My Favourite Writing Metaphor

A little while ago now, Neil Gaiman made a speech that the Internet adored. The main gist of it was “make good art”, with some excellent advice about taking opportunities and exploding cats mixed in. It’s [here] if you haven’t seen it yet.

Nestled in that is one of my favourite metaphors for writing of all time: The Mountain metaphor. Your goal as an artist or writer is the mountain. Just don’t walk away from the mountain and you’ll get there in the end. If you’re ever lost, look for the mountain, and take the most direct path to it. It’s a good metaphor.

I’ve also been talking a bit lately to friends who are in various levels of security about their storycrafting skills, and I have something to add to that.

Imagine the mountain here represents “good writing” (specifically, your personal definition of ‘good writing’, to avoid issue of subjectivity). The obstacle between you and the mountain is a huge, deep river. I see a lot of people who want to start improving as adults walk up to that river, and declare it too wide and difficult to pass. They might see people younger than them climbing up on the other side and declare that they could have done it if they started to practice swimming that long ago, too – if they were as good as those younger people are now.

There’s the rub – the narrative of people learning how to art in their formative years just being plain better at it than people who learn as adults. And it’s weird.

Because a child who walks up to that river doesn’t actually care very much about the mountain in most cases. The child starts to play on the rocks at the river’s edge, and discovers that they’re stepping stones. Maybe the child falls in a few times, but the river isn’t fast or deep here at this edge, even if it looks like it, so they can just grab a rock, pull themselves back up and keep trying. By the time the child realises they want to go to the mountain, they’re already three-quarters of the way across that river, and it’s not nearly so daunting to cross, especially since they have so much practice jumping between rocks, and these next rocks might be a little further away or slipperier, but they’re not significantly different.

The key to improving as an adult is being able to look at those kids and decide three things.

First, that the river isn’t dangerous to fall into. It looks deeper and faster than it really is, especially this close to the rocks.

Second, that the stepping stones are the best way across, much better than just wading in and hoping for the best.

Third, and most difficult, that it isn’t embarrassing to practice on the children’s level for a while.  There’s an idea that you should be better at things because you’re an adult with more experience. That may be true for many things, but to cross this river, you need to recognise that some of these kids will be more experienced than you and that’s OK.

As an adult, though, you have some advantages. You’ve already got better balance and longer legs, and a better sense of how far you can step, so if you decide to head towards the mountain, you’ll progress faster. Having the mountain in mind while you travel also means you’ll be less likely to get distracted and backtrack or sidetrack yourself.

It’s extended and a little belaboured, but that’s my writing metaphor 2.0 – the River at the Mountain. If you’re just learning to learn to write, I hope it’s at least an encouraging thought.