You Are a Metaphor

March 30, 2021

“COMMAND MASTER CHIEF Robbie Jackson glanced down at his cooling coffee. Master Chief Jackson was not a patron of Jittery Abe’s, the onboard Starbucks. He liked his coffee the traditional navy way: from the mess, black and nasty. A description that he himself had answered to on more than one occasion. Though he was not in fact a nasty man; an even mix of drill sergeant and Creole den mother, Master Chief Jackson was revered among his crew, even loved. Also feared.

“No one aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln had ever seen him smile.

“When he roamed the Abe’s passageways Jackson moved like an Abrams tank that had taken a few semesters of ballet…”

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That’s how we first meet one of the main characters in my forthcoming novel Steel Fear. Later on we encounter Jackson again, making his way up through multiple ladders and levels to the flight deck of the Lincoln, greeting sailors as he goes:

Jackson nodded his greetings and rolled on.

And it happens yet again, still later: patrolling the ship for hours, hoping to prevent a murder, Jackson “rolled on.”

It’s important to point out here that Jackson doesn’t literally “roll.” He’s a human being. He has legs, not wheels. But the image of an Abrams tank with a bit of ballet training sticks in the brain doesn’t it? And it speaks volumes about the character of the man.

Metaphors are astonishingly powerful. They are to words what nuclear fusion is to matter. Here’s how I describe it in How to Write Good (Or At Least, Gooder):

The power of a well-placed metaphor is that, using only a bare few words, you can light up an entire detailed picture inside your reader’s head. A good metaphor can do in five or six words what a descriptive paragraph of 100 words cannot.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. True enough. But sometimes a few well-chosen words can be worth ten thousand pictures.

All my life I’ve been fascinated with metaphors.

To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour…

So wrote William Blake, in his Auguries of Innocence, and his words seemed more poetry than reality—until the twentieth century, when science started revealing the startling realities of quantum physics and genetic biochemistry.

What is DNA if not “the world in a grain of sand”? Each cell reflects the whole; each organism thrums to the beat of much vaster tunes.

In fact, we’ve always known this. The ancient Doctrine of Signatures described how certain plants and animals, taken as foods, had a resonant impact on organs and functions they resembled. This is how acupuncture works, individual points and locations on the body connecting intimately to seemingly urelated forms and functions. Auricular acupuncture posits a detailed map of the entire human body in the ear; reflexology does the same with the sole of the foot, iridology with the eye.

The world in a grain of sand.

We live in a metaphoric universe.

Leadership, for example, is a metaphor.

Leaders aren’t bosses. They aren’t the ones who tell you what to do, when and how to do it. That’s managers, not leaders.

Sure, a leader will get things done (at least we hope so) and may do some of the things a boss or a manager would do, too. But that’s not a leader’s main function. A leader’s main function is to exemplify what needs to happen. To be the living example for the whole enterprise.

And yet, it’s more than that. A leader isn’t just an example of the enterprise.

A leader is the enterprise.

Lee Iacocca wasn’t just the CEO who pulled Chrysler out of a death spiral in the 1980s. He didn’t just represent Chrysler. He was Chrysler. (In fact his name, so the joke went, was an acronym: I Am Chairman Of Chrysler Corporation of America.”

We remember leaders by the iconic things they say, not just for the words but for what those words embodied at the time and in the world in which they were spoken.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” A metaphor for America’s collective resilience in a time of paralyzing catastrophe.

“I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” An embodiment of America’s indomitable pioneer spirit.

“Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” A vision of a more open world.

Sometimes it doesn’t even take words. Sometimes, like Babe Ruth pointing to the outfield, all it takes is a gesture.

When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern donned a burka after the brutal Christchurch mosque attacks in 2019, it struck an image of tolerance, compassion, and shared humanity that, like a pebble dropped into a pond, sent ripples of empathy round the world.

A leader’s word or gesture is like a plucked guitar string that sets off sympathetic vibrations throughout the body of the guitar … and the air columns that weave in and out of it, and the body of air in the room, and the air pressure waves in our ears, and the mechanical actions of the tiny hammer, anvil, and stirrup bones in our inner ears, and the waves of the cochlear fluid, and the nerve impulses that travel to our brain, carrying straight into our souls the sensation of that very same plucked note and all it conveys—its nobility, sadness, triumph, or ominousness.

A leader’s thoughts and actions resonate.

Which is all a metaphor is.

Resonance.

Again, from How to Write Good:

Resonance, n., 1. the transfer of vibration from one medium to another; from the Latin re + sonare, lit. “to sound again.”

Resonance is what happens when you hold a tuning fork next to a piano, hit the right note, and the tuning fork magically vibrates all by itself. It re-sounds.

Resonance is what happens when you see your parents’ features reflected in your own face, or your features in your kids’ faces. It’s what happens when you discover that your friend loves the same movies you do.

It’s what you feel when someone describes an experience that’s a lot like something you experienced. It spins an invisible thread between the two of you: you are now bound together by a shared resonance.

Metaphors works for the same reason acupuncture works, for the same reason stories thrill, for the same reason leaders inspire to action. They are metaphors. They resonate.

So here’s my question:

If you are a grain of sand, what universe do people see in you?

Or, put it this way: If someone were creating an opening paragraph in a novel to introduce the character that was you, what would they write?

Of what, exactly, are you a metaphor?

2 Comments

  1. Victoria Ichizli-Bartels

    I love this article! Thank you for it, John!
    Yes, metaphors are powerful. For the same reason, I love analogies too and often draw analogies between real life and games. That’s my passion and career right now — to show how we can turn something or anything into fun games.
    That is why I hope that if someone introduces me as a character that they introduce an exciting board game with cards, dice, timer, board, and so much more, which can provide both an exciting short thrill to spike the mood and engage for hours.

    Reply
  2. Jon White

    As always John a very good piece of writing.
    Metaphors and analogies seem to be a very powerful way for people to get a point across in describing something or someone.

    Reply

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