The Art of Writing: Quirks and Perks

Image by Geetanjal Khanna

Here’s the author of The Martian Chronicles and the classic Fahrenheit 451on where and how to find what to write about.

Quote: We all are rich and ignore the buried fact of accumulated wisdom.
— Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

This could be said of most aspects of our lives, not just writing. Even the tiniest experiences can be mined for gems and insights. A paragraph down, Bradbury elaborates.

From now on I hope always to stay alert, to educated myself as best I can. But, lacking this in future I will relaxedly turn back to my secret mind to see what it had observed when I thought I was sitting this one out.
We never sit anything out.
We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled.
The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.

Image by Jennifer Pallian uses two metaphors to describe experiences that we could transform into stories: one has to do with buried riches, the other with liquid in a vessel. But these metaphors have a common root. Consider what the metaphors are saying: one compares experience with treasure buried in us (where we are implicitly likened to the earth); the other compares experience with liquid that fills us (where we are explicitly likened to cups).  In both cases, he is suggesting that writing is the retrieval of something that is already in our possession, by virtue of our existence.

According to Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors We Live By, both of these would belong to the class of so-called ontological metaphors that allow us to identify our experiences with entities and substances (gems and liquids), and ourselves with containers (the earth and the cup). Metaphors rely on our experience with the physical world, and so it is not surprising when the same sentiment (writing from experience) is expressed using two seemingly different metaphors that are actually coherent in the sense already described.

Indeed, the metaphors were penned by the same author, on the same page, so let us find someone else speaking on the same topic.

Camus’ Meursault in The Stranger said that the more he thought the more half-forgotten or malobserved details floated up in his memory, and Sartre said in Nausea that for the most commonplace event to become an adventure, you have to start recounting it.

Camus used floated up when talking about memories, as though they were … buried at the bottom of the sea perhaps? He too thought we were rich, only our mind was water, not ground. And thinking would in his case correspond to the stirring of water until memories floated up.

Sartre didn’t bother with cups and jewels—he stated that you just have to start writing.

Let’s see how the three authors would have said their piece using the language of Bradbury’s liquid-and-cup metaphor, where tipping ourselves over stands in for the act of writing from experiences we de facto possess:

  • Bradbury: The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over.
  • Camus: The trick is, knowing how to stir the liquid before tipping ourselves over.
  • Sartre: There is no trick, we just need to tip ourselves over anyhow.

Understanding how to translate meaning between coherent metaphors allows us to compare seemingly disparate statements—a useful skill, especially when the metaphors belong to complex philosophies, doctrines, scientific systems.

That said, I wish you much tipping this weekend, whichever way you do it best.

Image by Cyril Saulnier

Reading Recommendations: learning to let the beautiful stuff out.

Zen in Writing, Sailing Stories, and Illustrated Guides to creating fiction. Dig in!

  1. Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury. Because it’s an inspirational, biography-sprinkled, fun read.
  2. Steering the Craft, A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing The Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin. Because of chapters 7 and 8 on Point of View and Voice. She rewrites the same paragraph from different viewpoints—an exercise worth following along. Also, there are many exercises to accompany the excerpts and examples of what she preaches, more so than in any other writing book I’ve encountered.
  3. Wonderbook, The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, Jeff Vandermeer. Because any visually minded person (person, not writer!) should feast his or her eyes on this book. If you didn’t want to write before, you might just after a few pages. 

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

26 thoughts on “The Art of Writing: Quirks and Perks”

    1. Glad to hear that! Was it because it appealed to the rebel in each of them?

      I reread it recently too, and found it a bit dated. It could be because (amongst other things) many books nowadays build on similar ideas, making the original seem “plain” and obsolete.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. 🙂
      Bradbury’s cup metaphor is great, and there are so many other writing/thinking metaphors that inspire, I just haven’t been properly collecting them until now. Time to start! (Which one is your favourite?)

