you've seen that it has moved all its furniture into the guest room and is beginning to eye up your spouse. It has becomes a free loader that has taken permanent residence up in your home. At one time you considered this particular metaphor to be a great assistance and aid (he would come over to help you move furniture or was great at assembling your new shelf), but now he just eats all your left over Chinese food and makes your house smell vaguely of burnt cheese encased in platypus urine. The metaphor no longer makes your writing interesting or entertaining, but rather hampers you from engaging the reader. The metaphor has become a cliche.

Cliches are nervy little figures of speech. They are so prevalent in the world of writing, that you almost can't help being occasionally snared in their traps. You want to create an image in your prose that you feel will help you convey your point, and there is the cliche actively waving its hand to catch your attention. It promises that it will help you, and make your sentence even more engrossing. The fact is, a cliche is that very thing because its words have either lost any meaning to the current readers or has completely overstayed their welcome (it is like Uncle Ned who is now drunkenly retelling his encounter with the raccoon tricycle gang for the 17th time -- even raccoons on bikes is tiring after that many accounts). The majority of the time a cliche may be good at filling up some space in your story or article, but it is a complete failure in creating a valuable image for the reader. Then again, even the drunken frat boy who refuses to leave your basement will occasionally take out the garbage at night or sometimes remembers to clean out the cat's litter box (that he was using for some reason); the cliches may usually be a detriment but it occasionally still holds some value. The cliche being useful is a rarity, rather than the key to interesting writing.

I know this, yet my writing often still lets the cliche come barging in. Sometimes, I am sure it does allow certain readers to create a vivid picture in their head and allows for the prose to be entertaining. Other times, I am sure the reader just brushes past those words, because they've read it so many times or the phrase is so lost in time that they don't have a clue what image I'm trying to create. I am sure most of time, it just ends up being a display of my knowledge of cliches (ya, I know phrases that hold little value and let them into my home to drink all my wine!). The bigger issue isn't that I use them or other writers use them, but rather, why do we choose to constantly use them? Especially when I (and many other writers) admit that they're rarely helpful to our writing.

The big reason has to be pure laziness. If it is late at night, and I've been plagued by a exceedingly busy day where my body and mind are doing a fantastic apple sauce impersonation and I still have a blog post or writing work that needs to be finished, then my ability to conjure up fresh metaphors is absent, thus I resort to the the large database of phrases that our implanted in my mind. It can actually take some work coming up with a new metaphor or other type of figure of speech that will aid with creating a image that improves the writing. So rather than spend time tossing about lots of possible idea, you just go to the old stand by, even if they don't actual make your writing any more colourful or poetic or engaging. They do let you put words into your prose, and that then allows you to be even closer to completion, which then means you can sleep or dance in the rain or find ways to kick the free loader out of your house.

The other problem is creating a metaphor or phrase that will actually be useful to the reader. I can probably come up with countless metaphors or similes that will create an instant picture in my head, but that doesn't me the majority of my audience will have a clue what I am talking about. The reason we have cliches are due to the fact they once were very popular and useful. The problem was they were so popular and useful that every writer wanted a little of that sweet phrase action. So, they used it up to the point it was worn out and it just wanted to curl up in the meadows. It had nothing left to give, but writers still wanted more and more of it. You are left with a phrase or metaphor that holds little meaning, but at one time, it was the king in the land of words. The challenge is that you want to create a fresh and interesting metaphor, but at the same time, one that the majority of your readers can understand and relate to. A lot of the times, you are left resorting back to the cliche because you know people will at least know of that phrase, even if it doesn't really convey any wondrous image for them.

It isn't impossible to find a fresh metaphor and if you write long enough, you're likely to stumble upon at least one in your life time. The next problem is, you have this great image creating metaphor that your readers love, but you only have a short time frame before all the beautiful picture creation magic gets used up again. There is a point where you risk the chance of creating a cliche out of the fresh metaphor you birthed. You can't get too attached to your brand new metaphor or phrase, because it only stays fresh for a very limited time (just like milk, which apparently is a perishable food item -- but then can become useful for scientific experiments or making free loaders sick). So, you are now left with needing to find a new metaphor that will hold meaning to the greatest amount of your readers. It is one of those cases where some will end up being incredibly effective and others will be as meaningful as your spouse farting in your face to wake you up (if that image actually causes your heart to flutter, then we can consider that a failed attempt at imagery and proving my point).

Metaphors can be a fantastic way to spice up writing, and also allow the writer to quickly convey a point or description. The challenge is to keep them fresh so that the reader can make great visual images. The struggle is to not only to avoid the cliche that is always screaming for your attention, but to also prevent your own metaphor creations becoming zombified. This is a process that I am still trying to improve at, and one that I am sure will be a hard fought battle that will leave me at the end of my leash and will cause things to come apart at the seams, but in the end, to the victor goes the spoils.

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