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Creativity and metaphor


Techniques > Use of languageMetaphor > Creativity and metaphor

Making the strange familiar | Making the familiar strange | See also


Metaphor is a very useful tool in creativity, not only in creative writing but also in dreaming up new ideas. The way that metaphors work in taking a different view allows you to make both the strange familiar and the familiar strange.

Making the strange familiar

Sometimes you are faced with a difficult situation that is hard to understand. A useful creative act is then to make the strange familiar, bringing the thing that is difficult to conceptualize into a domain where understanding improves, inferences may be made and creative leaps are easier.

A scientist is investigating the way a virus behaves in attaching itself to a healthy cell. She takes the metaphor of rape and uses this to explore notions of trauma, repulsion and revenge by the attacked organism.

An engineer is looking for a way to hold together a multi-part machine in a high-vibration environment. He takes the metaphor of shivering with cold and comes up with ideas for encasing the system in a flexible jacket.

Einstein did 'thought experiments' and played with the idea of riding on a beam of light when developing his theory of relativity.

There is a famous story of explorers, lost in unfamiliar mountains, who found their way out using a map -- only to find later that they were using a map of a completely different area.

Making the familiar strange

When a familiar situation anchors you into familiar thoughts, sometimes you can break free from this mental straightjacket by forcing a the familiar situation into an unfamiliar and badly-fitting metaphor. The confusion and consequent tension caused by this situation may well then lead to the subconscious leaping to an resolving idea.

A philosopher, musing about the mind but trapped by traditional cognitive psychological views of the brain's operation, uses a metaphor of a game of darts as a mind. She then explores intent, near misses, 'bullseyes', ricochets, matchplay and so on.

A soldier, drilled in battlefield technique but perplexed by a hidden enemy, closes his eyes and navigates by sound only, working with an internal sonic landscape to pinpoint the source of weapons fire.

A product designer for desktop printers takes on the viewpoint of a tiny Napoleon Boneparte, marching around inside the printer, issuing orders, capturing territory and forcing the paper to go in any direction.

See also

How metaphors work


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