Posted On May 18, 2010

   This is not the comparison I’m sure that springs immediately to your mind. I’m not writing about comparing your artistic talent to another’s, or your earlier work to the project you’re working on now. In this post, I want to focus on Figurative Language, specifically similes and metaphors. Do you remember back in elementary school where your brain was like a sponge that soaked up knowledge, even though you fidgeted in your seat like a Mexican jumping bean? You might have been allowed to clean the board until it was as green as grass. Chances are, the bully on the playground was as big as Godzilla, and as mean as a snake. But on good days, you got to sit next to Sally, who was as pretty as a flower, or Adam, who was as smart as Einstein. When you did well on your spelling test, perhaps your smile was sunshine. The school bus was, and still is, a giant yellow banana. Did you notice that the last several sentences were similes and metaphors? A simile is a comparison between two things using the words “like” or “as”. A metaphor is a more direct comparison that doesn’t use the words “like” or “as”.

   When I was in high school, my English teacher made a big deal about how Old Man and the Sea was a metaphor. I understood the simple sentences, but an entire novel? It was lost on me. Just this past week in my Senior English class, we read a poem where items in a closet were compared to animals. Clothespins and parrots, wool coats and gorillas, and a straw hat to a bird’s nest were written to create, in the reader’s mind, a direct comparison between the object and how they contained some characteristic of the animal. The metaphor was carried throughout the poem. The assignment, of course, was for my students to create their own poems. The poems didn’t have to rhyme, and I requested that they be at least four lines long. We brainstormed common places that “held” a variety of items (a closet, a refrigerator, their room, their car) and what we could compare them to, such as people, animals, or food. The results were quite amazing. I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoy reading what my students write. They surprise me more often in their creativity than many writers who earn their living with words.

   I was never one for creating metaphors or similes on the spot to illustrate a point. Occasionally, I use one for a simple example, such as when I gave riding lessons. If the rider was having trouble holding their hands still and bumping the horse’s mouth with the reins, I would say,”Imagine that you are holding two cups of very hot coffee and you’re in an old truck that your friend is driving down a rutted road. Each hand must act independently of the other, or the coffee will spill.” It wasn’t until I’d spent eleven months in yoga teacher training last year, where the instructor used metaphors constantly, that I began to see the connection. If you’d like to dive in head-first, and perhaps get swallowed by gargantuan metaphors, pick up any religious text or scripture. The Bhagavad Gita is one that comes to mind. Really, there isn’t a battlefield with chariots and swords and armies. Arjuna and Krishna are really discussing the defeat of the ego, not Arjuna’s family and friends.

   I’ve decided that this metaphor-making to help people understand life situations is quite handy. I was recently tutoring a student on study skills and organization. He wasn’t too interested in doing well in school just because his concerned parents wanted him to earn good grades. I noticed he was wearing a Diamondbacks jersey, so I brought up baseball. I talked about how if he was a pitcher who had a good arm, meaning some natural talent, the coach maybe wants him to practice a couple of new pitches so that they could beat the tough teams and go to the State Finals. The kid’s eyes lit up when I told him that there was the 2-seam fast ball, and if the fingers were shifted, he could throw a curve ball. I talked about practicing the pitches, throwing a hundred a day, each, plus continuing to practice the pitches he already knew. Then I suggested he had a choice. He could stay at the field late and practice, pitch well in the final games, and go to State, thus supporting his coach and teammates. Or, he could choose to stick to the couple of pitches he could already throw, bail on the extra practice, and if they didn’t go to State, big deal. But the choice was his: to practice the pitches just because he wanted to get better and do better when he played against tougher teams, or not push himself and be a middle-of-the-road pitcher, maybe riding the pine in high school or college. I’m not putting money that my metaphor of baseball and choosing to do well in school had a huge effect, but the last time I spoke with the eighth grader, he was earning A’s, staying after school to get extra help in math, and had kept his binder and backpack clean and organized for a month.

   It might seem easy to create a metaphor with words, but what about with painting or acting or dancing? It might be a stretch to include the mathematician and artist, Escher, but he offered a very different perspectives through his creations. Staircases that seemed to go nowhere, people who morphed into lizards, birds that changed into flowers; by creating them on paper was he eluding to a metaphor of life, of humanity? Metaphors and similes do help the reader or viewer to understand. In reading them, it solidifies the picture in their mind of what the writer intended them to “see”. In a painting or on stage, it allows the audience to make a connection that they perhaps would not have made on their own. And isn’t creativity about bringing forth a unique facet of the world?

   Before I share mine (which I wrote in an email to a friend who later suggested I publish the metaphor), I invite you to play with Figurative Language. Write a poem, even if it is two lines, about two objects that you had not previously thought could have anything in common. Which characteristic do they share? Speed? Color? Wrinkles? A dream? If you paint, why not think of a friend, then something to compare them to, such as a flower, a motorcycle, or the sun. How could you depict the comparison with color and shape? Hmm, that might be an interesting challenge. If you cook, why not use some of the berries that are just coming into season, and when you serve a salad sprinkled with the season’s offerings, invite your dinner guest to compare the sweetness of the fruit to time spent outdoors, in the pool, with friends, etc.?

   Here’s my most recent attempt to illustrate my thoughts on the ever-changing topic of life:

My life used to be a quiet Quarter Horse. Steady, “peanut-rolling” Western Pleasure horse that rarely spooked or came up lame. And that was all well and good for a number of years. Contentment, a feeling of being “settled”, my life was a regular routine and predictable. Then the feed store delivered some sweet feed. Granted, I loved it, but overindulged, and foundered. It was a long road to “rehab” my life, and things haven’t been the same since. There were different shoes to wear, stall rest instead of shows and trail riding, and a restricted diet. Just about the time I became accustomed to the new routine, I woke up one morning to realize I wasn’t a Quarter Horse at all, or perhaps I had been, but the “sickness” had changed me. My life was now a wild Mustang. Not wanting to be penned or caught, much less ridden. Everything causes a rolling of the eyes and anxious panic that it will not find a way out of this confinement. As I attempt to settle into the saddle, the Mustang of my life bucks and runs and spins in the enclosed area and I try to hang on, though I’m being bounced all over and never seem to quite gain my seat or balance. There are brief moments when the Mustang has exhausted itself and must rest, head hanging, sides heaving. I take these opportunities to gather the reins and find the stirrups with my boots, for I know it won’t be long before the Mustang will find something else to spook at or decide to test my equestrian skills some more. This last bout of seemingly insane tearing around the enclosure crashed me into the railing, caused me to lose my hat, bloodied my hands, bruised my seat and my knees. But I feel the Mustang growing tired. Or perhaps it is me who has grown stronger, more balanced, or more willing to let life do its thing as I attempt to remain astride. I have a feeling, and I see signs, that the Mustang is becoming more accepting of me, and I of it. The Mustang will never be the Quarter Horse it once was, or thought it was, but the time is coming when the gate will be opened, and we’ll be able to leave the enclosure for the vast fields and hills and valleys that lie in every direction. We will both get what we want: out of the pen and an ease with each other. Even now the gate is unlatched, and the Mustang turns its head to look up at me, calculating, while I stroke the powerful, sweaty neck. I’m not ready to trade in the Mustang for a herd of Clydesdales, too much, too soon, and perhaps the wrong direction. I know the direction I want to go: towards the gate. The question is, will the Mustang move forward easily to my gentle nudging?

   If any of you want to saddle up and share your ideas, I’d love to hear from you. To experience what else I have to share, visit my web site:

Written by Michele Venne

Writer of immersive and intriguing stories.

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