Cracking into the truth

walnuts in a boxSometimes you need to cover the truth to best expose it.  This is what I decided as I sat in the parking lot behind my apartment building, a hammer in my hand and a crackling paper bag sitting on the cold pavement. The truth, in this case, was black walnuts. Notoriously tough to crack, this bitter, perfumed species native to 15 states does not succumb to nutcrackers. They do, however, help me think about how I conceptualize good writing and what a metaphor fanatic I am.

A little background: I ordered a case of these things for a locally-sourced meal not realizing it would take a research mission just to taste them. The most common advice I found for the home cook is to use a vise. Yes, a vise. Because of course you have one in the drawer right by the lemon zester.

I didn’t have the equipment for that, so I developed a technique involving soaking the nuts, placing them in a paper bag, and then whacking the heck out of them. Stay with me here. The writing/metaphor part is coming.

This nut-busting technique was not easy. I couldn’t see what I was doing and had to feel blindly for where to bring down the hammer, then painstakingly loosen each bit of nutmeat with a fork. But I had to admit this was the best way to go.

In this case, the benefits were several: The pavement was a harder surface than my kitchen counter. The splintered shells would not shoot everywhere. The sounds of maniacal bashing would not alarm the neighbors.

So it goes with writing, though the benefits of obscuring the meat of your ideas is a little different. What I especially like is that covering the main point slows us down, and that slowing opens more avenues of interpretation. Mysterious bashing and alarm could also occur here, but in this case they enliven the process. What a fun way of conceptualizing writing!

I make no secret of enjoying a good metaphor here and there. Thinking of one concept in terms of another helps me to understand my world and my challenges, and it allows me to explain them to others.  (Whether those others get my frenzied thoughts is another story, but at least I tried). A recent post by Natalie Houston on The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s ProfHacker, another of my fondnesses, reminded me that metaphor is also useful for teachers—and that I’m not a total kook for liking it.

My most recent piece of writing also reinforced this idea. One day, I started listing items stored under my bed:

A window fan

Picture frames

18” electric hedge trimmer

White lamb bedroom slippers

Acrylic yarn, washable

Music stand, folded


From that, I discovered a poem and a theme. If I had to label this poem about something, I would not say that thing is stuff under a bed. If pressed for an answer, I’d say it’s about the collective fear of–and East Coasters’ lack of preparedness for–earthquakes. I probably don’t need to tell you that I make no direct mention of sudden tectonic shifts, or that the word “earthquake” never appears in the poem.

As ProfHacker writers often do, I would like to open a few questions to you. What is your favorite writing metaphor? What conception of writing keeps you going? Feel free to answer as a comment, or just to yourself.

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Filed under Humor, Language, Teaching

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