A note from me to me (and to you, the one person who finds my subpar hiding place for these thoughts and reads this): you were supposed to ship this 8 hours ago. It wasn’t finished then, but you’re going to do whatever you need to to make it ready to ship by now (<23:59PM). Consider this a note giving yourself permission for this thought to remain a work in progress – even after it’s “done.”
Or, put bluntly, this post might suck.
And that’s okay.
I started writing a poem this week about metaphors. I know, kinda meta. And kinda redundant. But there was a reason I wanted to dive into them from a birds-eye view.
The Poet’s Keys explore how innovative leaders can put Figurative Thinking into practice, and how thinking in metaphor enables us to extract possibility from the absurd. But there’s another thing metaphors do for a poet that is sometimes more damaging than helpful, and it’s something that I think shows up for other would-be creatives, innovators, and leaders in ways that cause a hindrance as well.
Let me back up for a sec.
Perhaps the only tool that’s more universally important in the creation of poetry than a metaphor is sensory detail. Metaphors take the reader to a different world by connecting two things that are usually disconnected, but concrete detail grounds us in the sensory world of the poem by portraying its world as it is.
I have a habit of clinging to metaphor and figurative language in my poems. And to an outsider, that might sound like a good thing. “Dude, so you do the imagination part ALL the time?! That’s awesome, right?!” But aside from the fact that too much figurative language and too little concrete detail can make a poem hard for the reader to grasp, the instinct to stick to the figurative often comes – in my experience, at least – from a place of fear, Three types of fear, in fact, all of which I think have a risk of holding us back in our work.
First, there’s the fear of confrontation. Sometimes a painful memory is easier to address when I write about it not as it happened, but rather by adorning it in language that makes it something other than the ugliness that it really is. Under this paradigm, metaphors become a form of distancing from a difficult thing to deal with. But I think a lot of creative people face this temptation to distance ourselves from tough stuff. We distance ourselves from difficult conversations, opting instead to talk behind people’s backs or to settle for relationships that are only semi-functional. We distance ourselves from parts of ourselves we need to work on, telling ourselves those parts are insignificant, or non-problematic. We distance ourselves from difficult problems, occupying ourselves with busywork or half-solutions to problems we don’t actually care that much about.
Then, there’s the fear of inadequacy. In poetry, this inadequacy threatens to express itself as an inability to communicate well, or in a way that is interesting. So I over-index on metaphors as a way to dress not my writing but myself up in something that looks attractive or impressive. Similarly, leaders and innovators may face a temptation to chase vanity metrics and projects that don’t actually further their craft or their impact on their audience in any meaningful way; reather, it really just makes them look good. It’s a means by which a creator becomes a caricature of themselves, and it takes the place of the real growth that facing those more difficult opportunities for personal development would lead to.
Lastly, there’s the fear of the mundane. Sometimes I get impatient by the prospect of describing the wood of my desk as a slightly weathered chestnut brown pocked and stained by water marks. Instead, I want to describe it as something otherworldly. The issue I see here is that as someone who writes about the world, I fear I may be missing out on precious opportunities for observation that come from having patience with the world. I can barely count the number of talented people I know capable of driving monumental change who grow impatient with the most mundane and foundational building blocks of their work, and in doing so fail reach their aspirations.
Metaphors, while a powerful tool, can also function as a way to write around the real work.
Do any of the fears above resonate with you in a different arena of your life or work?
What could those fears be keeping you from?
What real work are you writing around?