Should You Court Metaphor or Courage to Write Your Story?

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A few months after Carol Sanford’s son Kirk died prematurely, as a writer she didn’t square off with or mine her heart, per se. She turned to her son’s astronomy notebooks. And then she felt her way into metaphor and form. The result, “Astronomy 111: Grief and Memory,” offers an exceptional reading experience that essays into grief and agony, hope and wonder.

You want to write your own story, your memoir, your business’s “about” page, your bio. You resort to the only options you think you know: 1. List your experiences. 2. Tell “what happened.” 3. Un-cage your heart and let it leave its blood-stained paw prints across the page.

But are there other, better, more “effective” ways? *
Maybe the autobiographical writer needs to turn to metaphor and syntax more than to experience itself.  That’s the case writer Brenda Miller makes in the October/November 2011 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle in her article “A Case Against Courage in Creative Nonfiction.”

The author of the essay collection Season of the Body (“The body knows a language the mind never masters.”) writes,

[W]e need to shift our allegiance from experience itself, to the artifact we’re making of that experience on the page. To do so, we mustn’t find courage; we must, instead, become keenly interested in metaphor, image, syntax, and structure: all the stuff that comprises form.

And this:

We are hammering out parallel plot lines, not plumbing the depths of our souls, but as a collateral to that technical work the soul does indeed get tapped and gushes forth.”

Clients, both professional writers and non-, who work with me either get this idea or they don’t. The ones I stay with do. I stay with them because craft and mastery matter to our livelihood, humanity, and happiness. And they matter to these writers’ gifts.

I used to think I was evading truth. I don’t much lean toward the – as I heard one writer say several years ago at a workshop – “slice your vein on the page” school of writing. But I wonder if in writing into the textures of turtle shells and the language of tree bark I might be honoring my own quirky way in the world without apology.

Craft lets us witness feelings and give shape to them without letting them be the subject itself, without letting them rule the story.

Maybe it comes to this: There’s not so much a story you must tell.  There’s also a story that needs to be experienced by others who will never meet you.

And this is why the writer’s gift is not her talent or her raw courage. The writer’s gift is what she gives to the reader.

And this is why craft matters. And this is why pursuing mastery – of the material and of the mind and of the body – matters.

What do you think? Do any of these reflections or Miller’s comments stir up anything for you? Does your reading experience bear any of this to be true? Or your experience in trying to craft parts of your story?

See you in the woods,
P.S. I’m going to start holding more conversations at Google + soon. “Circle” me there. -jbd

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  1. Metaphor is how I understand things, only then do I as a writer understand the thing itself. Last night Andy Rooney, the cranky TV commentator whom my family knows I love to hate, said something that made me like him. It was something like writers don’t say anything new. Their job is to just tell the truth. That’s why readers love them – because writers express what the reader already knows. Certainly expressing it through metaphor is a way to “make it new.”

  2. Robin: I’m with you on all counts. Metaphor is my mode, I love to hate Rooney, and – wow – he nailed (cliched metaphors abound!) how I feel, too, about most writers’ job. And, yes, metaphor makes it new. And can make the writing authentic and organic – as you well know. I always appreciate your insights. Cheers.

  3. “Experience” sits at my door, like my cat, and yearn to go out side and roam around the neighborhood.

    Your article was really helpful and inspiring.

    Thank you for affirming my hunch.