Chopping Onions and Weak Metaphors

Just finished making Mexican food for dinner and chopped lots of veggies, including some onion. Sliced a big yellow onion from top to bottom and you know what? In the middle, it was just as onion-ish as it was on the outside.

Which makes me think of a metaphor about storytelling I’ve heard dozens of times. It goes like this; the artist/journalist/filmmaker explores stories deeply. Their approach, they say, is like peeling an onion, revealing more layers until they finally get to the heart of the onion. The really earnest ones note that –like peeling an onion — sometimes, a few tears are shed.

What bothers me is that this is such a poor metaphor for someone to use who is trying to teach storytelling. I love onions and cook with them often. And every time I take the knife to an onion, the center is the same as the outside. More layers of the same thing. And a story with more and more layers of the same thing is not profound. It’s just redundant.

Which is how some projects progress. We want something bigger because it’s important or we see potential for acclaim and instead of going deeper, we just add more and more.

I heard a much better metaphor about in-depth storytelling from Kenny Irby of The Poynter Institute. He said reporting a story is like visiting someone’s house. The easiest and most superficial contact is walking up to the porch and knocking on the door. The next level of intimacy comes if you are invited in to sit in the living room and talk. If you’re invited into the kitchen, where the cooking and eating happens, then you are really deep into the story. And if by chance you end up in the bedroom then, well, it gets real personal.

I can honestly say I can’t remember hearing the onion metaphor told by someone whose work I enjoyed.  Their work was peeling onions with the same stuff over and over again. Of course, if someone happens to be peeling onions in the kitchen I was invited into, then maybe that could be a good story.

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