Making Extended Metaphors to Elevate Writing

Last week, I shared some thoughts about how we might speak with makers about the things they create in our writing workshops, in order to help them improve their writing.

If you’re new to these parts, then you might be wondering: Why would anyone make anything other than words in workshop? Well, because quite a few of us who have been doing this teaching writing thing for quite some time now have found that when the writers we support build the structures of their drafts using loose parts before transitioning to print, the quality of the writing that they produce soars. And so does their engagement. This was one of my earliest discoveries, when I began documenting how the kids in my studio were beginning to make writing, years ago.

I’ve learned so much more since then, though. And I have some other ideas to share, for those of you who might be interested. For instance: I know that when writers use loose parts rather than text to build their drafts rather than putting them down in print first, they are quickly compelled to use metaphor, simile, and symbol without any prompting from me at all.

Try this:

Invite your students to build a character, a problem, and a solution using blocks or clay. Then, ask them to share the intentions behind their builds with partners. Listen for metaphorical thinking, and document what you hear. What does your documentation reveal about the writers you support and the writing they are striving to create? And what might you ask them, in order to deepen their thinking and the beauty in their builds? Specifically: How might they make more meaningful metaphors?

Many writers will be naturally inclined to share a single metaphor or several that do not connect as they build their drafts bit by bit. The materials inspire this (much more on that here). Our feedback can help writers extend those simple comparisons across an entire draft by inspiring them to rely on and connect multiple tenors and vehicles.

 

The tenor is the subject that the metaphor describes. The vehicle is the thing to which the tenor or subject is compared. For example, if this composition suggests that hope is flower, the tenor is hope and the vehicle is a flower. This is a simple metaphor. It’s also a claim that a writer might make at the beginning of an argument.

How might the same writer extend this metaphor as she builds the evidence to support the claim and calls her readers to action? By building additional tenors and/or vehicles into each bit of the entire build. This is how one writer that I support recently handled this, when I shared the photo above with her and invited her to frame her own extended metaphor:

Hope is a flower. It’s seeds are planted in the spring, when it seems as if the world is just waking from a long sleep or even, a death. If it isn’t fed and tended to with care, hope fails to bloom, and even it does, it withers. It dies. 

An idea:

I’ve shared some prompts that push metaphorical thinking in the past (scroll down to see them right here), but extending metaphors invites a different kind of making, connecting, questioning, and inferring. It inspires a more sophisticated kind of thinking and writing, too.

You might begin this work by inviting writers to build just one bit of their drafts, crafting single, simple metaphors. Perhaps they might focus on the first bits of an argument, where claims are made, for instance: Hope is a flower. 

Then, invite them to rapidly build related tenors and vehicles, before dropping some or all of them into the other parts of their drafts: Weeds, bulbs, perennials, annuals, gardens, water, light, gardeners, nutrition, pests, disease, rot.

Finally, challenge them to tinker with each bit of their drafts, adding these tenors and vehicles to their writing, and tinkering and playing for effect.

Something I’ve learned by watching young writers engaged in this kind of work: They may not yet know which tenors and vehicles they will use as they begin making them, and that’s more than okay. I’ve learned that building and brainstorming this way helps writers see new possibilities and make profound connections that they may not have made otherwise.

Making the metaphors changes the way they make their arguments, the evidence they use, and the ways they call their readers to action. The writer that I mentioned above made situation-specific connections after making related tenors and vehicles. She was recently studying the transition that many convicts struggle to make once they leave prison and re-enter society, she told me. Without the proper support and opportunities to grow and thrive, she explained that reformed convicts are at greater risk for addiction, poverty, abuse, and repeated crime. “Some might say that former convicts are just bound to do bad stuff again. Some might say they’re just rotten,” she reflected. “I think they need to be planted in the right garden if they’re going to grow healthy.”

This is just a quick idea at the end of a very busy week that left me little time to write, so I’m wondering what your thoughts are. I’m wondering if you have other ideas, too. I’d love to hear from you!

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