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Process Metaphor: A Path To Shape Your Writing

How to use process metaphors to improve and deepen your writing process.

Illustration of metaphorical images
The use of a process metaphor can help you build your writing life.
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What is your process metaphor? When you’ve been writing for some time and through a number of projects, you begin to put together a sense of how the process works for you (or you for the process). Retrospectively, you can see patterns and make use of them. These patterns can serve as guiding metaphors, and it can be useful for absorbing their implications and even to visualize them. Such metaphors can serve to liken one process to another for answers on how to proceed, especially when you are struggling to write or to understand the creation of your story.

We can learn not just from the old advice to “pay attention” to the world around us in order to have something to write about, but we can also learn to pay attention to how we write.

An example: My own novel-​writing process feels like building an enormous stone block from which to sculpt and chisel second and third and more drafts, with final polishing of the stone for last draft.

The first draft simply creates the block itself, and second draft begins to find the shape in it. I need to do my best to capture it all as quickly as possible on “paper” – my big old rock. Subsequent drafts hone in on details. Imagine a sculpture of a human figure: finding the shape; defining the limbs, head, shoulders; in final draft, shaping fingers and toes, the expression in the eyes. The stone comes to life.

Process metaphor: Illustrating the idea with images.
The use of a process metaphor can help you build your writing life.

Process Metaphors & Writing Work

Thinking of my process in this way has allowed me to understand certain things about how I work: I know I need a full and complete first draft before I begin any type of polishing; I know I shouldn’t be sidelined by trying to make this first draft “perfect” – I just need to get it out; I also know that I can’t be working on the eyes or the curves of the ears while I’m determining the shape of the arms. There are sequences and layers to my work.

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I work through draft after draft, bringing each closer to the polished sculpture. Again, this allows me to free myself from the pressure of “it has to be good” until the final drafts. I need this. You might need something else.

Some writers need to polish as they go and have a different sense entirely about the “finished first draft.” Some write in pieces. Some work from a linear outline. And if you work in a variety of genres, you might have a chosen few process metaphors with which to work in your various forms.

Your Writing Process & Images

Maybe you’re working on a short story collection or connected stories, maybe something novel-like, but not quite. Possibly a novel that progresses by polishing one chapter after another – you might work with an outline, wanting to know where you’re going and how you’re building.

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You might build each chapter in such a foundational way. You might experience it growing as a high-rise apartment building. (Like the one outside my window now, great concrete layers, with a plywood structure elevator up the side, with two enormous cranes – at the moment, the bottom floors are being filled in with windows and more, even while the top layers are still being built with concrete forms. The building is such a size that I expect people will be living in the lowest floors even as the penthouse is taking earliest shape.)

Or maybe you see your work laid out as a quilt, each square distinct and whole before you stitch them together and stretch it all onto a quilt-frame to do the final hand-stitching, patterning as through-lines and motifs.

The Writing Roadtrip Process Metaphor

The map metaphor might work for you if you’re someone who does not outline but who likes to explore as you go, imagining from A-Z and discovering where M and R and Y are as you travel. Following the sun one day and driving with the wind at your back the next. Do you know where Z is? Do you need to?

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Or the process may be a thorough inversion, and as a road-trip writer, you like maps, a.k.a. outlines, and planning – that linear process mentioned above. You study the map before you pack your van, and you note the national parks you must visit; you don’t want to leave the journey to chance, and you don’t want to pass by the significant by accident.

What are the Corner Pieces of Your Story?

Maybe you relish a wintry afternoon, opening a new puzzle box, spilling the pieces onto a table, spreading them out, sorting, finding corner pieces: What are the corner pieces in your story? And what are the edges? What are your blue chapters? What is the part that moves from indigo to purple? When do you begin to notice the shapes of the pieces in your hands instead of the colors – something that always amazes me in the other-state of puzzle-putting-together; that moment when I’m into shapes and seeing differently from how I was seeing when I started to piece together the puzzle.

The Musical Equivalent of Your Writing Process

If you’re musical and understand theory, you might work with a scale of sorts, possibly corresponding certain “tones” in a story or poem to those of the fifth or third or seventh tones of a scale. What is the literary equivalent of a flattened third, a minor, a somber note? What is your dominant tone? Can your reader hear this tone throughout or as you’d like for them to hear? What about the seventh or second of jazz…If these words make sense to you, then perhaps a musical metaphor speaks to you and is useful.

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Special Knowledge & Writing

You might not have such knowledge of music. But consider what special knowledge you do have – a dance form? The right way to polish a piece of wood to bring out the grain? How to find the perfect place to pitch a tent?

What do you know about that neither your loved ones, friends, nor your siblings know? What do you enjoy? What oddity do you find yourself rabbit-​holing for hours?

Gardening, house-building, birding, cooking, bread-making, mountain-​biking, scuba-diving…add your possibilities to the list; the list is a long one, a long one to mine for writerly riches.

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Changing it Up and Checking In

Your tried and tested process metaphor might not work for you halfway through a project. But your analysis and awareness can aid that; you can take on a new metaphor. Maybe some suggestion here will open up a way to visualize the process of your work and shed some light. Maybe you can share metaphors within your writing group; seeing anew can break through a block.

There have been times when I need to move ahead and spend time shaping and polishing some detail of my “sculpture,” and this fine-tuning (ah…mixing metaphors!) shows in relief all the other areas I need to attend.

Sometimes as a form of checking in at the conclusion of one draft or a later one, I’ll consider another process metaphor – the music scale, for instance: Have I sounded all notes of my scale? Have I thought about what form of scale I’m using? Or puzzle-wise: Have I used all colors and shapes? Or have I mountain-biked around certain trees – or crashed into one big one?

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The ‘Why’ of Process Metaphor

Even questioning why a particular metaphor comes to mind is interesting. Why does your gut resonate to a particular piece, feeling, image? Once it’s in your mind, can you connect it with your story and process? How? Maybe it’s a bit like stitching Peter Pan’s shadow back into place – does the shadow/metaphor connect at points with your story?

Process and process metaphor is as fascinating as story-​writing; without process, a story does not make its way onto paper, into covers, onto shelves, and into hands. Process bears thinking, mulling. Mulling makes block less likely. Story can be blocked; process goes on and finds a way into the story and also shapes it. Find your metaphors and let them guide you.

Alison Acheson is the author of 11 books, most recently a memoir, Dance Me to the End: Ten Months and Ten Days With ALS. Explore her Substack, The Unschool for Writers

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