Using writing to explore issues through metaphor

Self-facilitated persons development
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The notes below are based on my experience of using writing as an adjunct to clean language therapy and personal development. I have benefited significantly from the use of drawings both to represent what others have helped elicit from me and for exploring metaphors alone. However, at times I felt constrained by picturing when I sensed that I was capturing a moment in time and missing out on something continuous. I did try story-boarding, using a series of pictures to tell a story, and this helped to a point. However, it seemed long-winded and that I could not draw fast enough to go with the flow.

I am used to writing and certainly feel more competent at it than I do at drawing. I am also used to capturing complex information in note form and writing these notes up. From keeping a journal on a number of occasions, I am used to writing down a question and then writing down the answer from some “wiser part” of me.

This preface is to reinforce the point that there may be particular reasons why this approach works for me. If it doesn’t work for you, stick to the drawings or look for other ways that suit you. For me the bigger message is that David Grove has given us is a new field to explore and some of the first tools for exploring it.


I recommend being very curious and not having expectations other than information will emerge. I find it useful to think of this as writing a story where I only have a small idea for the beginning.


You can start from a picture you have drawn or from the work you are doing with another. Or you can start from any of the other Grovian entry points &endash; word or phrase, sound, line of sight or gesture. Or you can just start writing about what you are experiencing or concerned about. Sooner or later a metaphor will emerge and this is your gift to explore.

Expanding the metaphor

I have used the Grovian approach for over several years, including working with other people. On a good day, the clean language questions come to me easily. If you are less familiar with them or for some reason they don’t come so readily, put a list of typical questions where you can glance at them from time.

Another strategy I find useful is to ask what makes this “X” different from other types of “X”. For example, lets say I write down “clay” and sense there is more to this word or I am looking for a way to keep up the flow of the writing. I might say to myself, “There are so many ways in which one type of clay can be different to another, can I sense particular qualities of this clay?

Keeping the Flow

The more I write continuously the more I feel I am connecting with some mother vein. I can always reflect later but sense I may miss something important by letting my analytical skills dominate during the writing. I feel free to write grammatical English or I may just jot notes to help me write up the story later on. I might even use a diagram. (Others more apt or comfortable with drawing might usefully sketch an idea or draw a full picture rather than use words).

Returning to the draft

I find that if I re-write or type up my draft new information emerges. I am also wary of this because as I re-write I often find I want to edit to achieve some literary style or aesthetic. Sometimes this stylistic bent can take out or distort useful elements of the metaphor. This also happens if I rework with a view to sharing the story with someone. It helps me to be clear what my outcome is. If I want to have greater understanding of my metaphors, I need to avoid editing that might alter them.

I have written some issues and metaphors as poetry and here the urge for style can also be a problem. For example, I may be tempted to change an original word because it does not lend itself to rhyme. The new word might have wonderful connotations that the original word did not. But if I use it I lose some of the original meaning of the metaphor. I still sometimes write my Grovian work as poetry because poem making has another type of therapeutic value for me. However, I can’t recommend poetry as a route to clean language.

Coming to a stop

Often when working by myself, both with drawing and writing, I come to an impasse. Sometimes when writing the story tells me to sleep on it or I just sense that’s as far as I can take it right now. I have occasionally come back to a story and found that I can only write a few more sentences. In my experience, feeling frustrated or impatient at such a point doesn’t make any useful difference. I just accept my conscious faculties alone do not control the speed of the process. I suppose one could explore the nature of what is blocking the writing. To date I have not tried this.

When writing seems suspended, I think it helps to come back frequently to the writing. Even if I don’t make much progress, I feel that I am maintaining some momentum and that I am registering my interest and need.

I sometimes start writing a new story before an earlier one is completed.


One of the advantages of pictures is that you glance and take in a great deal of information. Getting the detail from writing takes more time but is worthwhile. I find it easy to forget important details. I also think that what is forgotten is often significant so I recommend the spirit of curiosity even when re-reading your own stories. Before adding to something, I suggest reading at least the last two installments of a story, more if the recent episodes are very short.

Being authentic

If you are going to try the story approach, expect that you will have different experiences from anybody else because you are a unique combination of skills and qualities. Respond to your intuition about what will work for you and let your curiosity encompass experimentation.

Two examples of my own writing follow.

The Maze

I am walking clockwise around a the outside of a huge maze made up of hedging (which represents my impasse concerning fear), looking to find a way in by trying systematically each opening I come to.

There is a good, level path of fine, brown gravel around the maze but no obvious path leading to this perimeter. The maze is surrounded for at least half a mile in any direction by undulating grassland. Beyond is a mixture of countryside, farmed and unfarmed, but as I circle I see no buildings of any sort.

The hedges of the maze are eight foot tall, dense from top to bottom with neatly clipped, straight sides. I can see no way in and suspect I have done more than a complete circuit when the hedge magically “melts” and I find myself inside. When I look back all is solid again.

I feel tearful and afraid. I keep on inching towards the centre of the maze. The sky has darkened and the light grows steadily fainter.

In time I reach what appears to be the core of the maze, a vast brown rock with what appears, at first glance, to be naturally formed cavities; the stone is honeycombed by irregular tunnels large enough for me to enter. Despite the appearance I do not think this is a natural formation. I sense it is a maze within a maze, as deliberate and designed as the hedging I have just come from.

I enter a tunnel, now very afraid that someone or something will jump out at me. Not knowing what this may be adds to my fear. It should be completely dark but there is enough light for me to be straining my eyes, looking out for that which might attack me.

I cannot see far because the passages wind and rise and fall. The girth also varies, a sequence of tunnels and chambers. While I still think of it as a maze, there are no dead ends.

