THE POWER OF METAPHORS FOR WRITING, FOR LIFE, FOR COMMUNITY
You probably think you learned about metaphors in your freshman literature class, but, really, you’ve been using them from the time you began to talk. If your mother kept a ‘baby book’, you will find metaphors in the cute things you used to say. A writer friend of mine told me got a book title from the time her child said: “Come outside, Mommy, and smell the blue sky.” An African American child I knew used to tell me she was chocolate and I was vanilla. My cousin’s son grew up in an all-white suburb some forty years ago. The first time he saw a person of color, he said, “Look Mommy, his light’s turned off.” His mother began taking him to a park in another part of town where he had an opportunity to meet and play with children from many different backgrounds.
“My luve (love) is like the melody, that’s sweetly played in tune” (Robert Burns)
“George Washington is an elephant” (Eugene Gendlin)
Metaphors are as essential to the human process as breathing. Metaphors come along with our bodies, part and parcel. Without metaphors, we might not be able to think or speak.
Even in the simplest terms, if I ask you how you are (not just “fine”, but how are you really?), you are likely answer with a metaphor. I’m carrying the whole weight of the world on my shoulders. I am as happy as a lark. I’m so sleepy it feels as if there are dead weights attached to my eyelids.
When we are Focusing, we are, quite simply, searching for metaphors. For what it feels like at just this moment. And the more true the metaphor, the more it carries us forward.
How do I feel, really? Well let me check… I feel like there’s this huge ball whirling around inside me making me dizzy…almost giddy…as if I could end up spinning out of control in any direction. No telling where I could end up….
(Out of control.)
Yes. It’s scary, but also, in a way, exciting. I have no control over what will happen. There’s this centrifugal force that could take me anywhere. It’s like I’m just along for the ride.
(You could end up anywhere. Just along for the ride.)
Yes. That’s right. There’s no point in fighting it, so I might as well just relax and go with the flow…see what happens next. Then I’ll know what to do.
(Then you’ll know.)
Yes. That feels right. I really feel like I can trust myself to know what to do with whatever comes next.
Metaphors are how we understand our world, ourselves, how we create meaning from our experiencing.
“My luve (love) is like the melody”. So, think of someone you love, and ask yourself how is that person like a melody? Take a moment to feel your knowing of this one particular beloved person, feel how you carry that knowing in your body. Just sit with that quietly, and then tell me in what way your love is like a melody.
Yes. My love makes me think of a scat by Ella Fitzgerald – all energy, and smooth as silk, soft as a whisper and so deep, so full of meaning that words just get in the way.
Now think of a different love. Take your time. How is that person like a melody?
Okay. This one is completely different. Kind of simple…homespun…straightforward. Pure. Very soothing…kind of like comfort food, or a breath of fresh air coming off the prairie. I can almost hear the words “Home, home on the range.”
As a writer, I am amazed each time I do this, how much meaning I can convey with metaphors. And more than convey, but actually discover new meanings. The metaphors create fresh, almost newborn ways of understanding my experience. If these two “loves” were characters in a novel, just think how much more the readers know about them than if I had just written a physical description – this one has dark hair, that one has blue eyes.
And this is just the beginning. You can use anything. How is a person like a tree? A building? A railroad trip? A philosophy class?
In both Thinking at the Edge (TAE) and in his philosophy (A Process Model), Eugene Gendlin called this “how is one thing like another” Crossing. And he took it both ways. So first he asked how George Washington was like an elephant and then he asked how an elephant was like George Washington. Discovering new ways to understand each through the lens of the other.
So now you can ask, how is a melody like a beloved person? Each time, fresh new insights, new meanings, richer, deeper understanding. Poetry.
And because of this deeper understanding, metaphors lead to next steps. My cousin took her child to new neighborhoods to play. I told the African-American child how wonderful it was that I loved both flavors. I learned that George Washington was big enough to stay above political squabbles, and found I wanted to be more active in the nonpartisan League of Women Voters.
If I’m writing a story about the person who is like a jazz scat, I can write that smooth edginess into his dialogue, the restless energy into her body movement, and subtle depths into her/his decision-making.
When I’m Focusing, I will understand myself freshly and on a deeper level. I will sense my way forward.
If I’m doing a writing exercise to build my self-esteem (class journal assignment: “Write about something that surprised you today”), I will find metaphors to explain how I am feeling. I will deepen my connection with others in my class if I share what I wrote and when I listen in turn to their stories. Our fresh understanding leads us to develop a pattern of mutual support as we find our individual healing paths.
When we’re in a group process – in a community wellness project – metaphors serve us in the same way. We listen to community members to discover what they need, and in that process inevitably come upon metaphors that are rich with meaning in that culture (like the Guest House and the green twig, which are both described in FII’s new book, “Reaching Resilience: A Training Manual for Community Wellness Focusing“). When we use these metaphors in our trainings, in our conversations, it strengthens community ties,opens us up to fresh new insights, and carries us forward together.
Related upcoming trainings:
Anna Willman will be presenting three “Writing from Your Body” webinars. You can attend any or all of them (8 am PST, 11 am EST, 4 pm UK, 5 pm Europe).
• November 11: we will focus on work-related writing – reports, proposals, grants, correspondence
• November 18: we will explore creative projects – fiction, poetry, journaling, creative non-fiction
• December 2: we will share ways to use writing to promote healing and resilience.