Life Is (Not) a Journey
By Evan Braun
Who can say why some memories come through with perfect clarity even after the passage of decades, while other memories—many of which are objectively much more important—are either lost altogether or obscured by an impenetrable haze.
In any event, I remember one day from my senior year of high school with bizarre specificity. I was sitting in my English class, in my usual spot—second desk from the back in the first column near the classroom door—while the teacher outlined our latest assignment.
The discussion on this day was about better understanding metaphor in literature. We had been analyzing the metaphors explored in novels for many years, and now it was going to be our turn to craft metaphors of our own.
For this assignment, every student in the class had been required to read a novel (a different novel for everyone), and now we were to write an essay in which we applied a metaphor of our own devising to the plot and characters of the novel, drawing out the book’s major themes.
We could come up with literally any metaphor we wanted. That is, with one exception: we could not compare the events of the novel to a journey.
“‘Life is a journey’ is the most overused metaphor in all of literature,” the teacher explained. “It’s clichéd and unimaginative. Find another one.”
He went on at some length about this.
I recall some confused grumbling among the students, both in class and afterward, since we couldn’t really understand why he was so vehement. Personally, I came to assume that it was a personal pet peeve of his. Something that bothered him but did not bother others.
I’ve since come to discover that he was exactly right. This issue wasn’t a pet peeve unique to my teacher.
How do I know this? Because later in life, I became a book editor—and in the course of this profession, I’ve come to see that, if anything, my high school English teacher actually understated just how prevalent and cliché the “life is a journey” metaphor actually is in the real world.
Every year, I come across more than two hundred books, on average. I think it’s safe to say that each manuscript I look at is written by an author who is trying to say something uniquely important to them, and to communicate their ideas as effectively and impactfully as they can. They are trying to make a difference.
And without fail, every year, I encounter around ten to fifteen books that rely pretty heavily on some version of “life is a journey.” My walk through parenthood is like a journey. My experience of chronic illness is like a journey. My gradual embracing of faith is like a journey. My recovery from cancer is like a journey…
In no way do I want to criticize the stories told here. These authors have truly powerful things to say.
Unfortunately, by relying on the journey metaphor, they have inadvertently found one of the least effective ways to say them. The journey metaphor is, in fact, so prevalent that most people don’t even notice it anymore.
Today’s post is not meant to belittle or poke fun. Far from it! If you’re one of those well-meaning authors who has invested a huge amount of time and energy into crafting a challenging and evocative manuscript that—again, inadvertently—relies on the journey metaphor, then my hope is that you can take the opportunity to reconsider and recalibrate.
Although that metaphor may seem integral right now, chances are there is an even better version of your book just beneath the surface, and a little bit more work will uncover it, allowing your story to gleam and inspire like never before. The effectiveness of your story may currently be blunted in ways you can’t clearly perceive.
So my encouragement to you is to look at your writing today through fresh eyes and dig a little deeper to find a better way to convey the ideas that are so important to you that you’ve devoted all your spare time to exploring them.
About this Contributor:
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. Braun is an experienced professional editor, and has worked with Word Alive Press authors since 2006. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.
Thanks, Evan. I agree. Sadly, my developing memoir is subtitled, “My journey in…” Unless my memory becomes obscured, I’ll likely find a better metaphor to use when it comes time to send the document out there again.
Sounds like you had a good teacher. I am learning along the way!