Thursday, February 12, 2015

When the Metaphor Becomes the Story

Photo by Cara Lopez Lee
When I can’t find a way into a story, sometimes I write another story to crack it open. One becomes a metaphor for the other, and the two bounce off each other, creating a third story. I discovered the value of this while helping my teenage sister with an essay for her college English class. She was supposed to create a metaphor that described her and then write about herself.

She wrote a metaphor about being a seashell that adapts to changing tides. Then she got stuck. When we say our minds are blank, it’s often because we’re thinking too hard. The most creative writing comes from our subconscious, where we do more dreaming than thinking. I get my best ideas by dreaming them onto the page.

Sometimes I have to trick my brain into doing that. That’s where telling another story comes in. Dreams are metaphors: I may dream I’m a waitress working alone in a restaurant full of angry customers because in reality people are asking too much of me. Stories are similar: I may write about a harried waitress and her customers, when really I’m telling a story about me and some project I’m working on.

So which comes first: the meaning or the metaphor?

Sometimes metaphor is easier to face than reality. Here’s what I mean: when my 88-year-old grandmother broke her femur, I knew I needed to prepare for her passing. I wanted to write about that experience, but on the other hand, I didn’t want to face it. That week, I had a plumbing disaster at my house. So I started writing about that instead, and it opened a way into my grandma’s story. The two stories became one, which Connotation Press published.

Here’s an excerpt from Subterranean:
The murky tide fills our old basement: from hot showers taken in lonely shifts, cold rinse cycles of separated laundry, clandestine flushes of waste.
     Destruction rises from our drain.
     Cause unknown: maybe the roots of our unruly mulberry tree, strangling the household that tears off her limbs.
     Like an adult child of aging parents, used water is not welcome to return home.

     “Which pipe is it?”
     “The main line, the biggest in the system.”

     Last week my father called. “I don’t know if you heard, but my mom fell and broke her leg.”
     “How would I hear?” I said. “From who if not you?”
     Dad’s mother is my mother. When he called her Mom I called her Mom, because I didn’t have another and thought it was her name. 
     She’s a mocking old momus, so it’s almost a relief. Soon no one will say my pie filling is too low or my breasts look good now I’ve gained weight. Maybe it’s a relief to her too, after so much breakage: her mother who died before memory, consumed at seventeen; her father who denied she was his, though he hired her to wait tables for tips.
“Which bone is it?”   
“Her femur, the biggest in the body.”
I helped my sister adapt the braided concept to her essay. We started with timed writing prompts. That gave her less time to think, forcing her subconscious to take over. With the prompt of “adaptability” she listed a few objects and experiences. She spent three minutes describing each. Then we researched fun facts about seashells.

The result was an essay in which she started each section with a fact about how seashells adapt, followed by personal experiences in which she had to adapt. My favorite moment was when she described seashells as protective casings for invertebrates, and then described a photo of herself as a baby in the arms of her mother. Her mother died when she was two and she had to adapt to a stepmother. She didn’t have to think about the meaning. The metaphor appeared on its own, as dreams do.

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles Times , Denver Post, Connotation Press, and Rivet Journal. She’s a book editor, a writing coach, and a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Denver.


  1. I usually figure out my metaphor retrospectively during the revision phase. Often I'll draft and come up to something like "her [colour] dress" and I'll leave it until later to decide what colours I'm going to use and what those colours symbolise. Or if I see it too vividly in my mind to ignore, I'll try to find ways to insert that colour in matching situations.

    Nice post, Cara, and welcome again to the Blood-Red Pencil - this time as our newest team member :-) Great to have you with us.

    1. Thanks for the warm welcome, Elle. I love hearing how different approaches can work. I always tell my students to be prepared to learn that other writers do it differently, and to choose whatever works for them.

      A couple of novelists with whom I took workshops turned me on allowing my subconscious to make the initial decisions for me and seeing what comes up. Then when I notice a pattern emerging, I lean into that. I find the metaphor is often not just one image but a collection of them, or an idea that permeates throughout.

  2. Beautifully put. When people wonder if they can "be a writer," starting with personal essays and stream of consciousness journaling is the best place to start. You learn the flow and texture of words. You speak from the heart not the head. There is no expectation, no pressure. That is the best way to find out what you are passionate about, what messages you want to subliminally convey. No one will ever judge them, so they are the most honest words you will ever write. They reflect your true "voice." If you ever get stuck down the road when you craft novels, go back to that process and you will find your voice again.

    1. Hear, hear, Diana! Fantastic advice, and a welcome reminder to me. Returning to my journal and similar exercises have helped me many times.

  3. Very nice post, Cara. I particularly like the end when everything comes together. I love the idea of dreaming my stories onto a page. I think I do that.

    1. Thank you so much, Polly. I suspect we all do it to some extent. We can hardly help ourselves since the subconscious is such a big part of creativity. I find that the challenge lies in trusting my instincts.

  4. Thanks for the dreaming thing, Cara ... now when my wife finds me sleeping on the couch I can tell her I'm working!

  5. Hahaha...Thanks for the marriage tip, Christopher. I haven't tried that one yet!

  6. Lovely! Welcome to the Blood-Red Pencil, Cara. We're so happy you joined us. :)

  7. Thank you, Dani. It's an honor to join such a talented and accomplished roster of writers and editors! I look forward to getting to know you all better through your words of wisdom.

  8. Welcome aboard, Cara! So nice to have you with us. :-)

    This is a great post. I've never thought specifically about metaphors; but I've used them, especially in writing poetry.

    1. Thank you for the warm welcome, Linda. I think it's good NOT to think about metaphors. I believe storytellers are meaning-makers who create metaphors all the time without thinking about them. I wait until they show up, and then in the revision process I lean into those that work. On the other hand, not every story, or every part of a story, benefits from metaphor.


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