Category Archives: Metaphor

Puppies Are to Dogs as Kittens Are to Cats

scantron question graphic

The correct answer is B, though I prefer E.

When I was studying for the SAT over three decades ago (little sob), I dubbed myself “Queen of Analogies.” I know it sounds vain to confer an exalted title on oneself. (I later adopted the moniker “Cupcake Queen,” so maybe I have a problem.) If it’s any consolation, when I was taking the test, I probably thought of myself as the dunce of analogies. Perhaps good news for college-bound students is that analogy questions were removed from the SAT in 2005.

An analogy is a comparison. It shows the resemblance between two things otherwise unlike. Forms of analogy include metaphor (“All the world’s a stage”), simile (“My love is like a red, red rose”), allegory (“The Tortoise and the Hare”), and parable (“The Prodigal Son”). I recently came up with an analogy that I thought was, well, brilliant! It compared the political situation in the United States to a dress. My vanity didn’t go unchecked, however; my husband seemed less than impressed with it.

white and gold dress

Do you see this dress as white and gold, or blue and black? Our relationship may depend on it.

Remember “the dress”? The one that became an international meme in 2015? The garment was either blue and black, or white and gold, depending on who was looking at the photo. I became mildly obsessed with the phenomenon at the time, especially when the frock turned out to be blue and black (not the combination I saw). Explanations arose for the variance in perception, related to “the way human eyes and brains have evolved to see color in a sunlit world.” The image “hit some kind of perceptual boundary.”

The color of the dress in the photo became a topic of preoccupation, discussion, debate, disagreement, vitriolic argument, and existential crisis. The Washington Post called the controversy a “drama that divided a planet.” It was the subject of 4.4 million tweets in 24 hours. And neither “side” would give up its position. Indeed, my husband and I just spoke about it in raised tones. (He’s a blue-and-blacker.)

blue dress

Royal-Blue Lace Detail Bodycon Dress by Roman Originals

Now that I’ve refreshed your memory on the dress (assuming it hasn’t haunted you since its original infamy, because that would be abnormal), can you see how the current political situation resembles it? On Facebook, I’ll come across a political post that appears beyond doubt, conveying information from a reliable source. (I won’t give specifics, because the post could represent the views of either “side.”) I find myself thinking, there’s no way anyone could dispute the veracity or legitimacy of the point being made.

But invariably, someone will make a comment to the contrary. And I can tell he believes what he’s saying, 100 percent. He sees a blue-and-black dress; I see a white-and-gold dress. And budging, for either of us, would mean distrusting our senses (which we rely on for survival) and rejecting our perception of reality (a terrifying prospect). [End of brilliant analogy.]

I love analogies, even if I don’t reign over them, because they are stepping stones to understanding. If we understand A but not B, and B is like A, then we can also understand B.

Maybe, in this way, we can get all the way to Z.

Are You a Consonant or a Vowel?

img_8883_croppedI apologize in advance for the scatological nature of this post. Sometimes I think in metaphors, and sometimes those metaphors involve excrement. Especially when I’m playing Words with Friends. To get the disgustingness behind us, when my tile rack contains all or nearly all consonants, I liken it to constipation. When the letters are vowel-heavy, it’s similar to diarrhea. Too many consonants, and there’s no flow; too many vowels, and there’s only flow. (Either way, a satisfactory move is unlikely.) I guess that means a word, which has the requisite balance of consonants and vowels, is like a healthy bowel movement. Again, I’m sorry.

The other day, I got to wondering if people (aside from their digestive tracts) might be like consonants and vowels. I recalled a scene from the movie Husbands and Wives, in which Judy Davis’s character muses about whether people in her life are hedgehogs or foxes:

I thought how different Michael was from Jack. How much deeper his vision of life was. And I thought Michael was a hedgehog and Jack was a fox. And then I thought Judy was a fox and Gabe was a hedgehog. And I thought about all the people I knew, and which were hedgehogs and which were foxes.

The scene refers to a famous essay in which Russian-British philosopher Isaiah Berlin puts writers and thinkers into two categories: those with a singular world-view (hedgehogs), and those who have a new idea for every situation (foxes). Though others took Berlin’s metaphor seriously, he had meant it to be humorous. Indeed, applying a dichotomy to the entire human race can be quite amusing.

Referring to this helpful page from Macquarie University, I compiled the following table, which compares the characteristics of consonants and vowels:

Consonant Vowel
Closed Open
Constricted Flowing
Discordant Melodious
Less prominent More intense
Valley Peak

So, which list of characteristics describes you better? Do you seek out those possessing the opposite qualities? Are your relationships with these people balanced? Do you have good conversations? How are your bowel movements?

When I asked my husband if he was a consonant or a vowel, he said both: “FU.”

 

Have All the Stories Been Written?

Romeo and JulietSeveral months ago, I felt inspired to collect ideas for short stories. (This step, which precedes the actual writing, is wonderful, because it isn’t the actual writing.) I tried to find scenarios that would convey concepts I found interesting. For example, I wanted to write about oneness—specifically, how the notion of oneness is difficult to comprehend because we appear to be in individual bodies.

