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Roses & Rattlesnakes: Metaphors in Life & Literature

And how to find greater meaning in both.

My phone buzzed, waking me up from my nap. I was in a different time zone and trying to shake off the jet lag, but I still wanted to be available to my family back home. Bleary-eyed, I read the alert, a text. My eyes got bigger, my jaw dropped, and I got so angry as, with enough passive-aggression to make a cream-puff explode:

I was blamed for something that wasn't my fault.

My thumbs flew, crafting the perfect response. My sense of injustice steamed up the windows of my hotel room. But as I read and re-read my response, which was about as long and incoherent as the British constitution, I deleted it. Defending myself would only add more fuel to this drama-fire. I found myself asking, not for the first time, why were relationships so hard and painful? Why is it that when we try to communicate with the people closest to us words just aren’t good enough? Words can be twisted, their carefully chosen meanings completely misconstrued, especially in a TEXT.

I went for a run.

I ran up foothills, climbing unfamiliar streets. I wanted to run from my frustration, and my hurt. I didn’t want it to calcify in me and make me bitter and mean. I wanted to be a good:

  • Friend

  • Sister

  • Daughter

  • Mom

  • Wife

  • Employee

  • Happy and Contributing Member of the Human Family

But are close relationships really worth it if they have the potential to cause you pain?

I kept running uphill, not knowing where I was going. I heard the sound of water and saw a little park, with paths and benches surrounding a pond full of ducks. The sun was rising, igniting the happy fountain.

I crossed the road, drawn to the little park’s peace and beauty. I stopped running and turned off my audio book, Dr. Edith Eva Eger’s The Choice. I tried to be quiet and respectful of the space. The park's path wound up higher into a little gully tucked behind the park. I followed it up but saw an alarming sign:


Whoah. I imagined myself being bitten, of the pain from the fangs and the venom pulsing through my veins, destroying my muscles. I didn’t think I would die, but maybe I should turn back to avoid the potential for pain.

I kept going, wanting to see where the little path led. I turned a corner and saw a rose garden tucked along with the sunrise between the foothills.

I entered the garden through an ivy-covered trellis. I was surrounded by so many roses of different colors. I walked on the paths and bent down to smell the soft blossoms covered with dew.

I smelled a scent I remembered from my childhood. The roses smelled sweet like vanilla but also pure and clean. It made me sigh deep inside myself, like I had entered a sacred space.

I opened my phone and texted back an apology.

The best way for me to understand the difficulty and blessings of relationships was through a metaphor I felt God had guided me to live that morning.

There is pain in relationships, there are thorns and snakes we want to avoid (and toxic, dangerous relationships that we should decapitate with a rusty shovel), but there is also great beauty, joy, and peace in relationships we shouldn't give up on. Just the other weekend I had flown home and surprised my mother on her birthday. Seeing my mom's face light up with disbelief and then tearful joy, was one of the best moments of my life. I would never want to turn back and be too afraid of my feelings potentially getting hurt. I would miss out on too much good if I only focused on the bad.

Metaphors in literature, when they are done right, are powerful, because they have the potential for both universal and personal understanding.

Ursula K. Le Guin said, “It seems to be a fact that everybody, everywhere, even if they haven’t met one before, recognizes a dragon.”

Metaphors and similes are effective ways in telling the truth through tiny stories, even just a sentence long. They are also just so fun to read; they are the lines I usually underline. One of my favorites is the opening line of Neuromancer by William Gibson:

“The sky above the port was the colour of television, turned to a dead channel.”

Isn’t that so much better than just saying the sky was gray?!

But metaphors and similes can also sink a writer, when they are cliche, overused, or completely miss the mark. A good rule of thumb, if you find something in your writing that you’ve read before or isn’t clear, delete, delete, delete.

I would rather visit a really bad chiropractor than read, “Chills went down my spine” one more time. Ugh.

I think it’s hard to teach yourself or anyone how to write good metaphors. The only ways to improve are:

  1. Read, and read, and read, and notice how other great writers do it.

  2. Practice by writing (not dreaming, not wishing, not folding laundry, actual writing)

  3. Open your eyes to the metaphors of life that are all around you.

Bill Moyers, speaking of the work of Joseph Campbell said,

“A myth is a mask of God, a metaphor for what lies behind the visible world.”

That is our work as writers, to see the stories behind the masks of the everyday details and with a craft-filled hand help us all find meaning.

Meleece Cheal Orme is a latter-day mother, writer, runner, and breakfast-food lover. Born and raised in Cache Valley in the Rocky Mountains, she earned bachelor and graduate degrees in music from Brigham Young University (but there was always a book on her music stand). In 2006 she married her best friend and soup snake and they have four insanely intelligent children. Meleece is an award-winning writer and is currently working on her first book.

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