Monday, 29 November 2010

Metaphors for writing

It’s a common writerly exercise.  Instead of thinking about the characters and the story we are working on, we choose to stare out of the window and think about what we are doing and how we are doing it.  Then we come up with some poetic analogies for the process, which makes our creative struggle seem more epic, fundamental, heroic.  It’s more navel gazing procrastination, but it’s quite fun, too.  Here are two creative-process-metaphors that I have heard from other people, and two that I’ve developed on my own.

The first comes from Stephen King’s wonderful book ‘On Writing’, which describes the screenwriter as palaeontologist.  “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world,” he says.  “The writer’s job is to… get as much of each one out of the ground as intact as possible.”  I love this image.  The writer, equipped with a backpack, some tools, a map and a hunch, sets out into the desert.  At a certain point they have a sense that they should stop walking and start digging.  Lo and behold, they hit upon a fragment of the skeleton of a long-deceased beast.  But is it the thigh bone of a stegosaurus or the nose bone of a pterodactyl?  The writer digs further, revealing more of the skeleton.  They might dig in the wrong direction and find no more bones.  They might think, at one point, that they have uncovered the whole skeleton, only to see that this is barely the big toe of a much larger monster.  All the time, their impression of the subject that they are working on is changing.  Only once the complete skeleton is revealed can they see what they have discovered.  Then (perhaps to extend the metaphor beyond King’s original description) their job is to buff, dust and whiten the bones until they look gleaming and new.  Or maybe (I don’t know how far this goes) they get all taxidermist on it and reanimate the creature?  The point is, like a crossword puzzle, the right story is there, waiting for you to find it and reveal it with care.  As both a writer and a script editor I find this philosophy challenging and inspiring.  At every decision point, you must ask yourself, as honestly as possible, is this the right move?  If it feels wrong, there is probably something better out there.  You just need to dig deeper.

The second comparison isn’t a million miles from this first one.  It was told to me on the first day of my professional career, as a trainee account manager at Saatchi and Saatchi.  The agency’s all-powerful creative director was booked to give a one-hour talk on creativity to us wide-eyed recruits.  His talk lasted less than a minute.  I think I can remember it verbatim.  “A tourist was walking along a street in Delhi, and he sees an old swami, carving a beautifully intricate wooden elephant.  The tourist watches for a few moments before going over and engaging the old man in conversation (the swami presumably spoke English, essential in the modern tourist industry).  The tourist asks ‘how do you carve such a beautiful elephant?’  The swami smiles wisely (as swamis do) and replies ‘I start with a block of wood, and then I take away everything that is not an elephant.’”  With that zinger, the creative director swept out of the room, leaving a dozen confused young executives to wonder what the hell that was about.  Fifteen years – and fifteen scripts – on, I think I sort of get it.  As with the earth that the palaeontologist removes from around the skeleton, so the act of creativity is as much about taking away as putting in.  How many times have you re-written a draft of your script, only to realise that this character, or scene, or plot line is actually superfluous to the story you are trying to tell?  Often it’s the character / scene / plot line that got you into the story in the first place, but that is no matter.  It has served its purpose, but now it must go.  Read the best scripts and you will see that they often have a wonderfully spare feel to them (THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a recent, brilliant example).  There is not a syllable in there that should not be there, which does not earn its place or add to the journey.  Have you taken away everything that is not your particular elephant?

The two further metaphors that I often fall back on, mainly for my own edification, both draw on the natural world for inspiration.  Both also have an element of man interacting with nature, which set them alongside the palaeontologist with his spade and brushes or the swami with his penknife.  And they both have a message of waiting until the time is right, of not fighting or trying to force the process. 

The first is writer as surfer, bobbing around in the outback on your gleaming board (slash Sony Vaio), waiting for your wave.  Some you might let pass, because either they are too undeveloped, or are already breaking.  Maybe some of the waves are just too daunting, while others are beneath your current skill level.  But at a certain point you will see a swell approaching, and you’ll think ‘this is the one for me’.  You get yourself into position, start to paddle and, as the wave begins to pick you up, you trust to your technique and leap on your board, and ride the wave all the way into the shore.  Hell, you might even have time to throw in a switch, or catch a tube (thank you Jonny Utah), depending on how confident you’re feeling.  The wave does its thing, you do yours.

The second image I like is that of writer as farmer.  You till the soil and plant your seed.  Then, up to a certain point, you sit back and let nature take its course.  You might need to fertilise or water or weed from time to time, but really you are doing an overseeing job as the green shoots naturally reach higher and higher.  Only when the crop is fully ripe and ready do you jump into your combine and gather in your harvest.  It has often been said that it takes six months to write a screenplay, but you only spend the last two weeks actually typing.  This analogy reflects that process.  That said, any farmer will tell you that there’s a lot more to their job than just sitting back, puffing on a pipe and watching the corn grow.  As with the farmer, the writer should be growing a number of different crops, in different fields, throughout the year.  Ideally you’ll finish harvesting one crop and be able to move on seamlessly to the next field.  It’s the only way to make the economics work!

So there, that’s my four.  What is your favourite metaphor for the creative process of writing?  And does it help you practically in your work?  Or is it all a load of bollocks?


  1. The entry is fantastic, I understand the archaeology metaphor best, sometimes I feel I haven't fully explored an idea when I make my work. I am Sam Sewell I am part of a small amateur production group and we mainly do sketches but the creative process is fascinating. If I had to use a metaphor for my work I would best describe it as a tree. The tree I decide how it will look when it grows but how it grows and the factors that shape it are out of my control all I can do is give the tree what it needs to grow.

  2. Thanks Sam - tree, corn, wave, whatever it is, the running theme is of a balance (dare I say harmony) between what you are trying to make of the idea, and where it is naturally leading you. If you find you are pulling in different directions, then perhaps it's time to take a step back and reconsider. I remember the great story about Kubrick adapting a nuclear thriller novel called Red Alert, trying to turn it into a suspense drama. Except, every time he thought about the paradox of a 'nuclear deterrent' he found himself chuckling at the absurdity of it all. And so came Strangelove.

  3. Great post.
    You might be interested in a different take on the same theme, from a novelist/screenwriter.
    The 'elephant' quotation was originally an Italian sculptor.
    Check it out: