The Metaphor Tool

Sometimes, when we are wrestling with a big topic, it can be difficult to address it in a direct way. For example, I struggle with making time for my writing, as I wrote in a recent blog post. I addressed the problem directly there (and have implemented the strategies I mentioned) but sometimes it can also be helpful to address the problem in a more indirect way. With metaphor, for example. Before I explain further, I’m going to ask you to do this exercise[i] with me. I’ll share my example below, but please try to do the exercise yourself first.

If I said the word “writer,” what image comes to mind? What do you immediately think?

Try “my writing life.” What comes to mind when you say this word to yourself?

Write down whatever comes (an image, a color, a movie clip, anything at all,) then embellish it until it’s really vivid for you.




Consider what you wrote. What feeling does this image evoke? Write it here:


The image you came up with is your metaphor for “writer” or “writing life” or whatever word you used to evoke the image.

Now we are going to use the power of your brain to change your metaphor—and your life.

If your emotional response to your image is positive, think about what would make you have an even more positive response to the image. Change it any way you’d like. You’re making this up, so put whatever makes you happy into the image.

If your emotional response to your image is negative, think about how you could change the image to one that gives you a positive response.

Write down your new image here:_________________________________________________________




Now for my example:

When I considered the word “writer,” I immediately saw a (male) clerk sitting at a desk, writing by candlelight with a scratchy quill pen. There’s a Scrooge-looking character at the front of the room, wearing a monocle and squinting at a gold pocket watch, obviously waiting for the clerk to finish his work. The whole image is dark and dreary and I do not get a good feeling from it—in fact, it makes me feel defeated just looking at it.

So I’m going to change it.

After some experimentation, I came up with this image: There’s a giant writing desk underneath a baobab tree in a beautiful meadow with lush, green grass. There’s a woman in a lovely long dress that looks comfortable and soft. She’s writing with a fountain pen at the desk and the breeze is rustling the pages of her journal and the leaves on the tree. The sun is shining through the trees and I see the woman pause to think and look around at the beautiful landscape, then return to her writing. This image gives me a feeling of peace, joy, and relaxation. Just holding it in my mind calms me down.

That’s the last step of this exercise: Hold your new image in your mind and think about it for a few minutes each day. Maybe every time you get in the car or every time you brush your teeth.

Changing your metaphor changes your life: In this case, specifically your writing life.

I’ve used this tool many times on different areas of my life and it works. I believe it works because changing the image changes some neural pathway in my brain, but I can’t prove it.

Try it and let me know how it goes.

[i] Martha Beck first taught me this exercise and I’ve used it many times over the years. Thanks, Martha!

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: I’m a blogger, writer, and life coach. I’ve been working with this metaphor for a while now and I do find I’m more relaxed about my writing and getting more done. I’ve also implemented some very concrete strategies such as saying no to some requests for time that do not fit with my current priorities.

15 thoughts on “The Metaphor Tool

  1. Pingback: The Metaphor Tool — Live to Write – Write to Live | virtualcoachella

  2. How interesting! The first image I received of a writer was that of an older man in a tweed jacket sitting at a desk, industrious. It’s not a negative image,but it’s not one I relate to either, being a woman of a different generation. Isn’t it interesting how our images were of men?? I changed it to an image that was much more colourful and dynamic – I have a lovely garden cottage to write in, but I am out in the world too, with my notebook 😊

  3. What a fantastic exercise! I never really thought about how I envisioned myself in all of this, in my day-to-day patterns. That idea of “seeing” or even “watching” myself or the idea of a writer that makes me comfortable was very enlightening. I’ll have to think more about my unconscious view of myself and how that affects my goals.

  4. An excellent exercise. I would have liked to fully participate. Living ‘inside’ my characters means I actually feel their pain and share their sorrows. emphatic writer.
    But because I also write historical accuracy…….I have to be logical, practical and focussed.
    What sort of writer am I? I’ll have to ponder this a bit more. Goals for me? Truly it is a matter now of writing everything I must write in the life I have left. (As long as inspiration flows….day by day as I can put it down a bit at a time). Thank you for this writers blog.

  5. Great post! My metaphor of writer (an older man at a desk) was in complete contrast to writing life (me, going about my writing life). So intriguing. I’ll be switching up that first one for sure.

  6. Pingback: Writing Links Round Up 9/19-9/24 – B. Shaun Smith

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