Thursday, July 16, 2009

The hamsters in my head

No, I'm not about to blog about how rodent-shaped aliens are trying to control my (and your) actions as their first step in taking over the world, primarily because I don't think the first aliens we encounter will resemble any creature familiar to us. (Although I'm of two minds on the issue; at times I also think life on Earth can be so wildly strange and varying, what haven't we seen yet? A good question for sci-fi writers, and I love to read alien contact stories.) Anyway, back to the subject, which is not rodential* alien mind control but metaphors. That's right, those figures of speech we learned about back in middle school, the ones that aren't similes. Everyone remembers similes, because simile sounds like similar, which also means like, and oh yeah, a simile is when you say something is like something else. Example: My toenails are like little golden pebbles. (From my lucky golden pedicure, which isn't all chipped away but is getting close. Sigh.)

Similes are handy tools, but I prefer metaphors, and not just because I hear enough use of the word "like" with a teenager in the house. (It's, like, a speech impediment when they, like, are trying to say, like, something.) Metaphors set up an equivalence between two unrelated things for purposes of comparison, and without the word "like" they are stronger and more direct. Some metaphors almost tell stories of their own; they provide images and connections that build on what the reader already knows. You can take a common metaphor and add to it and people know exactly what you mean. For example, "My train of thought wasn't just interrupted, it was derailed." That's more concise—and more interesting—to read than "I was trying to think about something, but I couldn't focus and I started thinking about something else entirely!" It's like a figurative version of that old writers' chestnut, "Show, don't tell."

So, about the hamsters: yesterday I was trying to think of what to write for my status update on Facebook. It may sound silly, worrying about what to write and whether you sound interesting or not, but it's actually a good exercise in pithy writing. In any case, I was trying to decide what to write: something about my cat troubles? about my plans for the day, or for the week? As I waffled back and forth, indecisive, an image came into my mind: a hamster falling off its wheel, dizzily walking around and banging into its cage walls. So this is what I posted: "The hamster in my brain has run off its wheel and I can't decide what to write for a status update, so you get a dizzy hamster."

Yes, it's a bit silly, but people understood what I was talking about. Sometimes your hamster is running all out and you're focused; sometimes it's lazing along and you're playing games; sometimes it's fallen off the wheel and dizzy; and sometimes, as my critique buddy Todd said, the hamster gets one leg caught in the wheel and is caught spinning out of control, head banging the floor and ceiling. All that is so much more fun than saying, "I'm feeling focused/slow/silly/crazy today." Mmmm, metaphors.

*not a real word, but I like it anyway.


  1. My hamsters ran into a fat, solid brick wall today. They are not only not on the wheel, they are laying flat on their backs on their bedding with their little hamster paws twitching.

  2. When it comes to my writing, I feel like my hamsters have been chained to the wheel and are chanting, "All work and no play make hamsters go crazy," all while they limp along on three legs.