Tsunamis, Songs, and Thistles

Metaphor Map #5

Hey there and welcome to Metaphor Map!

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

1. Starting businesses is like writing songs

What has ever been made that is truly original? Not even Tesla is original. It's just an electric car that's done better and differently and is cool. It's not like it was the first electric car. To me, business is like writing songs. There's a handful of chord structures that just work and most pop songs are around 80-100 beats per minute and they have a chorus, a bridge... There's just best practices and within those best practices, I can make my art. 

- Sam Parr, How to Make Millions by Writing Online with Sam Parr of The Hustle

In this podcast interview, Sam Parr, founder of The Hustle, compares starting businesses to writing songs. 

This is an effective metaphor because Parr articulates a pattern that repeats in many different situations. The same way a musician might ditch the verse-chorus-verse structure and produce unlistenable noise is the same way an entrepreneur might avoid a proven market and produce something no one wants. 

As a writer, I’ve always received similar advice. You have to learn the rules of grammar, the best practices of the greats before you can start breaking the rules and cutting new paths. 

It’s almost always worthwhile to learn why the best practices are best. That “why” gives you the context you need to go in a different direction, or, as Parr points out here, the boundaries in which you can get creative.  

You can find metaphors like these by looking for patterns. 

Good metaphors draw connections between things that exist in separate worlds but happen to share similar structures. These similarities could be moods, like songs played on different radio stations or pronounced, like spiral shapes seen across galaxies and flowers. 

One of the reasons thinking of metaphors is hard is because we tend to limit our observations to inert nouns. How is a business like a song? Not very. But how is a starting a business like writing a song? As it turns out, there are some interesting similarities. 

If you’re having trouble finding metaphors to compare two nouns, try looking for verbs instead. 

2. Coronavirus was like a tidal wave

There was coverage of the coronavirus, but we did not have what we desperately needed: the clear and loud warning that a tsunami was about to land on our shores, and that we needed to start getting ready, immediately. The appropriate message for a tsunami headed our way isn’t that it’s not a threat “for now” or that we should worry about falling in the tub instead. A massive reaction would not have been an overreaction at all; it would have been appropriate.

Zeynep Tufekci, It Wasn’t Just Trump Who Got It Wrong

Zeynep Tufekci is one of the best writers on the intersections between technology and society working today. She was one of the few accurately predicting the risks of coronavirus long before those risk became immediate. 

Here, she compares the coronavirus, as well as the systems poised to break from it, to a tsunami. 

This metaphor captures the damage of the wave, the vulnerability of the shores, and the alarm that never was. She doesn’t do this merely to evoke fear or impress risk, but to tie this metaphor to her larger point about the realities of inaction. 

Instead of focusing on the much larger risk, the American government dawdled. 

Her metaphor alludes to the moment of peace that comes before a tsunami hits, the moment when the tide draws back further than it ever does and naive onlookers wonder where the water is going. This is the image we feel reading this, all the while knowing that these onlookers are about to see all that water come rushing back. 

Tufekci also uses this metaphor to inject a moment of bleak humor. If one response to the threat of pandemic was sheer inaction, the other was dismissal. People really acted like this was going to be little more than the flu. 

Tufekci skewers the latter perspective by comparing it to fearmongering about falling in the tub. 

These metaphors work so well together because they share the same theme: water. If Tufekci leapt from the tsunami metaphor to one about, say, tripping over a rock, it wouldn’t be nearly as powerful. 

When your metaphors rhyme, they can be more powerful than the sum of their parts.

3. A misfit is like a thistle or a mule or Cinderella

“I was ill at ease among them: a thistle in the rose garden, a mule at the racetrack, Cinderella at the fancy dress ball.”

Lee Smith, "The Bubba stories"

In this excerpt of the short story “The Bubba Stories,” author Lee Smith is reaching for a feeling that’s hard to articulate. The gut sense that we are not where we are supposed to be, that we are not among people we should be among, does not lend itself to obvious words.

These kinds of gut feelings are opportunities for metaphor. Metaphors most often compare the unknown to the known, but they can also compare the known to the better known. 

We’ve all felt this “ill at ease” feeling but few of us really have the language for it. Writing that fact (“Hey, you know that feeling when… ?”) is understandable but it’s not vivid

Writing words that are understandable is only the first step. Smith uses not one, but three metaphors to get to that next level: empathy. 

Smith stacks metaphors because the feeling she’s describing is so fleeting, so hard to capture. Stacking three metaphors gives Smith three chances to evoke and explain the feeling. 

Beyond that, however, the act of stacking shows the reader that the writer is reaching for understanding. Sometimes, it’s useful for writers to be transparent about the act of writing. 

Most of the time, writing is manipulative. Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote in his seminal book Several Short Sentences on Writing that “We hate the thought of being manipulated, and yet reading means surrendering to the manipulations of the author’s prose.” 

This is the rare moment when the writer surrenders instead. By stacking three metaphors, all of which gesture toward the truth and all of which fail to capture it, Smith points us toward the feeling she knows we understand without saying it exactly. 

And that inability to say it exactly makes it more powerful still. 

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.