Why the Itsy Bitsy Spider Is a Bad Metaphor

By Jeffe KennedyThe Talon of the Hawk by Jeffe Kennedy

Now that summer is here, I start my mornings by watering the potted plants on the patio, which always sets the spiders scurrying away. I don't worry about them, because I know they'll come back to their webs and continue spinning and weaving. I do worry about the finches, who love to build their nests in the hanging baskets. I have to find spots to add water so I don't chill the eggs or drown the hatchlings.

Spiders, though, can take care of themselves pretty well.

But it puts me in mind of that old nursery rhyme, the Itsy Bitsy Spider.

The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the water spout.
Down came the rain and washed the spider out.
Out came the sun and dried up all the rain, and
The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the spout again.

It's a playful song, especially if you add the finger games to it. And it's apparently about fortitude and determination, not letting set-backs keep you down forever.

The thing is, however, it's not a useful metaphor in the end. A spider continues back up the spout mindlessly, by instinct. It has no memory of the rain or ability to conceptualize that it could be washed away again, over and over, even drown in the next deluge. The metaphor fails to take into account the devastating emotional impact of being literally or figuratively washed away.

Lest you all decide I'm overthinking a child's nursery rhyme, I want to point out that these things stick with us. Particularly if we don't examine them. My favorite religious studies professor in college said that most people never grow past a five-year-old's understanding of their religion. By that he meant that we learn the pretty, simple stories, internalize them and never return to ponder their import with the critical analysis and study of an adult mind.

The advice to simply get up again after failure, to just keep going or try, try again! can be more painful than helpful. Especially for creative types, coming back and continuing to offer our art to the world after rejection or failure is not a matter of mindlessly climbing back up the spout. It takes a tremendous effort to experience pain and walk towards it again.

It's not only about waiting for the sun to dry up the rain - it's about finding it in ourselves to overcome fear and be creative anyway.

Keep spinning and weaving, writer friends!

Jeffe Kennedy
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Jeffe Kennedy is an award-winning author whose works include non-fiction, poetry, short fiction, and novels. She has been a Ucross Foundation Fellow, received the Wyoming Arts Council Fellowship for Poetry, and was awarded a Frank Nelson Doubleday Memorial Award. Her essays have appeared in many publications, including Redbook.

Her most recent works include a number of fiction series: the fantasy romance novels of A Covenant of Thorns; the contemporary BDSM novellas of the Facets of Passion, and an erotic contemporary serial novel, Master of the Opera, which released beginning January 2, 2014. A fourth series, the fantasy trilogy The Twelve Kingdoms, hit the shelves starting in May 2014 and book 1, The Mark of the Tala, received a starred Library Journal review and has been nominated for the RT Book of the Year while the sequel, The Tears of the Rose, has been nominated for best fantasy romance of the year. A fifth series, the highly anticipated erotic romance trilogy, Falling Under, released starting with Going Under in July.

She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with two Maine coon cats, plentiful free-range lizards and a very handsome Doctor of Oriental Medicine.

Jeffe can be found online at her website: JeffeKennedy.com, every Sunday at the popular Word Whores blog, on Facebook, and pretty much constantly on Twitter @jeffekennedy. She is represented by Connor Goldsmith of Fuse Literary.

6 thoughts on “Why the Itsy Bitsy Spider Is a Bad Metaphor

  1. I worried about mistakes a lot more when I was younger than I do now, and I’ll admit I did pull back from writing and submitting several times. Being confronted by mean critiquers at a weekend retreat was devastating….and being laughed at by an instructor (one of those stuffy literary types) of a college class even worse. Happily, like the little spider, I was instinctively drawn back to the one thing I wanted to study and master. I’m still climbing….

  2. Did you know that some people think that rather than itsy bitsy spider, it should be eensy weensy spider? It appears to be a geographic thing. Just had to throw this out there. We actually got into quite a bit of a debate about which one was “right” at the library where I work!

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