I was never very good at identifying literary devices in school. You know those exercises where you had to read a passage and make a list of similes, metaphors, personification, and imagery? I struggled, and only managed to squeak by because I could identify "like" and "as" consistently. I knew the definitions perfectly; they just never clicked with what I was reading.
Two things happened near the end of my university career that finally helped me to understand what everyone had been trying to teach me: I took a class on style and rhetoric, and I started writing for fun instead of for assignments. I'm not (exactly) suggesting either of the above could be a teaching tool, but I personally found them helpful.
In the style course, we spent a lot of time looking at passages taken from various media: books, of course, but also plays, screenplays, news articles, and advertisements. We'd break down the text for anything that promoted one meaning over the other, which meant word choices, punctuation, and the ways of marking speech, as well as the whole range of literary techniques. There'd be discussions of why you'd do what the writer did, how readers would react to variations, and exercises in changing news from positive to negative slants. It wasn't all that different from high school, I guess, but everything was clearer to me this time around. I think it was all the discussion, which was in contrast to the blanket statements my high school teachers tended to give ("Birds always symbolize freedom or prophecy," for instance).
What really, really helped me click, though, was writing fiction. I wanted to make my stories richer than the sum of their plot points and characters, so I started describing settings, actions, characters, and dialogue* in terms that would make my nearly-imaginary readers recall or think of things that either weren't in the text or weren't in the scene. If my hero was a big sports fan, I'd have him describe events in sports terms or use sport-related verbs for his actions. If the climax involved aliens, I'd drop vague references to spaceships and sci-fi throughout the rest of the story.
I didn't realize until a few months into the Preliminary Rabid Writing Stint that what I was doing with all those descriptions and allusions was what my teachers had been saying all along—that writers use literary techniques to tell the reader things about the characters and situation without saying it outright. Once I'd figured that out, I started using the techniques more fluently, because I could call up those old lessons and apply them to what I was doing. I began to use the more complicated kinds, for starters, and began to weave in random literary references just to see what people would notice. I also, because I'm me, tried to invert symbolic meanings as often as possible. (I was already slathering on irony, because it's always been my favourite tool.)
At the same time that my use of literary devices in my own writing improved, I started noticing that I was picking up more of them in others' work too. I'd be reading a Victorian poem for class, or whatever my book of the fortnight was, and I'd kind of stop and go, "hoho! I see what you did there now, and I've read you before!" It was very thrilling to finally get it. I'd even like to think my grades on analytical English essays improved, but who knows.
I've also learned a lot about what makes good writing from reading bad writing and from editing my work and others', but my mental fingers always point back to that one rhetoric course and that moment of, "hey, so that's what I'm doing!". I'd also like to say that I'm still learning, still improving, still working my way towards a possibly unattainable elegant perfection.
Perhaps I shouldn't be mentioning this. Perhaps I should be supporting the illusion that writers were born as all-knowing creatures who could wield a metaphor like an inky sword from the get-go. But perhaps there are others out there who had the same problems, or still have them, and perhaps they'd benefit from reading this. And perhaps the infallible author thing is over-rated and the world needs to know we're always learning too, and that we maybe didn't start out writing as beautifully as we make it look.
So, anybody out there?
*Yes, even the dialogue. I wince when I read that stuff now, but I did learn from it.