I thought maybe I could illustrate this idea via conjoined twins. Identical twins who are physically joined seem less separate than the rest of us; there is no space between them to suggest disconnection. Indeed, to get along in life, conjoined twins must cooperate; discord would lead to suffering. Mark Twain’s 1869 comic sketch of Chang and Eng Bunker, the famous Thai-American conjoined brothers, humorously illustrates the nature of inseparability:

By an understanding between themselves, Chang does all the in-door work and Eng runs all the errands. This is because Eng likes to go out; Chang’s habits are sedentary. However, Chang always goes along. . . . Upon one occasion the brothers fell out about something, and Chang knocked Eng down, and then tripped and fell on him, whereupon both clinched and began to beat and gouge each other without mercy. The bystanders interfered and tried to separate them, but they could not do it, and so allowed them to fight it out. In the end both were disabled, and were carried to the hospital on one and the same shutter.

Twain may have used the Bunker brothers as a metaphor for national unity.

Around the time I was researching conjoined twins, I became aware of a writing competition calling for short stories in the categories of romance, thriller, crime, horror, science fiction, and young adult. I reasoned that the goal of entering this contest might inspire me to do the (dreaded) actual writing. I chose horror to convey my tale about conjoined twins, although any of the genres might have provided a compelling framework. I fleshed out the plot and characters.

AHSThen the fourth season of the popular TV series American Horror Story premiered, depicting a freak show in Jupiter, Florida, in 1952. Among the characters was a pair of conjoined twins, Bette and Dot Tattler. I found numerous similarities to my prospective horror story about conjoined twins! I surmised that the show’s writers had referred to at least some of the same online sources that I did. Another parallel emerged in the second episode. The freak show’s bearded lady and strong man were portrayed as exes who had a child together. A number of years ago, I wrote a short story (in response to a Writer’s Digest prompt) about a bearded lady and a strong man who get married, and she becomes pregnant!

These coincidences got me wondering if it was possible to write a truly original story. I remembered how shocked I was to read in The Riverside Shakespeare, as a college student, that the Bard had based Romeo and Juliet very directly on earlier material—namely, a novel published by an Italian writer circa 1530 (approximately 65 years before Will wrote R&J) that included the story of “two noble lovers”:

Luigi da Porto lays the scene in Verona and names the feuding families the Montecchi and the Cappellati. . . . His Romeo goes to a Cappellati ball to see a girl whom he loves but who scorns him, and falls in love with Giulietta, as she with him. After a longer courtship than Shakespeare allows, conducted mostly on the girl’s balcony, they marry, with the aid of the Franciscan Lorenzo, who hopes that the families will thus be brought together; but Fortune, “enemy of every earthly joy,” prevents this outcome by starting up the feud again. The rest of the story is substantially as in Shakespeare.

Da Porto had been inspired by a 1476 writing by Italian poet Masuccio of Salerno.

So, what is the point of writing stories with the same subject matter, over and over? Perhaps the meaning of a story is more important than the details—and we are willing to accept the same content in slightly different forms. The essential content of most stories is the resolution of a problem. This resolution is not necessarily a happy one, but a natural outcome of how the problem is approached. For instance, I have thought of Shakespeare’s Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as having the same central issue but different outcomes. In the former, Desdemona must defy her father to be with Othello; in the latter, Hermia must defy her father to be with Lysander. The first couple dies; the second couple marries without objection. Both death and marriage are resolutions.

And because our lives are a series of problems, the resolutions found in stories provide catharsis.

Authors Should Need a License to Write Metaphors

And I mean that literally, not figuratively. The author of a manuscript I edited recently loved metaphors, but she used them poorly. Her implied resemblances between unrelated things tended to be convoluted and to confuse more than clarify. Moreover, they were trite (life is a tapestry) and often mixed (life is a race and a puzzle, at the same time). I rewrote the metaphors that could be salvaged and deleted the ones that had no hope of making a positive contribution to the text.

I got to thinking that maybe only writers as masterful as Shakespeare should be allowed to use figurative language.

But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

See? Nice.

But maybe I was being too restrictive. Metaphors, similes, and analogies can elicit a deeper understanding of a concept when they are original, apt, and clear. They can also convey meaning quickly, vividly, and memorably, whether in writing or in speech. For example, my husband uses a number of effective analogies—relating to Mrs. Fields cookies, ordering in a restaurant, and getting highlights at the salon—in business negotiations.

So if you really want to compare your beloved to a summer’s day, I won’t stop you. You might consider the following steps for creating your very own fancy talk:

  1. Select the concept you want to illustrate through a metaphor, simile, or analogy. Example: life.
  2. Identify the point you’d like to make about the concept. Example: Life is full of surprises, and you never know what will happen next.
  3. Think of an unrelated idea that has the same qualities as your concept and the point Box of Chocolatesyou are trying to make. Example: In a box of assorted chocolates, the candies look similar on the outside, but inside there might be nougat, ganache, caramel, lemon, cherry, raspberry, key lime, coconut, mocha, mint, pineapple, marshmallow, marzipan, fudge, almond crunch…sorry, where was I? Until you bite into one of the chocolates, you won’t know what’s inside.
  4. Formulate and refine your simple and stunning figure of speech. Example: Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.

A bad metaphor can obscure even the most obvious idea. But a good metaphor, according to poet Pablo Neruda, can reveal the mysteries of the world.