Turning Writing on Itself: Metaphors and Similes about the Creative Process

In the part-confessional, part-instructive, and entirely user-friendly On Writing, Stephen King likens authors to paleontologists: stories, he says, “are found things, like fossils in the ground,” and it’s the writer’s job to unearth them. Ernest Hemingway, in his minimalist way, stated that “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” And Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael, once said, “Most beginning writers (and I was the same) are like chefs trying to cook great dishes that they’ve never tasted themselves.”**

Every writer has their own take on writing; when the ideas come hard or don’t come at all (or are simply hard to dig up, design, or prepare, as the case may be), we find ourselves thinking about the act of writing. And since it’s in our nature, we do tend to write about writing, turning the machine on itself, interested in (and maybe a little afraid of) this strange act of creative auto-cannibalism. The end result, more often than not, is that we discover more about ourselves as writers than we do about writing. We realize we see writing through the lens of other life experiences; we do, after all, use what we know to explain what we don’t.

In my own case: in my late teens and early twenties, I was a furniture carpenter, and although I haven’t made anything (worth mentioning) in many years, I still think of building a story not unlike building a desk, a bookshelf, or a set of cabinets. You start with a design—a few sketches, maybe a full blueprint on graph paper, if that’s your thing—and from there you learn exactly what supplies you need: what tools, what glue, what wood stock, what stain, what varnish. And from there, of course, it’s all about bringing that design to life—about taking that idea, that part of your heart, and making it real. You cut your wood, plane it if you have to, sand it, glue and nail it, stain it. Throughout the entire process you’re cleaning up after yourself, maybe chiseling away too much dried Titebond, maybe swearing a little (or a lot) when the oak or maple doesn’t take the Sedona Red the way you want it to. But whatever route the process takes, by the time you’re finished, you’re looking at something you’ve made, you, and even if it isn’t exactly how it looked in your mind’s eye, so what? It’s yours. And the next time you’ll know how to do it better.

I’ll take that comparison a bit farther before I call it a day and say that, no matter what metaphor or simile we come up with for the job of writing, the most important thing to remember is to treat as exactly that: a job. An enjoyable one, one we maybe can’t live without, but a job nonetheless—one where we have to put forth time and effort before we get results. It isn’t a nine-to-five (at least it doesn’t have to be) but it’s still an occupation where calling in sick puts you behind, where taking an unplanned vacation throws the project off track, and where procrastination does nothing but put off success.

That’s my take on it, anyway. I invite you to share your own!

**For anyone who’s curious, the remainder of Quinn’s advice is more about reading than writing: “How can you make a great (or even an adequate) bouillabaisse if you’ve never had any? If you don’t really understand why people read mysteries (or romances or literary novels or thrillers or whatever), then there’s no way in the world you’re going to write one that anyone wants to publish. (This is the meaning of the well-known expression ‘Write what you know.’)”


Jamie Rand served in the infantry in the United States Marine Corps from 2001 to 2007. He has had short stories published in the anthology Best New Writing 2011, Annalemma, Carte Blanche, and Blood Lotus magazines. He he currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Virginia Tech.


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