I just got home from the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference, and, like the past fourteen years I’ve taught there, it was a magical week. I really can’t recommend this conference enough. It’s made up of workshops, craft talks, readings, and loads of access to faculty members. One of my pleasures is the craft talks that Sue William Silverman and I do together. This year, we had a conversation that included the audience. Our focus was on literal roads in our latest books—Sue’s was Route 17 in New Jersey; mine was the Sumner-Lancaster blacktop, also called the hard road, in southeastern Illinois—and how those roads served as metaphors in our respective memoirs.
Metaphors are built from particulars that start to represent something that’s important in the writer’s consideration of the material. We use metaphor to help us think on the page and to artistically shape fact and experience. My hard road, for instance, represented the central theme of the book. The literal road stood for escape from a hard life. Sue’s Route 17, with its constant stimulation, represented her desire to avoid death. If she could just keep moving—if she could feel alive—maybe she’d never die. You get the point. One thing represents another. Metaphor helps us investigate our material. It also brings beauty to the arrangement of facts through its subtle associations.
So here’s a prompt that can be used by all writers regardless of genre:
Step 1: Identify significant roads. They could be literal routes upon which cars and trucks travel, or they could be waterways, railways, subways, airways—any path of travel meant to take someone from one point to another.
Step 2: Think about the particulars of those “roads.” Engage the senses. Recall or invent the specific details of the roadways.
Step 3: Associate memories with the roads or invent specific episodes that may be relevant to your essay, your poem, your short story, your novel, your play, your screenplay, etc.
Step 4: After you’ve made the roads vivid, ask yourself what you may be exploring. Maybe you say, “I (or he/she/they) loved the road (defined however you like) because. . . .” Completing that sentence may make you aware of why that road is important and what it represents.
I hope these four steps help you with building metaphors. Now, just open the throttle and keep writing, making yourself more aware, word by word, of what the road is helping you think about, what it represents, and where it wants to take you.