How to Use Analogies

How to Use Analogies

I've written about how absolutely crucial the skill of observation is in writers. You need to be a giant walking eyeball as Emerson said, a vacuum that absorbs the world. You've got to use all of your senses to notice the eccentricities, the beauty and the ugliness of the world.

By itself, though, sensory perception, or noticing, is not necessarily a creative process. It's something that animals do a lot better than us, for example. If you've ever seen how a cat will instantly pick up on any kind of motion in a room that you've barely detected, you know what I'm talking about. The creative process comes from linking things with other things.

We All Know How to Make Analogies

This process, too, comes pretty naturally to humans. As children we start noticing that the crescent moon is shaped like a banana or a smile on its side. We see the green of the trees is like the weird green of the sky right before lightning. We start to say to ourselves, that thing is just like that other thing. And the more unusual the things are that we're linking, the more creatively our brains must build the bridge. As we get older, we're better able to link abstract or complex things. We might notice that the way our parents lie to us is the same way they lie to the Jehovah's witnesses at the door: sorry, I don't have my change purse. Sorry, we ran out of cookies. You might start making analogies between courage and cowardice or lies and the truth.

All of these analogies are what makes truly vivid writing memorable, unique, and yes, creative. When we read a truly incisive or insightful writer, the pleasure bursts we get are from the creative leap that the writer is willing to make. Never before have we seen watermelon slices compared to the moon. Never have we seen how jealousy and desire are two halves of the same coin. It's these creative analogies that show us a new side of the world.

To Practice, Start with Food.

To use your own analogies, you have to start a regular habit of making them. Instead of making dull pronouncements in your mind when you think about things, try likening them to other things. I've found the easiest way to begin this process is with food. Good taste is really a process of learning to pay attention and make analogies. So when you taste that lasagna, you know it tastes good. But what does it taste like? At first it's just a confusing blend of goodness. But if you pay attention, you'll start to find things to compare it to. Perhaps you're picking up on the acid of the tomatoes or the dull bready flavor of the pasta. Maybe olive oil is singing its grassy song. Try this with everything you eat. Have you ever noticed that cumin smells like B.O. (yet tastes delicious)? Is rosemary floral? Does green tea taste like spinach? Is butter more like cream or like duck fat? Is there a nuttiness to that oil, a rosy smell to that tea? The game of gastronomy is a game of associations and analogies, an endless unfolding network of connections. It's just the start to a larger, expanding world of analogies.

Analogies Make Our Writing Better.

You can see how this will add dimension and flavor to your writing. Suddenly a tree is not just a tree; a tree is gnarled as an old woman. The river is not just the river; it is foamy as the head on a glass of beer. The barn is red an over-ripe tomato. Your child laughs with a trill like a cardinal's. The soft wood of the table is spongy as a cork; your clothes are scratchy as burlap.

If you really get into analogies, you'll see that they're a way of perceiving the entire world. It's way of seeing the world as interconnected and relational, rather than solitary and separate. Every observation we make has its own special context in our brains; it comes with its own personal analogies. The essence of creativity is exploring what unique analogies you can bring to the table.