      I’m happy when people ask questions—especially ones which I can answer in seemingly helpful ways 😛 (And when it’s not seemingly but actually helpful …)

      Thanks for commenting with your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I just came across your blog today and like what I see. This post is especially timely. The whole month of April I penned at least one poem a day, sometimes two or three. It may not sound like much but, for me, that’s a lot. It was both exhausting and exhilarating. The frenzied energy was just what I needed. I’m still writing daily but feel as if I’m floundering a bit. Like somehow all the ideas just dried up the minute April was over. I know they’re there, I just have to do some ‘tipping.’ Is there a trick? No trick? Do we have to know ‘how’ to get to that point, or does life and experience just take us there? I think all of these ideas are important contributions to the act of writing, or creating in general, but I’d have to go with Sartre. No trick, you just do. I’ve made note of the three recommended books and plan to add those to my ever-growing TBR list.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. A poem a day does sound exhausting! I hope that you’re pleased with the result when you look back.

      There’s another way to interpret the three pieces of advice, that I didn’t mention in the post. I don’t think this is necessarily what their authors meant, but I like how the three metaphors dovetail:

      The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over. —> Sharpen and prepare your writing tools (that’s the how of the writing-process).
      The trick is, knowing how to stir the liquid before tipping ourselves over. —> Sharpen and prepare your mental tools (that’s the how of the plotting or imaginative process).
      There is no trick, we just need to tip ourselves over anyhow. —> Once you’ve got your writing tools and your mental tools, there’s nothing to wait for because you’ve got all of life’s experience in you, and you’re ready: start writing!

      Hope you enjoy the three books, they’re very different. I learned something from each of them. (I’ve also got a Book page, where I’ll be adding more writing books as I trawl through my library.)

      Liked by 4 people

      1. For the most part I am pleased with the results. Some of them might be cringe worthy when I read them later. I can think about reworking those then.
        I like those interpretations. Those are exactly it! That’s how it gets done!
        I’ll check out your Book Page. I’m always on the look out for a good book on writing.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I like Stephen King’s “On Writing.” I also like Dwight V. Swain’s “Techniques of the Selling Writer.” As old as that one is, I still find the information just as useful today. It also holds a special place in my heart because when I first started writing, an author that I admired recommended it to me. I have Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.” That’s a pretty good reference tool. I have a couple of more genre-specific writing books and I’m not sure how great they are because I haven’t read much of them, but those are: “You Can Write a Mystery” by Gillian Roberts and “Writing Mysteries” edited by Sue Grafton. I also have “How to Write & Sell Your First Novel” by Oscar Collier with Frances Spatz Leighton, and “The Writer’s Idea Book” by Jack Heffron which is pretty cool.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Stephen King’s On Writing is a fun read, yes! It’s on my shelf right here.

        And I was lyrical about The Elements of Style so that’s that 😛

        I haven’t heard of the Mysteries or Selling books, but now that you mention them I’ll check those out. I’m minded to give The Writer’s Idea Book a try, thanks for reminding me 🙂

        And thanks for taking the time to list all of those, much appreciated!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Bradbury: The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over.
    Camus: The trick is, knowing how to stir the liquid before tipping ourselves over.
    Sartre: There is no trick, we just need to tip ourselves over anyhow.
    I’m with Sartre. The gems come from things and experiences of my life. But time molds (some spell that moulds in my case) and melts the experiences and they become something that I don’t remember. My sister asked me, the other day, if a recent story was true or fiction and I said I didn’t actually know.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. When writing stories, I like to teeter on the boundary of fact and fiction, with forays into both. That’s if I know where the boundary is. If I don’t know, then it’s probably fiction (and if there’s someone who wishes to prove me otherwise, they’re welcome to try).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the encouragement – I shall try to tip this weekend. I think for me that trying to write, making myself write even when I am unstirred and closed up, results in tipping. But there’s always the reluctance to start while untipped.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Amazing article! But I have something to ask and say. You make these connections and compare the metaphors, but what if those connections were a coincidence and they were just random metaphors. I make a lot of metaphors when I write but they are only on surface level, they don’t have a second layer of meaning, for example, metaphors you mentioned all have that layer, ‘something we already have’. So do I become a better writer when I add that second layer? I’m sorry to burden you with my thoughts.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey, no burden at all! I’d like to answer your question, although I’m not sure I understood it correctly.

      Metaphors come in different guises. I suppose one way to look at them could be through “layers”, although that’d need to be defined a bit more precisely. Depending on what you’re writing, “shallower” or “deeper” metaphors will serve you better. For example, in non-fiction, the language is usually straight-forward, with fewer metaphors of any kind, although when they are used they add a spicy twist (like in the Bradbury example). In non-fiction it has to be clear from the context and from a solid setup what exactly the metaphor means. At the other extreme there’s poetry, where the metaphor may be complex and ambiguous, may have many layers and may flavour the interpretation without elucidating the meaning.

