By Lyssa Tall Anolik
Metaphor in memoir
A torch illuminating a dark corner, a metaphor helps readers see something – an object, person, place, action or idea – more clearly. For example:
Bunches of purple balloons adorned the banquet hall like shiny grapes.
Like a stealthy fox, I crept into the darkened room.
A metaphor, simply put, is one thing that represents or stands in for another. Often – as in the two examples above – we see metaphors in the form of similes in which two things are compared using the words “like” or “as.” Metaphors can take the form of nouns, verbs or adjectives. In memoir, as well as fiction and poetry, metaphor adds texture and layered meaning to our work. It can make a mundane image pop, as in the balloon/grape analogy. It can also bring a reader deeper into a writer’s emotional and physical experience. For example:
My heart drummed a steady rhythm as I danced … .
Another function of metaphor is to show the reader how an author feels about a particular situation. Here are two different ways to write about the same place, depending on the author’s response to it:
The New York street was alive like a thrumming heart.
The New York street seethed like a mass of giant ants.
Metaphors give us an artful tool to help avoid passive or bland statements like, “I felt overwhelmed by the crowds on the New York street.”
Here are two more examples:
Tree branches grabbed at me like witches’ hands.
Tree branches rustled like fairies’ wings.
Here, “witches” and “fairies” help expand the two possible meanings, because they are archetypal images. Every reader has his or her own association with them. They conjure deep-seated fears or magical delight drawn from the fairy tales we learned as children, which are mirrors to the different parts of our own psyches. (For more on writing from archetypes, see my December 2012 column.) By employing symbols such as these, we invite the reader to do more of the satisfying work of unpacking meaning, allowing the writer to do less!
Using sustained metaphors
Sometimes a single metaphor can be introduced at the beginning of a piece and carried through the entire work – a story, poem, essay or book – giving it a structure:
I rebuilt my house stone by stone, piecing together what had crumbled in the wake of my failed marriage.
There may not be an actual house that this memoirist is building, but she uses the metaphor of a house to represent the rebuilding of her life. The house, a physical object, lends solidity to an intangible concept, helping readers grasp and relate to it more easily.
In the memoir Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood, author Sandra Steingraber uses the different phases of the moon to represent the phases of her changing body during the nine months of her pregnancy. Each chapter is a different moon metaphor in itself with titles like “Hunger Moon,” “Sap Moon,” “Egg Moon.”
Often life presents us with natural metaphors. Returning to the house/divorce analogy above, let’s say the author’s real house burned down at the same time her marriage fell apart, forcing her to literally rebuild or seek a new home at the same time as she had to rebuild her personal life from the embers of her former one. She can use the two events in her narration – one physical, the other emotional – to inform each other and explore a richly-layered experience both for herself as a writer and for us as readers.
Terry Tempest Williams took advantage of two such simultaneous events in her life when writing Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Williams, a naturalist and avid birder in Utah, learned that her mother was dying of cancer. At the same time, the Great Salt Lake was rising to record heights, flooding crucial bird habitat in the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, which had long been a personal refuge for Williams. She intertwines the two analogous stories of refuge and loss throughout her narrative, allowing them to build off of and lend tension to one another until the powerful climax at the end (which I will not give away!).
Mixed metaphors: words of caution
As much as I advocate the use of metaphor, I also advise moderation. Like adjectives and adverbs, a few metaphors sprinkled here and there go a long way. Too many metaphors begin to compete with one another and weaken each other, because they no longer stand out. Also, be careful not to mix metaphors to describe the same thing. For example:
A boat adrift at sea, I wondered if I would ever find my way “home” after leaving the cult that had claimed ten years of my youth. Like the veins on a leaf, I now retrace the pattern of my life.
The boat and leaf metaphors create divergent and confusing images in the reader’s mind. Instead of the leaf, this author could use a metaphor that ties in and builds off of the boat image:
… Like a mariner charting by the night sky, I now navigate the course of my life.
If, however, you’re writing lyric essays or poetry, you can get away with more metaphors than in standard prose, because you’re using denser language and relying more heavily on the use of imagery to tell your story for you.
How to find metaphors
Metaphors are often the work of the subconscious mind. Try one or more of these brainstorming tools to help generate metaphors for situations in your own life:
- Brainstorm a list of symbols that have personal meaning for you: e.g. tree, moon, key, sea.
- Go through old magazines or calendars and tear out images you feel drawn to. Put them in an “image” folder.
- Write a list of images or symbols from your dreams.
- Write a list of personal objects that have meaning for you. They can be items from your childhood, family heirlooms, a pair of shoes you are particularly attached to.
Choose an item from these lists/collections of images that you feel compelled to explore, then use it as a freewriting prompt. Write for ten minutes and see what unfolds. Often these objects or symbols that hold emotional weight have become metaphors for some aspect of our lives. Do one freewrite or as many as you like. Try not to overthink the writing. Allow your subconscious mind to be the torch, illuminating something you have not yet seen.
This is VoiceCatcher’s twelfth article in a series by writing coach and teacher Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, here’s the perfect place to start. Check in every month for Lyssa’s practical tips on telling your story. If you’re new to this column and memoir writing, please see the October 2012 installment for an introduction to memoir and tips and tools for getting started.
Lyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest Mosaic, The Wild, VoiceCatcher3 and 4, EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.