But the greatest thing by far is to have command of metaphor; it is the mark of genius. Aristotle
Writers are Pythias by default. In creating fiction rather than fact they produce what did not exist beforee. The capacity they use is the imagination. It is the essential, indispensable tool of creative writing, and one of the best ways to develop this ability is through the making of metaphoric stories.
The process is simple. Students chose a topic and then translate this topic into a metaphor or ‘seed image’. They start with this initial image in their mind’s eye. This image is then further elaborated. The image is worked with until it unfolds into a story. The challenge for the writer is to use imagination rather than intellect, to think in pictures rather than concepts. To do this is not easy. To allow an image to freely unfold is a fine art that requires practice.
Most students will experience a definite struggle between their intellect and their imagination. The mindset they have will battle with the one they aspire to. This results in tales dominated by the intellect: the plot feels contrived or too clever, the outcome predictable; the composition lacks a sense of wholeness and the writing has no lustre.
The reason for this is reliance on linear thinking and the scientific paradigm that underpins it. Creative writers are not, of course, necessarily scientists. Yet they, like everyone else, have imbibed the scientific paradigm. Like a fish in water they are unaware of the water that is in and around them. And the moment they attempt to engage their imagination in earnest, their intellectual habits spring up to constrain them.
A creative writing teacher can usually tell when this happens. After a while students will start to notice it in the work of their fellow writers. In time they may come to recognise it in their own writing, in hindsight at first and eventually during the process of writing itself. Then they are not far from allowing the image to develop of its own accord, without interference from the intellect or from their subjective psychology. The former ties the writer to collective conventions, the latter to their personality. Both relate to the past.
Both are left behind the moment the writer stays fully present in the forming of images. The metaphoric mind, rather than relying on what already is, opens to the future. Undetermined by what is known, the imagination engages with the here and now of everything new. The moment the writer is able to live into one image and then see it through to the next, the writing becomes fresh. The plot, though unpredictable, possesses a logic of its own. Beginning, middle and end form a coherent arc. Every part of the story resonates with every other and reveals an indivisible totality. Everywhere is necessity and nowhere coercion. This is the natural state of a tale that has been allowed to unfold of its own accord.
The end of such stories is both surprising and obvious. Surprising because there was no way of foreseeing it. Obvious because it fits seamlessly with the arc of the tale.
A good story achieves this by means of metaphor; firstly, through the ability of metaphors to unite separate things and ally them to what is intrinsically whole. And secondly, through the innate mobility that allows metaphors to resonate with the future. The future is never fixed. It is always alive, changeable, fluid. Concepts are often too rigid to accommodate this vital flow. They hear only the message they want to hear.
Metaphors differ radically from concepts. Rather than being like moulds that shape everything according to their own design, they are like wax, willing to be given shape. They are fluid, mobile and flexible like the future itself and hence uniquely suited to express what wishes to come. Unfettered by the past they are open to what is new. They are organs through which the future can articulate itself.
I suggest we distinguish two streams of time: one that runs from the past into the present and another that runs counter to this current. We are familiar with the first: it is linear time, tied to the law of cause and effect. We have, as yet, little affinity with the second. Unlike the Greeks, who developed elaborate rituals to avail themselves of this current, we have no tools to put it to use.
It is not, however, entirely unknown to us, as we engage this counter-current in every new insight and creative act. Unobserved, it serves ground-breaking ideas and inspires innovative approaches. We apply it in every moment we appreciate art. Consider how the music we hear is never just the music of the moment alone. We hear the totality of the piece through every cadence. As we listen we anticipate what is to come and weigh what we hear against the scale of the whole. Even if we have never heard the piece before we somehow know roughly what to expect.
Writers do the same when they write. They are sensitive to this second current. They meet it the moment a story takes over; the tale tells itself; a passage develops a life of its own. Suddenly they are in the presence of more than themselves. They realise that the tale is beyond their telling, the composition beyond their ken. Making use of their imagination, they have been made use of by their muse.
The muse is real and capable. In fact more capable than the writers themselves.
The self that is active in such moments relates to our ordinary self, as the future relates to the past. It is not who we usually are but who we aspire to be and long to become. This part of ourselves is more potential than realised. It is still in the process of becoming and it has, by virtue of its emergent nature, a natural affinity with the future. It is this nascent, growing, potential self that we apply in every creative act, and that we must employ if we wish to learn what the future has to teach us today.