26 Fruits

 

Edit edit edit

Nearly 20 years ago I wrote a book called The Invisible Grail. The book’s no longer widely available but it has led to a company of that name, which aims to improve communication in the higher education sector. In recent weeks I’ve revisited one chapter of that book to see changes I might make with the perspective of another time, another situation, another context.

The chapter in the original was called ‘Underground Writing’. It offered separate sections of writing advice, using an alphabetical constraint, going from A to b through the alphabet to Y to z. Which means, I began each section with a word beginning with the first letter, and ended with a word ending in the second letter. Originally I also wrote it while travelling to and from work on London Underground.

I haven’t been able to use the Tube for a couple of months, so that brought about some editing changes. Others took me more by surprise. I thought I would hardly edit the writing at all but, once I really thought about it, quite a lot needed to change. Although the principles are the same as before, the context is completely different. So my editing has been quite drastic rewriting; we’ve been posting the revised versions on Linked-In. You can have a read of the chapter so far here https://www.invisiblegrail.com/insights/the-a-z-of-writing/

For a flavour this is the latest where I went from H to i.

H to i

How do you make a thought more vivid? Metaphors are certainly one way to do it. Look up ‘metaphor’ in the dictionary and it will say something like ‘figure of speech which points out a resemblance between things’. Dictionaries can sometimes just raise another question about meaning. This might be one of those times when the dictionary definition makes sense only when you see an example. Indeed, a metaphor might be needed.

The title ‘The Invisible Grail’, suggesting a journey or a quest, is a metaphor. The fact is, we all use metaphors all the time, almost without realising; we use them as crutches, as shafts of light, as pointers. And they are certainly not confined to the language of poets, though we can learn from poets because they use metaphors most vividly.

Sometimes we struggle to understand the meaning of poems because they use metaphors that are not literal or factual. That’s OK – find the meaning that is deeper than a fact. How to read a poem? The American poet Billy Collins answered that question with these words of explanation to readers:

‘I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.’

Keep your mind and your senses open and receptive. The first line of Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin seems to me a perfect metaphor for our times, when we all walk around with cameras in our pockets: “I am a camera with its shutter open.”

Last week, running a Zoom seminar with a group of communicators in business and education, I got them to write metaphors about people they were missing at this time. That produced some powerful, emotional writing. I then asked them to write a one-line metaphor about a brand that they admired. Some interesting metaphors emerged:

Zoom is the first flat white of the day in that Soho café

Dunns (the baker) is my daily warm hug

Netflix is a sixth form common room with beanbags for lolling

Patagonia is a five-year-old discovering ice cream

Our minds are surprisingly receptive to this allusive form of description. Plain words, factual descriptions, do not always communicate effectively because they fail to connect to the imagination. Surely there is a lesson here for everyone writing for any kind of organisation. If you want to be more effective in the way you communicate with people, you need to tune in to their imaginations. Free your mind, use more metaphors, give greater rein to your audience’s thinking. Adopt the spirit of Billy Collins. Allow your brain to waterski.


3 Responses

  1. Johnny Lyons says:

    Thanks for sharing your typically shrewd and invigorating thoughts on metaphor, John.

    I particularly liked your remark about a metaphor’s ability to reveal the meaning beneath the fact. It got me thinking on how that thought could be made into a metaphor. Here’s my starter for ten: a metaphor is an irresistible striptease.

    I’d love to see what others come up with

    J

  2. Johnny Lyons says:

    Thanks for sharing your typically shrewd and invigorating thoughts on metaphor, John.

    I particularly liked your remark about a metaphor’s ability to reveal the meaning beneath the fact. It got me thinking about how that thought could be made into a metaphor. Here’s my starter for ten: a metaphor is an irresistible striptease.

    I’d love to see what others come up with

    J

  3. John Simmons says:

    So would I. But keep it clean…

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