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Simplifying Metaphors: How We Perceive The World

Writing is, for me, the way we make sense of the world. In the words of Joan Didion, ““I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Yet, as I said, this is my own approach to writing. Which brings me to my second conceptualization of writing as inherently subjective. There are certain writing styles or techniques that I connect less with than others. Yet, those approaches could be far more desirable to other readers, likely readers with better taste than my own.

That being said, when asked to approach crafting a “column” or blog about writing advice, I thought it best to approach it as a kind of technical survey. I could write articles like this one simply to make sense of some of my favorite writing techniques and how they have been used to make sense of the world we all share. And, in fiction, perhaps of world’s we can only imagine.

The first technique I wanted to look at involves a very concrete method that I enjoy reading, I have come to consider it a “simplifying metaphor.” These are when metaphors, sometimes a series of them strung into a small allegory, is used to make sense of the greater inhuman forces at work in our lives. Political, moral, scientific: the forces that can make us feel small, powerless, unimportant. These are truths and events, patterns that we are all forced to live beneath. Particularly, I enjoy when they are written in a very simple, poetic manner. I feel that at least I, and perhaps we, need to approach these larger concepts in a mentally simplified way, in order to grapple with their essential size and importance; as such, the simpler a metaphor can be, the more authentic it can feel as a method of empowerment. It allows us, as writers, thinkers, and people, to better feel capable of handling the experiences of life. This is a function of writing, and on a smaller scale, a function of these kinds of metaphor, which is why I am drawn to them.

In her memoir, The Dragons The Giant The Women, Wayétu Moore uses this simplified metaphor, crafting an allegorical story, laced with magical realism, that forms the cultural and colonial conflicts of her native Liberia into a fantasy story. It grounds the story within her youthful voice (as she was five when civil war came to her country), and simplifies the largeness of centuries of atrocity, its feeling of inevitability, and the countless people involved, into a powerful metaphor that does not minimize the destruction involved. Here is the first paragraph of her fourth chapter, in which she establishes this extended metaphor that travels with her throughout the book, and seemingly throughout her life:

Before the dragon came—a thing, not a person—before Hawa Undu was born, humans ruled the forest. Gola people and Kissi people and Loma people and Gio people. Vai people and Kpelle people and Kru people and Mano people. Bassa people and Krahn people and Grebo people and Gbani people. And these groups, they all ruled in their own way, prayed in their own way, told stories in their own way, prayed in their own way. The people had many chiefs and each group had one prince to lead them. But the dragon said the forest was too small, and the ways of the people were not correct, not what the dragons did on the other side of Mama Wata’s shoulders. So. They said no more chiefs no more princes. No more praying no more speaking in those ways. There is one correct way to tell a story, the dragon said. The people fell in line but those princes never stopped being. . . (31).

Here, and throughout much of this memoir, Moore really demonstrates the extremes to which this simplifying metaphor can work. She uses magical realism to make some of the most daunting atrocities and complicated sociopolitical patterns of conflict into a children’s story. She emphasizes the ways in which her country has not always been a country, and how the dragons of colonization can cause such a yolk of destruction.

In a different example of the same technique, or at least a technique that somehow feels the same to me, a simplifying metaphor is applied within Phoebe Bridgers’ “Garden Song.” She fantasizes about someday living in a house with her partner and having a “skinhead neighbor” that “goes missing” right before she decides to “plant a garden in” the yard. This implied image of a flower garden fertilized with the remains of a nazi neighbor becomes the central image in a song about fantasies of beauty growing from modern cynical mundanity. A movie screen becomes a “tidal wave,” a dorm room becomes “a hedge maze.”

While these two examples may seem disparate, I bring them up because they both take these inescapable forces of growth, fantasy, and conflict and boil them down to these simple images. They create these simplifying metaphors to make sense of the feelings the world around them presents. In Moore’s case, she makes sense of the history she has been taught and its seemingly nonsensical results, with a fantasy story. She imbues the indomitable forces of the world around her like colonization, patriarchy, and culture, with magical properties; this directly compares their seeming inevitability with magic. It absolves these forces of conflict from needing to make sense to us mere mortals. In Phoebe’s case, she grapples with the nihilism and loneliness of a world of technological contact and omnipresent white supremacy, crystalizing those ideas into a fantasy sequence. Within this fantasy, she takes the irredeemable “skinhead neighbor” and absurdly grows a garden from their remains; the metaphor presents her desire to create growth from a society that sometimes seems incapable of it.

Much in the way that social metaphors to help us better understand the world around us, like imagining time within a space that we consider to be moving “forward” or conceptualizing social media as a “space” in which we post things as opposed to a construction of binary code, metaphors in writing help to crystalize and simplify our ideas in remarkable ways. They can bend vast, immovable ideas into much more accessible bites that convey the unique perspective each of us bring to the table. In that way, I believe they really are the heart of writing, the essence of ideas and their malleability.

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