What is a metaphor? How does it help people learn to write? What good is it to even to ask such questions? Though Bangladeshi culture values literature greatly and so recognizes its value in poetry we do not think much about metaphors beyond aesthetics. People overlook the power of the metaphor to conceptualize and get things done. That is, we have failed to realize that metaphors are not just rhetorical or literary techniques but the very stuff of thought.
Advertisers and businessmen have always known the power of metaphors; they are the basis for marketing campaigns. Neuroscientists and cognitive scientists have also chimed in recently and shown that metaphors are fundamental to how we understandthe world. Yet, people who should be directly concerned with metaphors and language, such as scholars in English or language studies, rarely talk about it seriously. This is a shame because people who do not understand how they grasp things by the ways they speak and think about them – and that there are always multiple ways of speaking and thinking about things –deprive themselves of powerful tools. The humanities are tasked with teaching people to think, and metaphors play a big part in this.
Conceptual Metaphors and Morality
To see the power of metaphor we can consider how they are fundamental to understanding morality. It is impossible to think about morality without what cognitive linguists call conceptual metaphors. Even when moral behavior is stated in a prescriptive, concrete to-do list such as the five pillars of Islam, it still comes in a metaphorical package, an image or symbol. The five pillars metaphor makes people think about a moral person as a house, and the five practices are about holding up the moral self. Morality is structure, in other words. A house with less than adequate support is not strong and cannot stand; when we do not observe our namaz or give zakat, in other words, we become weaker (moral) persons and we risk collapse.
Compare this to the image of the yin-yang symbol, or Taiichi symbol, of Taoism (seen on the side). It is a widely used and misused symbolof popular culture:a white and blacktear-drop-like shape folding into each other;and each has a little bit of the other inside it, with a dot of white in the black and a dot of black in the white. The image or sense it evokes is that of amovement between two essentially opposing forces: yin and yang energy, destruction and creation, fire and water, good and evil, etc. Morality, in this image, is thought of as balance. Harmony is what matters rather than structure. To be a moral person in this ideais to “go with the flow” and move along with different forces. To stand rigidin the midst of such movement would lead to collapse.
The Writer-as-Genius Metaphor and Writing
Once this idea of conceptual metaphor is grasped, we can see it operating in various areas of society. It shapes our reactions as individuals and as groups; it enables or disables our actions and thoughts. One disabling instance of this phenomenon I face daily working at a university is what writing researcherscall the “writer-as-genius” metaphor.It is an image that comes from the Romantics – Lord Byron being the emblematic figure. It is the image that the writer is a tormented genius, an individual dogged by the whispered songs of the muse; someone up at all hours of the night, driven half mad by an inspiration to write. Writing happens inexplicably and writers simply write what they wanted to write.
But this image and metaphor is wrong, and it does incredible harm to writers or those who might be interested in writing. Genius and inspiration are not how writing happens or how good writers are able to write. Writing is a craft. It is, put straight forwardly, dull work and dull labor. Shakespeare, a luminous figure of English literature, wrote as a part of his job with a theatre troupe (he also had to likely direct, act, manage etc.); after making enough money, he hung up his quill. He never wrote – the best we can tell – anything after The Tempest. The Bard wrote well, I would argue, because he saw it as a job. Once he got what he wanted from it, he left and raised a family in Stratford on Avon.
To think that writing comes from genius or inspiration is to misrepresent writing and do a disservice to writing and dissuade writers from writing. I see the way that the “writer-as-genius” metaphor stops students at university from putting in the time and effort needed to accomplish writing. The sense that when it comes to writing, or being good at school, “you either got it or you don’t” runs deep. They think writing should simply flow, that they will be inspired and then write their essays from the beginning to the end. When they get frustrated, consequently, they stop and give-up. The affordances of computers make such views and approaches to writing absurd. For example, take this essay. I did not write it from beginning to end. I wrote “The Writer-as-Genius Metaphor” section first because it was the most concrete. Then I thought about how best to lead into it, how to write the introduction and what would be an effective illustrative example of conceptual metaphors appropriate to the readership. I thought about talking about the conceptual metaphor of the country-as-a mother, but then finally settled on comparing the five pillars of Islam to the yin-yang symbol.
After that, I kept writing and rewriting, and editing out as much as I could. I tend to overwrite and that makes my writing bad essay writing. It had to be shorter and use fewer adjectives. This meant that the clean essay seen here was anything but. Technology let me play around and cut and copy-paste, delete, move around sentences, etc. The more accurate picture of this essay is seen in the screen shot of this word file with track changes showing.
Writing researchers call this – anactual way people write – the writing process. Illustrating this image of writing and comparing it to the image of the writer-as-genius idea demystifies how people write successfully and provides writers an enabling metaphor. It clears up to people that writingis messy and continuous revising. It is, to end with another metaphor, a tool, used by laborious doing and redoing.
Shakil Rabbi is Assistant Professor, Department of Language, Literature, and Cultural Studies at Bowie State University.