      Did you have any particular type of writing in mind? What would you say is a metaphor with only one layer of meaning, versus one with many? An example or two would show me what you mean.

      Here are some examples that could be said to be of varying degrees of complexity or depth or …

      The Sun floats up the sky — easily understood, evocative of slow movement.
      The Sun dances in the sky — less clear without context.
      The Sun laughs at the sky — an explicit personification that can’t be understood without context.
      The Sun loves the sky — loving is a concept that’s understood in many different ways, so requires further elucidation.

      The Sun is love — deep statement, many layers, biological (Sun gives light, and light makes growing of food possible, food is nourishment, nourishment is at the foundation of love), symbolical, mythical, fictional.

      I will destroy the Sun — can be literal or can be metaphorical, the context needs to make it clear; a different type of statement altogether.

      The Sun is water — obviously not a literal statement, in fact goes against common experience, would require copious explanations to make any kind of sense in the reader’s mind.
      The Sun doesn’t exist – similar to previous statement, as it’s false in a literal sense, however unlike “water” the word “exist” is loaded with deep metaphorical and philosophical meanings itself, so would require a different kind of justification, that might be considered “deeper”.

      Helpful? Let me know how I can answer your question better 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Even though it wasn’t what I asked, it was really helpful. I knew the difference between shallow and Deep metaphors, but your examples were enlightening. I understood the varying degrees of meaning and taste they give. Thank you for that.
        Sorry for unclear question earlier. What I meant by layer is,
        A metaphor which defines more than one characteristics.
        For example,
        I’m the sun – the most obvious one would be I’m powerful and I give light
        What if also indicates another characteristics of mine like I’m alone eventhough so many things depend on me. Or I’m alone because I’m too hot for anyone to get close to.
        That’s what I meant by layers.
        Now I have a different, which do you think would be a metaphor with more taste, the one with a lot ambiguity and don’t really elucidate the meaning or the one which have hidden comparisons like the one which I provided, for poetry?
        Once again a big thanks for taking the time to answer me. You are alaways very informative.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I’m glad my answer was at least partially helpful!

        From what you say, I think depth and layers are closely connected, if not the same concept. But perhaps that is beyond the point.

        If I understand correctly, you’re asking me what kind of metaphor would be more tasteful for a piece of poetry, the ambiguous or the specific metaphor?
        I’m afraid this is far too general a question: it really does depend on the context.

        Take for example the first three lines of T. S. Eliot’s poem Eyes that last I saw in tears (which I discussed in this post).

        Eyes that last I saw in tears
        Through division
        Here in death’s dream kingdom

        Death’s dream kingdom is fairly ambiguous, it could mean the death world, it could mean the dream world, it could be heaven or hell, or a lot of things. Would the poem have been better had he specified which of those he meant? I suspect not. Would the poem have been better had he been more ambiguous and said in the faraway kingdom or in the kingdom of life surpassed or something else? I suspect not. It was a matter of striking a balance, but the balance depended on the context.

        Now take the last two lines of the first stanza of Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! (which I discussed in this post).

        Where on the deck my Captain lies,
        Fallen cold and dead.

        Fallen cold and dead is fairly specific and concretely dead, and hardly a metaphor. Would it have been better had he said Where on the deck my Captain lies / In death’s dream kingdom, to steal T. S. Eliot’s line? Well, no, because it doesn’t fit with the concrete language of the rest of the poem.

        So it depends on the what kind of poetry you’re writing, whether you’re telling a story, whether you’re flying on the wings of emotion, whether you want the reader to think about what you are saying, or listen to the melody of your words …

        Liked by 2 people

      3. I understand, that was really useful. I have learned so much from this conversation and your posts. Thank you for the great examples, it gave me some clear thoughts about metaphor. I would try out the ideas in my poems and check out how it turns out. Thank you once again

        Liked by 2 people

      4. Oh that’s really nice! Thank you for that offer and I would definitely use it. I am all about taking in the thing you have said so far. Trying them out in poetry. Thank you once again!

        Liked by 2 people

Questions? Comments? Reading recommendations? Let me know.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: