Issue 5, Spring 2010
Metaphors We Write By
Metaphors are not merely things to be seen beyond. In fact, one can see beyond them only by using other metaphors. It is as though the ability to comprehend experience through metaphor were a sense, like seeing or touching or hearing, with metaphors providing the only ways to perceive and experience much of the world. Metaphor is as much a part of our functioning as our sense of touch, and as precious.
--George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (1980)
There are a variety of metaphors that writers and writing consultants use to conceptualize the writing process, the written text, and the process of reading. A careful listen to Writing Studio conversations yields clear categories of metaphor. These categories include anatomical metaphors (the bare bones of an argument, fleshing out ideas), architectural metaphors (foundation, support, framing), cooking metaphors (spicing it up), domestic metaphors (cleaning, polishing, straightening), military metaphors (marshalling evidence, defending claims), and spatial metaphors (going in the right direction), among many others.
This preponderance of metaphors is not surprising. In Metaphors We Live By (1980), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson remind us that metaphors are fundamental to the way that we make sense of the world: “the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.” i.
A striking thing one notices in attempts to express writing processes is the mixing of metaphors. Here is a brief description of a Writing Studio session from the point of view of a writing consultant:
“Rachel came in to discuss her AMCAS essay. She had two drafts with her. We looked at some of her stories and images and talked about how she could sharpen them and distill them into a message about her motives for going to Med School. Then we talked about how to structure the essay so that the images could lead into a discussion about her credentials.”
In this example, two metaphors stand out. Sharpening and distilling are mixed, but complementary, metaphors. There is a kind of exploratory redundance here, with the consultant drawing upon two metaphors to say the same thing in different ways. In the context of “images,” sharpening is a photographic metaphor emphasizing edges, based upon a metaphor of abrasion – sharpening metal knives or swords. Distilling, on the other hand, is a chemistry metaphor about purity and concentration – eliminating impurities and concentrating the essence of the liquid. For the reflective consultant, a question arises from this close reading: to what extent does mixing metaphors inhibit or enable the interactions between writing consultant and client? More generally, how can metaphors most enrich and personalize our understanding of the writing process?
In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell admonishes against the laziness in writing to which mixed metaphors give expression:
By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash…it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming. ii.
Arguing that language is inevitably political, Orwell warns that linguistic laziness indicates laziness in thought – “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”iii. For Orwell, and this is why his essay is so frequently taught in composition courses, the point is that the process is reversible – messy thinking is a habit that can be changed with effort – through better writing.
Orwell’s critique offers useful advice for consultants and writers alike. Stated positively, Orwell advocates enlivening metaphors, deliberately elaborated. When they meet with clients, consultants often use metaphors to illustrate their discussions about writing and the writing process. Weak or fuzzy metaphors are less likely to serve clients. Moreover, the vividness of the consultant’s metaphor can serve as an example for clients who are struggling to express clearly their own ideas.
Many students come to the Writing Studio with a largely unconscious set of metaphors that proscribe their thinking about writing. The danger is that these metaphors can be shallow and inconsistent – clichés more than metaphors. These shallow metaphors, however, might be reinvigorated, rethought, so as to enable thinking about work on writing.
For example, perhaps the most common, and therefore most diffuse, metaphor that guides student thinking about writing is the metaphor of “flow.” Let us think through it carefully, looking for details that make it useful as a tool for understanding writing. Again, let’s begin with a consultant’s description of a session:
Aaron came in with a paper for MUSL 149 on the role of the hip-hop artist in fighting corporate oppression. He wanted to work on “flow” and so we mostly worked on reorganizing his paragraphs around topic sentences. We also spoke a bit about how to effectively use song lyrics as textual evidence.
What is it that writers mean when they say that they want to work on the flow of their paper? Flow applies to both writing and reading. First, writers want their ideas to move easily from their minds to the page; they want the words to “flow” out of them. Second, they are talking about the text and the experience of the reader. When writers want to know if their papers flow, they want to know whether their claims move smoothly from one to the other. Writers want their readers to be carried along by writing, swept up by language or logic.
In the example above, in order to work on “flow,” the consultant takes a practical approach, focusing on topic sentences. This is an insight into the metaphor -- misplaced paragraph breaks can cause a snag in reading. Topic sentences operate importantly as transitions and foreshadowing; they alert the reader to what she might expect in the paragraph, facilitating the smooth movement from one sentence to the next or from one idea to the next.
Even as vague a term as ‘flow’ can be resuscitated through a more precise working through of the metaphor.
In physics, fluid dynamics identifies two types of flow, laminar and turbulent. Laminar flow occurs when a fluid flows in parallel layers, with no disruption between the layers. Turbulence, on the other hand, is characterized by chaotic property changes and rapid variation of pressure and velocity. In a river, turbulence is characterized by recirculation and eddies. As writers and consultants, it is important to consider which type of flow it is that we’re after, to locate the places where an argument changes from laminar to turbulent flow.
If the reader is meant to be carried along by the flow of an essay, we might meaningfully compare the reader to a kayaker or canoeist. When writers want to work on the flow of their paper, they are generally talking about a feeling of smoothness; they are talking about laminar flow. But what some paddlers want is turbulence. For them, the fun is in the rapids. The concept of flow can thus be applied too easily, encouraging a client to avoid counterexamples, difficult interpretations, or other potential turbulence. Elaborating the metaphor of flow to include both the turbulent and laminar varieties can help a client make good judgments about when and how to redirect a reader from more turbulent waters (the elaboration of an important and complex idea) to smoother ones, and back again.
Metaphor is an inescapable foundation of thought, and the metaphors we use to understand writing and the writing process powerfully influence the strategies we use in writing and consultation. Even thinking of writing as a conversation is a metaphor, perhaps the most important metaphor to which we give substance in the Writing Studio.
Reflecting again on Orwell’s advice, it is important for writers and writing consultants to utilize the full conceptual potential of the metaphors that they use to think about writing. At the Writing Studio, consultants and writers can work together to identify metaphors that they bring to consultations, complicate them, and fashion them into more useful tools for improving writing and understanding the writing process. They can also generate new metaphors for understanding writing. But in the end, perhaps it is undesirable to insist too firmly that our metaphors be internally consistent. Metaphors operate by mixing, by juxtaposing unlike things. Let’s not draw the limit at two.
i. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press, 1980. p. 3
ii. George Orwell. “Politics and the English Language.” (1946) http://www.george-orwell.org/Politics_and_the_English_Language/0.html/