Friday, May 11, 2018

A Writer's Mighty Metaphor: Is Life Really “A Bowl of Cherries?”

by Marcia Moston @MarciaMoston

“Metaphors hold the most truth in the least amount of space”—Orson Scott Card

Metaphors. Poets use them. So do special arms of U.S. intelligence. Aristotle said mastering them was a sign of genius. He also said they couldn’t be learned from others. Far be it for me to take on Aristotle, but I think there are ways we can hone our skills to incorporate this powerful literary element into our writing.

Metaphor is that form of figurative language that calls one thing another in order to convey some essence they both share. “All the world’s a stage,” says Shakespeare. “No man is an island, entire of itself,” says John Donne.

Simile is metaphor’s weaker cousin—it qualifies the comparison with “like” or “as.” “Life is like a box of chocolates,” philosophizes Forrest Gump’s mom. Amanda Lindhout writes about her brother,“It was Mark I followed around, trailing him like a dinghy behind a boat.”

Metaphors are more than clever literary devices, however. Because they reveal a culture’s underlying beliefs and worldviews, our government has a special division dedicated to studying the metaphors of various key people groups around the world. Who knew spies monitored the Internet, gathering among other things, valuable metaphoric information! 

Our choice of metaphor is a subtle but powerful way to influence how people think. In one study, participants were given crime statistics and asked to propose a solution. For half the participants, crime was portrayed as a virus, for the other half it was framed as a beast. The group who viewed crime as a virus proposed social reforms, but the group who saw crime as a beast proposed more punitive law enforcement approaches. 

It’s no surprise that Jesus was the master of metaphor. He used seeds and slaves, pearls and pigs to teach deep truths and frame abstract concepts in visual ways. We rely on metaphors to explain God—Our Father, Shepherd, Rock and Bright Morning Star.

So can we learn to use metaphors without having them stand out like the clichéd elephant in the room? My first suggestion is the same I offer for learning almost anything:

Study those who do it well.Note metaphors that catch your attention. Let them inspire you to make your own.

“I watch the dogs, one tiny dachshund so skinny he looks like a single stroke of calligraphy.” —Abigail Thomas, A Three Dog Life

I don’t know if that rolled right off Thomas’s pen. Maybe she stopped and asked herself. “What’s skinny and long like this little dachshund?” Maybe she made a list, a free-flow of ideas and images until this one popped up.

Rick Bragg said, inevitably when he flew, he’d end up sitting next to burly men—oil rigger types. When they asked him what he did for a living, he was reluctant to say he was a writer because “they looked at me like I________________ for a living.” What impression was Bragg after?—Something sissified, opposite of oil-rigging. Something like this, “They looked at me like I cut paper dolls out for a living.”

Simple metaphorshave two parts: the actual thing being described and what it’s being compared to. Here’s how Jodie Picoult captures little sobs:  “Their cries were soft and hitched together like train cars.”

In order to find that comparison, ask yourself how you want your reader to feel about it. Explore the qualities you’re after. Make lists of things that have those qualities. For example, if you want to say Writing is like . . .ask yourself how you feel about it (and then Google images and see the plethora of responses out there!) 

Anne Lamott uses extended metaphorto introduce her coming to faith. Notice how her verbs and adjectives hold tight to the world of lily pads:

“My coming of faith did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another. Like lily pads, round and green, these places summoned and then held me up while I grew…. When I look back on some of these early resting places . . . I can see how flimsy and indirect a path they made. Yet each step brought me closer to the verdant pad of faith on which I somehow stay afloat today.”

While writing Call of a Coward, I wanted a metaphor to describe a heavy, dull weight I felt in my chest. I was thrilled when the image of the lead apron the dental assistant slaps on you before an x-ray came to mind. Imagine my surprise some time later when I saw Lamott used the lead apron metaphor in something she wrote.

It goes to show—you can strive to be original but there’s nothing new under the sun. I certainly didn’t I think she’d copied me, but that didn’t stop me from giving myself a big high-five for being in such good company. 

So what do you think, is life is a bowl of cherries? Have fun crafting your own response.

A Writer's Mighty Metaphor: Is Life Really "A Bowl of Cherries?" - @MarciaMoston on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Metaphors & Writers, Is life really a "A bowl of Cherries?" - @MarciaMoston on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Marcia Moston—author of the award-winning Call of a Coward-The God of Moses and the Middle-class Housewife—has written columns and features for several magazines and newspapers. She has served on the faculty of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference and currently teaches her true love—memoir and creative nonfiction—at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on the Furman campus in South Carolina.


  1. Great post Ms. Marcia. I use metaphors often; more in speech than text. My problem though... while my metaphors reflect my worldview, my worldview remains of sixty years ago. . God's blessings ma'am for your instruction and encouragement,

    1. Thanks Jim...and a sixty-year-old worldview that's handing out God's blessings isn't such a bad thing!

  2. Marsha,
    I want to follow you around like a puppy follows a toddler, scarfing up the delicious tidbits you drop. I glean something wonderful whenever our paths cross. Thanks for this.

    1. Lori, that's a great response! Too funny. And thanks for the compliment.

  3. I love coming up with similes and metaphors. One of the masters of funny similes and metaphor was P.G. Wodehouse. In one story, he described an offended, older teacher as "rising like an iceberg" to intervene in a situation she thought was getting out of hand. I can see that character perfectly from that description.

    1. Wow, great image. Thanks, JPC. I'm going to add it to my collection.

  4. Marcia, Good inspiration. I think life is like a bowl of watermelon, sometimes sweet and juicy, and sometimes just watery and seedy. Have a good day, and I second Jim's world view comment.