As I progress deeper into the rock the ceilings get lower. The chambers get smaller and the tunnels more cramped until I am forced to crawl on my stomach. Mercifully, the rock is uniformly smooth but I hate the unnatural positions I am forced into. (It reminds me of the great irritability I feel when working in awkward spaces, like under a sink or in the tight end of a loft.)

It is not clear, at the time when I write this, whether I again “melt” through to another chamber or manage to squeeze myself into a very low, foetid, rank section which I somehow know is not the centre. I am feeling  uncomfortable and absorbed in my own misery when I realise that whatever lives here and creates this unwelcome stench must be very small and barely able to fend for itself. I begin to feel pity.

As my compassion grows the walls of the chamber melt to reveal the centre. There is a pervasive golden light, bright yet soft on the eye and with no obvious source.

Avoidance of outcomes


The first thing that comes to me when I think of outcomes is that having one means admitting I want something. And once I acknowledge the want to myself I set up the possibility of failure. If I share the outcome with another a failure has social consequences and I may have given others power to hurt me.

It reminds me of kids I used to teach who cared desperately but would say, “I don’t care”. I must have done this too as a child but I have no distinct memory from those times. I can think of more recent situations where I have kept quiet or poker faced for much the same reasons.

My head knows the usefulness of outcomes and yet I feel this resistance to them in many ways. From bridling at suggestions James makes in our group, to avoiding them in managing my own work, to reluctance to commit to a life purpose.

It is like I “want to travel blind” as a song puts it.  The loss of sight comes from wearing a blindfold. I am on a thin path that feels like concrete beneath my feet. Mercifully, so far the way has been without steps or incident. I shuffle along and while my path is not always straight I can tell when I am straying by a sponginess that suggests lawns borders both sides.

It’s a black, musty blindfold with frayed ends and it is tied tightly at the back of my head. I know it came from one of a pair of curtains that once made a Victorian room, cluttered with furniture and ornaments to the point of claustrophobia, dark and gloomy. How I know this is a mystery to me.

The blindfold comes down over my nostrils and each breath is suffused with the dust and mildew. There are scents from plants around me but their perfumed is spoiled by the stench of the blindfold.

I have no idea how long I have been on this path. It could be days or years. The vagueness reminds me of the reply Thomas Huxley gave to the creationists who suggested God had placed the fossils, used as evidence for evolution, to confuse mankind and better test the faithful. Huxley said that if you went down this line of argument you may as well believe we were all created five minutes ago with ready-made holes in our socks and implanted memories of events.

I know sometimes I am warmer but am not aware of ever being uncomfortable. There is no hunger or thirst though I am curious as to why this should be without any sustenance.

How long is the path? It seems it could be infinite or at least longer than my life will reach. It could be circular or even a network of paths. How would I know if I reached a junction as I only feel one edge at a time?

It’s not desperately sad being on this path. I am busy with my fumbling and what I think is going forwards. There is no pressing discomfort, no tiredness, no physical needs. Miraculously I have not hurt myself so there is the illusion of being protected. The worst sensations are the musty smell and the knot hard against my skill.

My hands are free. I realise I could easily reach the blindfold and pull it off but there is the question of , “what will happen if I do?” To start with, I decide to just pull it back from my nostrils.

That is better. The air tastes much better all the way from my nostrils to my diaphragm. If I look down I can also see the first signs of light. Somehow I l know this is enough for now. I kneel down and find to the right of the path a patch of grass that is soft, warm and dry.  And I lay down and sleep a while.

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And now I am awake again. There are birds singing and I do not know if I heard this before on this path.

Other than the unfamiliar light hurting my eyes I can think of no reason not to take off the blindfold. How could I be worse off, at least over time, with all the information my eyes can gather?

I try the knot. It won’t untie but the blindfold slips fairly easily over my hair. I leave it over my left wrist, unwilling to throw it away yet. My eyes are tight shut. I can sense light behind the lids and by turning around work out where the sun or light source is. I turn my back to the light and place my palms over my eyes. I slowly open my eyes and see there is still darkness. With great slowness I begin to lift my hands from my eyes.

This slowness is like the sleep on the path. I need to leave the writing a while and come back when things have moved on in my imagination.


I am sitting with my hands still over my eyes but they have slipped down and I can see light between the cracks between my fingers and the rosy glow of illuminated flesh.

This is an image! The first I have seen in such a long time.

I want to go to sleep one more time and let my eyes grow accustomed to soft morning light before opening them. I sense the sun is too bright for me now.


I sense the meaning of this sleeping and hesitating is that I am avoiding decisions. Without a decision there is no commitment to an outcome. Things happen around me and I have less chance of being aware let alone of influencing them.

Outcomes are a way of heightening sensibility and can be an aid to making sense. They are a form of model with the advantages, and disadvantages of models. They make life simpler but may also mislead. But overall, when outcomes chosen with care and the results are reviewed, the benefits far outweigh the limitations.

My hands are off my face and my eyes are now open. The early morning light is slightly dull from high, thin cloud but the light is adequate and comfortable. As the sun climbs the cloud will dissipate and the light will intensify. My eyes will stay comfortable because this brightening will be gradual.

The thin, grey path has melted into my present, non-metaphorical reality. There are infinite choices of direction and the width, colour and texture of the paths also seems endless. I am also no longer limited to being a pedestrian. I also have choice about how to transport myself.

Paul Burns completed his first Symbolic Modelling training in 1996 and has been fascinated with metaphors since then. He provides Organisation Development Consulting and finds Symbolic Modelling lends itself to many aspects of this, including coaching and team development.
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