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What Is Writing Like?

Explaining the Writing Experience Through Similes and Metaphors

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What Is Writing Like?
Writing is like . . . building a house, pulling teeth, pounding a wall, riding a wild horse, conducting an exorcism, throwing a lump of clay on a potter's wheel, performing surgery on yourself without anesthesia.

When asked to discuss the experience of writing, authors often respond with figurative comparisons. That's not too surprising. After all, metaphors and similes are the intellectual tools of the serious writer, ways of examining and imagining experiences as well as describing them.

After considering these 20 figurative explanations, see if you can fashion an analogy that aptly conveys your own writing experience. In other words, what is writing like for you?


  1. Bridge Building
    I wanted to try to build a bridge of words between me and that world outside, that world that was so distant and elusive that it seemed unreal.
    (Richard Wright, American Hunger, 1975)

  2. Road Building
    The maker of a sentence . . . launches out into the infinite and builds a road into Chaos and old Night, and is followed by those who hear him with something of wild, creative delight.
    (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals, December 19, 1834)

  3. Exploring
    Writing is like exploring. . . . As an explorer makes maps of the country he has explored, so a writer's works are maps of the country he has explored.
    (Lawrence Osgood, quoted in Axelrod & Cooper's Concise Guide to Writing, 2006)

  4. Giving Away Loaves and Fishes
    Writing is like giving away the few loaves and fishes one has, trusting that they will multiply in the giving. Once we dare to "give away" on paper the few thoughts that come to us, we start discovering how much is hidden underneath these thoughts and gradually come in touch with our own riches.
    (Henri Nouwen, Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader, 1997)

  5. Opening a Closet
    Writing is like opening the closet you haven't cleared out in years. You are looking for the ice skates but find the Halloween costumes. Don't start trying on all the costumes right now. You need the ice skates. So find the ice skates. You can go back later and try on all the Halloween costumes.
    (Michele Weldon, Writing to Save Your Life, 2001)

  6. Pounding a Wall
    Sometimes writing is difficult. Sometimes writing is like pounding a brick wall with a ball-peen hammer in the hope that the barricade will evolve into a revolving door.
    (Chuck Klosterman, Eating the Dinosaur, 2009)

  7. Woodworking
    Writing something is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. Both are full of tricks and techniques. Basically very little magic and a lot of hard work are involved.
    (Gabriel García Márquez, The Paris Review Interviews, 1982)

  8. Building a House
    It is helpful to me to pretend that writing is like building a house. I like to go out and watch real building projects and study the faces of the carpenters and masons as they add board after board and brick after brick. It reminds me of how hard it is to do anything really worth doing.
    (Ellen Gilchrist, Falling Through Space, 1987)

  9. Mining
    Writing is to descend like a miner to the depths of the mine with a lamp on your forehead, a light whose dubious brightness falsifies everything, whose wick is in permanent danger of explosion, whose blinking illumination in the coal dust exhausts and corrodes your eyes.
    (Blaise Cendrars, Selected Poems, 1979)

  10. Laying Pipe
    What civilians do not understand--and to a writer anyone not a writer is a civilian--is that writing is manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe.
    (John Gregory Dunne, "Laying Pipe," 1986)

  11. Smoothing Ripples
    [W]riting is like trying to smooth ripples from water with one's hand--the more I try, the more disturbed things get.
    (Kij Johnson, The Fox Woman, 2000)

  12. Renewing a Well
    Writing is like renewing a dried well: at the bottom, mud, muck, dead birds. You clean it out well and leave room for water to spring up again and ascend almost up to the brim so clean that even the children look at their reflections in it.
    (Luz Pichel, "Pieces of Letters From My Bedroom." Writing Bonds: Irish and Galician Contemporary Women Poets, 2009)

  13. Surfing
    Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer--he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive with him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along.
    (E.B. White, The Paris Review Interviews, 1969)

  14. Surfing
    Writing a book is a bit like surfing. . . . Most of the time you're waiting. And it's quite pleasant, sitting in the water waiting. But you are expecting that the result of a storm over the horizon, in another time zone, usually, days old, will radiate out in the form of waves. And eventually, when they show up, you turn around and ride that energy to the shore. It's a lovely thing, feeling that momentum. If you're lucky, it's also about grace. As a writer, you roll up to the desk every day, and then you sit there, waiting, in the hope that something will come over the horizon. And then you turn around and ride it, in the form of a story.
    (Tim Winton, interviewed by Aida Edemariam. The Guardian, June 28, 2008)

  15. Swimming Under Water
    All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.
    (F. Scott Fitzgerald, in a letter to his daughter, Scottie)

  16. Hunting
    Writing is like hunting. There are brutally cold afternoons with nothing in sight, only the wind and your breaking heart. Then the moment when you bag something big. The entire process is beyond intoxicating.
    (Kate Braverman, quoted by Sol Stein in Stein on Writing, 1995)

  17. Pulling the Trigger of a Gun
    Writing is like pulling the trigger of a gun; if you are not loaded, nothing happens.
    (attributed to Henry Seidel Canby)

  18. Riding
    Writing is like trying to ride a horse which is constantly changing beneath you, Proteus changing while you hang on to him. You have to hang on for dear life, but not hang on so hard that he can't change and finally tell you the truth.
    (Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers, 2nd ed., 1998)

  19. Driving
    Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
    (attributed to E.L. Doctorow)

  20. Walking
    Then we'd revise, make the words walk slowly on the slippery trail.
    (Judith Small, "Body of Work." The New Yorker, July 8, 1991)

To share an analogy that aptly conveys your own writing experience, click on the comments button at Figuratively Speaking, What Is Writing Like for You?.

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