Figuratively Speaking

Maxine Brink invites NCWA to join a writing exercise.

In a writing seminar my attention was directed to a large, multifaceted rock sitting on a velour-covered table. I was told to look at the rock and write without stopping for ten minutes. Okay: shape, color, size, a point that resembles Wiley Coyote.

At the end of ten minutes we were told to put down our pencils. The instructor spoke a few words about environment, feeling the chair beneath our posteriors, the clothes on our back. Then we were told to re-view the rock and write more.

I mentally reacted, “What else is there?” But I had paid for this exercise and I wrote more. This time when the instructor said “stop,” I wasn’t finished studying my rock. My mind was seeing lines and shadows, textures and colors that I had experienced elsewhere. The humble rock was propelling me into comparisons, metaphors and similes.

A simile says the snow is piling up like bread loaves on the deck railings.

A metaphor says snow loaves rise on the railing.

In her poem, “December,” from Harvesting Fog, Lucy Shaw says it best:

“A forty-eight hour fall with more to come.
Our life suspended. The flakes, heavy and

discrete, rise on roof and rail to loaves of snow.”

I love reading the book, Word Painting, A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, by Rebecca McClanahan. Writer’s Digest Books. 1999. Her non-fiction overflows with figurative language as naturally as breathing. She calls it her way of “perceiving the world.”

On page 90 she describes metaphor and simile as “fraternal twins.” “Both are comparisons between two things that are unlike in kind.”  They also differ “in the degree of likeness they suggest. Simile is usually limited to one likeness.”

McClanahan’s description of implied metaphor excites me. “Because the comparison between two things is implied rather than stated, the reader is free to imagine additional qualities the things might share.”

She gives examples:

Simile: “Your hair is like a dark river.”

Metaphor: “Your hair is a dark river.”

Implied metaphor: “Your hair twists and meanders across the landscape of your shoulders.”

I keep a journal next to my reading chair. When I find similes and metaphors, I write them in my journal, noting the author, source and page number. My conclusion is that all the best writers liberally use the fraternal twins, simile and metaphor. These figures of speech add color and music to an otherwise bland, descriptive paragraph.

Here is my homely attempt: “His words lay stones for my steps across the past week’s sorrow.”

Take something you have written and give the fraternal twins a try.


Midwest born and educated at Calvin College and Western Michigan University, Maxine has worn many hats, from teaching to business, doing whatever was needed with her minister husband while raising three kids, and now senior care at their home, Adagio Adult Family Home. Her writing reflects her eclectic interests. Her blog, Adagio Lyrics  explores themes of life’s transitions. She has been a member of NCWA since 2009.

2 thoughts on “Figuratively Speaking

  1. Good thoughts, Maxine. I love using metaphor and simile. We just have to be careful that we don’t overdo it, or use ones that are too odd or striking. My rule is, if it makes the reader stop to think about the comparison, it probably is too far fetched – although in humor pieces, the far fetched ones can be used quite effectively.


  2. Great post!! I love the concept of painting with words. While I have used both metaphor and simile to my writing, I am always looking for ways to prime that well of creativity to greater depths. I shall try the exercise you illustrated.


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