Sunday, March 25, 2012

Metaphor and Imagery: Writing to Hold Your Reader

The following exercise is designed to help see the relationships between language and imagery.  By writing metaphors centered on concrete objects and extending them to abstract and even judgmental concepts, you'll see how the "real world" can be used to hold the reader's attention.


For this exercise, I'd like you each to write by writing down five places or objects you've seen today. Please be as specific as possible. For example, it's better to write "the asphalt parking lot behind my apartment" than just "parking lot," or "my green toothbrush with the rubber grip" rather than "a toothbrush." For now, I'd prefer you avoid writing about people - today's exercise focuses on language and observation, and the emotional nuances of our relationships add a level of complexity which we'll discuss in-depth as the semester moves forward, but which could be distracting today.

Once you've noted your five places and/or objects, go ahead and write the most extreme descriptions possible. To do so, we'll use three categories: the mythical, the moral, and the "anything goes."

For each of five examples, you'll think of three other objects or places which feel somehow related, no matter how tenuous the relationship - one for each category. Then you'll write a metaphorical description of the place using some kind of mythical, moral, or "wildcard" description. (Note: be careful to avoid similes with "like" or "as.")

For example, if we go with parking lot motif, we might have three related entities:
  • The cat who walks across it each morning.
  • The rusty Volkswagen with the flat tire parked in the far corner.
  • The maple tree dropping its seeds over the lot all summer.
Each of these entities can create an image which forces us to reevaluate our notions of parking lot. Granted, we might not like all the images we come up with, but the goal is more observation than mastery. And please feel free to adjust your images as needed - what you've written down so far is meant to provide starting points rather than a constraints.

Here are possible examples of the types of metaphors you might write:
  • The asphalt stretched all the way out to the eternity of angel wings mangled in the crash (mythical, thinking of the furry cat).
  • Life emerges from the hubris of reinforced concrete (moral, thinking of maple trees sprouting from cracks in the sidewalk).
  • They parked my dreams out by the edge of the trees, rolled up the windows, and walked away (kinda depressing, thinking of the Volkswagen).
This exercise is purposely meant to be a bit of a brain-twister, and I encourage you to work in pairs to come up with the more challenging combinations of images.


There is a common belief that a course can teach the "recipe" or the "rules" for writing. Conversely, there are others who believe that writing can't be taught, that the ability to write is an either inborn or acquired skill. In reality, the learning of writing is far more complicated than either of these conceptions reveal. Writing cannot be suddenly learned - not from teachers, and not from birth. Instead, I'd like you to see writing as a lifelong process, one which requires each of us to learn and adapt our work to meet the shifting demands of our lives. The material you write for this course will be different from the writing you submit for a history course, which would then be different from what you'll write for graduate school applications. The writing you do in twenty or thirty years - whether it's project proposals for work, Christmas letters for family, or your next novel - will be more different still.

However, regardless of the different approaches and reasons behind your writing, you will always be engaging an audience. The goal of all good writing is to convey relevant information in memorable ways. Whether you are writing about time traveling robots or boy wizards or that first trip to the DMV, you want to help your reader see, hear, and feel the ideas you are expressing.

My goal in this exercise is to introduce you to the idea of using precise, concrete details in conjunction with emotional and often abstract imagery in order to leave a lasting impression in the minds of your readers. Realistic images provide anchor points for the imagination, but we must also employ language which draws out the appropriate emotions to accompany these images. We give our readers cues to see all we wish to share.

But please note that this is only an introduction - you'll naturally adjust your use of detail to meet the needs and purposes of your writing. An e-mail to your accountant at tax time wouldn't include references to money "green as my lawn," but Carl Sandburg once wrote a poem about the futility of war which centered around the grass growing over the graves and trenches.

One of the guiding principles behind this lesson is the sure knowledge that we are each individually taking part in the complex ecosystem of language. I hope that you'll use this lesson to understand metaphor as an approach to both seeing and feeling language in the same breath, but know that not all writers see its importance in the same way. Franz Kafka, for example, hated metaphors: they made him "despair literature" (Deleuze and Guattari 22). He preferred the idea of a language like Yiddish, which he said could be experienced "so violently that you will be frightened, no longer of Yiddish but of yourself..." (26).

The goal, then, is to find the right balance for the task at hand. This exercise is meant to make you more aware of imagery and metaphor in the context of rhetorical situation so that you'll be able to profit from the appropriate use of both, to use illuminating images with the kind of language which will hold the reader's attention.


  1. Hello Ryan,
    These are very good introductory points indeed.
    May I suggest, as you go along, to discuss poetic synaesthesia? Perhaps you already have this up your sleeve. But if not, its when you synthesize one of the five senses and merge it with an object for a marriage of heightened realities.
    For example, Silken silhouettes. 'Silk' pertaining to the sense of touch and silhouettes pertaining to the sense of sight. ;-) With proper execution, the reader should be so aroused with such power of suggestion. But this has to be done with much caution, as some attempts at imagism and a more heightened realism may be too far up the clouds that it ceases to make sense to the reader, and leave the writer in a realm all his own.
    For example, supple flames -- unless this is taken into the context 'candle flame' then its only right to be supple. Any other scenario though, would elude me as a reader.
    I'm sure one will also find poetic synaesthesia fun.
    But this is just my two cents worth after a long day at the call center. ;-) -- Bopeep

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