On metaphors: an invitation to play

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Earlier in the month, when I wrote about fear, I also wrote about fire — the nurturing of an idea from an ember into full flame.

I’ve been carrying that image with me for several weeks, a metaphor that has felt significant because it’s a shift from the ones I’ve been working with in dreams. Last year, my dreams were full of water. Lakes, rain showers, dunk tanks, even flooded basements. Fire is a new presence I’ve been happy to welcome into this chilly season.

When a metaphor shows up in a dream or on the page without my conscious intent to create it or look for it, I know my intuition is at work, asking me to notice what wants to be seen. Sometimes it’s guidance for my process; sometimes it’s a fragment of a lost memory coming back home. Either way, I make space for these metaphors as long as they wish to travel with me.

Metaphors — and shifts in metaphors — are powerful guides for exploring where our creative energy wants to go and how we can support it. They invite us to play through symbolic association, extension, and expansion when we have questions we’re not sure how to ask or problems we’re unable to solve.

In a recent conversation about the creative process, I started to talk about the ways in which we can answer that invitation to play when a metaphor resonates with us. One woman brought up a metaphor described by Michael Meade of Mosaic Voices, the idea of the soul kept small like a goldfish contained by the walls of its bowl (click here for a brief recording of Meade on that subject). Meade asks us to examine what our personal walls are made of, and who has helped make them, in order to consider how these invisible barriers may be preventing us from growing into a more expansive life.

I hadn’t yet listened to the recording, but, drawn to the invitation in the metaphor, I asked the woman, “What about the fishbowl is comforting? What about it feels safe?” — not to encourage keeping the soul small, but to ask what the soul needs to take with it from that temporary sanctuary in order to explore what lies beyond.

The woman laughed, first with surprise and then delight: “I didn't know you could take stuff with you from the fishbowl!” she replied.

“What if you could?” I asked. “What is it that you love about those particular things in your fishbowl that you want to carry with you?”

“I’m going to write this down,” she said, an unspoken aha in her eyes. This is the magic I love stoking and witnessing: collaborative play that kindles individual inspiration. Playing with the metaphor in conversation — even turning it on itself by revealing its own walls! — had sparked this woman’s curiosity about the other personal resonances it might contain.

I’m continuing to let my own metaphor shed light on what wants attention in my work, and as others share their metaphors with me, I’m inviting them to play with the images that have come forward. What metaphors are showing up in your creative practice? Share them with me by clicking the button below — I’ll reply with a question to support you in your own process of discovery.