Why metaphors are creative rocket fuel

Why metaphors are creative rocket fuel

Metaphors make our world beautiful, powerful examples of creative thinking in action because they describe things in different ways. All cultures are full of them and this is why they resonate with us – because of the translation of mundane experiences into colourful imagery.

Fire raged in his belly as he heard the news of her demise. We know that there is no ‘fire in his belly’ but the imagery provides us with another way of saying that he was angry and creates a poetic expression. This divergent process has the advantage of abstraction which means there are infinite possibilities of how to describe something, in this case, ‘anger’ – he exploded, he had daggers in his eyes, he was a ball of focused tension, etc. By teaching students how to understand and use metaphors we promote creative behaviour.

I am a big fan of Joseph Campbell and his work, which has infiltrated much of western popular culture. His book ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ is now the ‘go-to’ for Hollywood script writing and famously paved George Lucas vision for the original Stars Wars plot. At a deeper level though, Campbell’s work provides us with the understanding that all storytelling, across all cultures, is metaphorical for our own journey in life. The stories that have survived and that resonate with us are lessons for us, how we all face hurdles and what needs to be done to overcome and benefit from these trials. Metaphors for life. Fairy tales and fables can demonstrate easily what a metaphor is. For example, the Tortoise and the Hare provides us with two metaphors of living life. In the case of the Hare – fast, impetuous, irrational, and the Tortoise – careful, thoughtful and calculating. These two figures have transcended our culture even with marketers using the ‘Energizer Bunny’ – full of energy that keeps going and going and going, and ‘Turtle wax’ – dependable and strong.

Making students aware of what and how metaphors are gives them a helpful understanding of their world and their lives. It opens up popular culture and starts to decode what they are subjected to through literature, music and film. Once an understanding is in place then students should experiment with making their own – and metaphors can be applied to literally everything.

In her book, ‘IngeniusTina Seelig states that creating metaphors is a powerful tool to evoke creative thinking. They act as an imaginative way of expressing something in a variety of other ways, which is creative process. And making these iterations can lead to other ideas, a springboard to deepen and widen the net of possibilities. It is an active exercise, requiring application of thought.

The power of observation can help get this process kickstarted. By taking a simple theme, say ‘happiness’ for example and then looking around your immediate vicinity you can gather stimuli that could be applied to the idea – as I look around the room I am working in… Her happiness was:

  • music that lifted her soul (I saw a pair of speakers),
  • the colourful array of perfectly composed lines (I saw pens and pencils) or
  • the satisfying memory of a simpler time (I saw a photo).

They may not be the most poetic examples but they came through observation and applying imagination to what surrounds me. This exercise can be easily applied to any subject area.

Partly why I love dance so much is because it is an abstract representation of something, a theme, memory, subject, object or whatever you would like. There is no right and wrong translations. Dancing is metaphorical. Students can be encouraged to represent a topic through movement, this translation of an idea takes it through a semiotic change which helps deepen understanding. It requires you to think of it in a different way. Or inversely it can be used to help create dance (and indeed art). Starting with an idea – ‘capitalism is greed out of control’ and then find metaphors for the idea (a bulldozer knocking over trees) which can be then used to create dance (a dancer pushing bodies to the ground), and of course also in music, theatre and visual art.

Musical lyrics are full of metaphors and can be used as great examples, such as: You ain’t nothing but a hound dog (you won’t leave me alone – made famous by Elvis but not his originally), Walking on sunshine (happiness – Katrina and the Waves), Tears of a clown (sadness – Smokey Robinson). But more than that music like dance is metaphorical. Creating music to represent a topic or a theme is an abstract metaphor and the same semiotic process applies as with dance.

What I like about metaphors is that they ensure understanding. You cannot make an effective metaphor for an idea if you do not understand the idea itself and the understanding is indeed deepened through thinking about it in a variety of ways.


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Header image by Nela.