Plutonium, Abandoned Homes, and Rough Drafts

Metaphor Map #6

Hey there and welcome to Metaphor Map!

This week, we're looking at metaphors from an entrepreneur, a reporter, and a memoirist. If you like this issue, give it some love on Twitter! I’d really appreciate it.

1. Writing is plutonium

At just seven pages, the writing has the density of plutonium.

- Taylor Pearson, The Truth about How Creativity Really Works

Taylor Pearson, entrepreneur and author, really wants you to read an essay. 

The essay is “Destruction and Creation” and John Boyd, the fighter pilot turned military strategist turned writer, took four years to write it. Pearson wants to convince you that there’s a lot to learn from military strategy that you can apply to business and that Boyd specifically, despite his small oeuvre, is worth reading.

Convincing someone to take action via writing is difficult. Copywriters know this better than anyone else.

In this case, simply saying “Boyd’s writing is very good” wouldn’t convince anyone. Even saying “It’s 7 pages and full of ideas” wouldn’t do it. Instead, Pearson reaches for a metaphor.

This metaphor takes a common word, density, and lends it a renewed power. Boyd’s writing isn’t merely dense-–it’s as dense as plutonium. 

As readers, we snap out of the cliche use of “density” upon seeing this comparison. Instead of seeing crowded words or tangled sentences, we see ideas packed tightly together. We see energy hiding below the surface, compressed by the brilliant work of a careful, deliberate writer. We want to experience it. 

Some of your most potent metaphors are hiding right below your nose. 

Pearson could have called Boyd’s writing dense and we wouldn’t have noticed, cared, or remembered. But when you attach that density to an image, it turns a trite descriptor into a compelling, memorable, and convincing one. 

Let’s go read that essay.

2. Social networks are homes

Flickr's last best hope is that Yahoo realizes its value and decides to spin it off for a few bucks before both drop down into a final death spiral. But even if that happens, Flickr has a long road ahead of it to relevance. People don't tend to come back to homes they've already abandoned.

- Mat Honan, How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet

In this 8 year old essay, now BuzzFeed News San Francisco bureau chief Matt Honan analyzes what happened after Yahoo acquired early social media network Flickr. Spoiler alert: it didn’t go well. 

What’s interesting, however, especially reading it now, is in what ways it went wrong and how those ways may repeat in other contexts.

Honan deploys a few different metaphors in this article. It’s necessary because describing something as abstract and ethereal as an Internet community is difficult. 

Even though most citizens of these communities are, by definition, typing on a computer, describing that material fact does nothing to evoke what the community is actually like. Instead, you have to evoke the community itself and the feelings people have while participating in it. It’s the rare time when emotions are as substantial as you’re going to get.

Honan describes, in this instance, Internet communities as abandoned homes. I find this metaphor powerful, but interestingly, if we flipped it, it wouldn’t be. 

“Flickr is their home.” Eh. Is it? It inspires skepticism. But when you attach an emotional valence to it, one driven by an action––”abandoned”––I read it sincerely. 

Instead of describing the community directly, you describe it by way of the emotions surrounding it. Metaphors are a way of accessing not only the described thing but all the abstract stuff that associates with it. 

Honan doesn’t need to explain in detail what these users like, what they miss, what they lost, or what they gained. He just needs to compare it to something we know, something that has the same, familiar associations that it can drag in with it. 

We’re all familiar with homes and we can imagine abandoning one. 

3. Days are drafts

Weekdays revolved on a sameness wheel. They turned into themselves so steadily and inevitably that each seemed to be the original of yesterday's rough draft.

- Maya Angelou, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou, legendary poet, memoirist, and activist writes in this excerpt about… nothing. Or, the feeling of nothing. The feeling of nothing steadily and stubbornly remaining nothing.

Most writing involves action but most of life involves nothing. Describing these empty spaces, despite their commonness, is difficult. They’re so familiar and so blank that describing them feels pointless, almost Quixotic. 

But since life is mostly nothing, you often need to. Good writing can make nothing become something. Here, Angelou shifts the focus from sheer emptiness to the steady movement of nothing dissolving into nothing. 

If she were to merely describe nothing, it would leave no trace on the reader. We’re too familiar with nothing for “nothing” to mean anything. 

Instead, she writes about the abstract movement between days of nothing. Without metaphor, this feeling would be hopelessly abstract and likely impossible to describe. With metaphor, she compares yesterday to a rough draft and today to a new draft. 

This metaphor captures the sense that the days are changing while remaining fundamentally the same. If you write, you might also recognize that the “today draft”, while different from the rough draft, is probably disappointingly similar. 

By embedding the labor of writing into the metaphor, Angelou evokes the labor of living through days that are frustratingly hollow. In the same way that days can change without being different, you can change a draft without really having a different, final, better draft. 

Watch for ways you can turn the familiar unfamiliar. 

Part of the reason this metaphor works so well is because Angelou injects imagery into something that typically has no imagery. She turns that feeling of sameness around and compares it to writing, something that typically involves constant change. Once you can see how change can dissolve without introducing real difference, you can really feel the steady nothing drifting day by day.

Expert writers throughout history and genre use metaphors to explain their ideas. Metaphor Map gathers the best of them and explains how you can adapt them to your own writing. 

There’s a hidden universe of metaphor that connects all the different worlds of writing. Hit the subscribe button and join me. Let’s map this territory.