MFA Nugget: Extending Metaphor in Your Creative Writing

Oh metaphor, how you elude me. I hear you mentioned in the same breath as praise for the great essayists, storytellers, and poets here at my MFA residency with the Vermont College of Fine Arts, but you are shifting smoke to me, impossible to grasp wisps rising out of the creative sparks of others’ literary genius.

See what I did there? Of course you do. I attempted to make use of metaphor in my prose, and it came across about as well as the classic story opening, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Yes, I remember 7th grade English class, where I learned about similes and metaphors, and made sure on my quiz to circle the similes when they used “like” or “as.” But they’re taking the use of metaphor a bit deeper here at VCFA.

A view of my VCFA dormitory, Dewey Hall, from the fourth floor of College Hall. Isn’t Vermont striking?

Metaphor adds layers of nuance and power to prose, I’m told. It allows the writer to tie together disparate elements of the story, and to emphasize the importance of some elements over others. Particularly when extended across a work, it can signify the “aboutness” of that piece to the reader.

I get that. But I haven’t figured out how to “do” that in my prose. Not yet, anyway.

I attended a lecture by a graduating student, Giovanna Marcus, who I was fortunate enough to be in workshop with last semester. As a result, I know she’s a talented and skilled writer. And she demonstrated in her lecture a good understanding of extended metaphor.

What I wrote above was conveyed in her lecture, along with the straightforward information that an extended metaphor can illuminate both character and plot. She advised morphing and twisting the metaphor both to keep it fresh and to maximize its effectiveness. She cautioned repetition of a metaphor for repetition’s sake can annoy the reader.

For those who would welcome good examples of extended metaphor, she suggested three works by Bernard Cooper: Maps to Anywhere (metaphor: houses), Truth Serum (water), and The Bill from My Father (a polyester jumpsuit; how awesome is that!).

Got it, Gio. Now it’s a matter of actually applying it to my writing.

I will have to try, as my advisor this coming semester obsesses over extended metaphor. One piece of good news for me is that I also have her as a workshop leader this residency, and she has already suggested a possible extended metaphor for my travel memoir in progress. It’s brilliant, and so seemingly obvious once she pointed it out. You could hear the gasps of recognition of this fact in workshop when she mentioned it.

Is metaphor part of your writer toolbox? Have you successfully extended one across a longer work of prose or poetry?

25 thoughts on “MFA Nugget: Extending Metaphor in Your Creative Writing

  1. I’m working on a small book concerned with understanding “story” — using the metaphor of the meandering jungle river. Of course, it leads into the heart of darkness (ahem). The river journey informs the structure of the book. I hope it’s not too obvious. I thnk it works. It works, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it?


    1. I think so. Conrad doesn’t have a monopoly on rivers. I would say it’s all how you do it. Gio pointed out that Cooper took a risk using water, because that broader metaphor has been used a great deal, but he did it skillfully. What shifts something from chiche to gem? Good writing.


  2. I never metaphor I didn’t like. Seriously, though, I agree with Anne-Marie above. The Jack Gilbert poem “Marriage” was a revelation for me. You read it through, are moved, and only later realize that he did all that without outright metaphor or simile. Rather, it permeates. I encourage you to look it up.


  3. In my experience, sometimes metaphor (not the extended ones) need to be forced. One of my mentors taught me to practice using metaphor by looking at every day objects and trying to think up metaphors for them. Metaphor is a muscle that strengthens with use.


    1. “Metaphor is a muscle that strengthens with use.” That’s helpful to hear, because I have found that to be true with other aspects of creative writing, but I know that it’s just a matter of continuing to work at it until the muscles get limber, with the goal of getting it to muscle memory.


  4. I’m not sure what an extended metaphor is, but i am drawn to metaphor, think in metaphor and blah blah; my writing exudes it! what fun; how nice of you to share; i think attending writing workshops at MFA programs would be daunting. Total best wishes.


    1. Thank you! From what I can gather, an extended metaphor is when you go beyond simply using it in a line, or paragraph, or passage, or scene, and instead you carry it across the work. One of my workshop advisors said this can be very difficult and very dangerous, because it’s easy to make the reader sick of it. She, however, worships metaphor and uses them constantly, just not necessarily always the same one.


      1. This is what Jack Grapes, one of the most incredible writing teachers ever (West LA(, he calls it “image and moment,” and I read a piece where someone responded, isn’t her whole piece image and moment? and he said yes, so i guess i do it.
        I’m grateful for your posts; you can access my blog entries and see if you find any stuff; i am starting to republish pieces from You Carry the Heavy Stuff; blessings and creativity for your day(s)


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    1. You bet, Margo. One thing that should help me crack the code is identifying when writers do it well. It seems when you can spot it quickly, it is not done well. When you have to work a bit, and then see it clearly, it is working well.

      Yes, I would think metaphor is pretty central to poetry! 🙂


  6. I believe my brain does work that way, but not always successfully. My WIP (a novel) has an extended metaphor (light), but I wasn’t terribly aware of what I was doing until I was well into it. There’s also a physical object as symbol; that’s the thing I have to watch so it doesn’t become cloying.


    1. Hi Gerry! Sue Silverman says that she either finds that she’s already writing the metaphor without knowing it, or goes back in a later draft to see what metaphors may speak to her in the writing. So it sounds like your brain does work that way.


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  9. Pingback: Using Extended Metaphors in Your Writing – Part One | The Artist's Road

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