Instruction on Metaphors

As I have progressed through Metaphors We Live By, I have been continuously considering how what I learn will influence my writing. To put it simply, it has been a struggle. Lakoff and Johnson bring up many interesting points, but I think most of them are meant to inform readers about what they are doing instead of trying to convince them of what they should do in the future. Yes, metaphors are a part of the English language that is formative to how we all think, feel, and live. However, Lakoff and Johnson also stress that metaphors are ordinary. They are normal parts of the language that we already use. In this way, learning about metaphors is like learning how to diagram sentences. It’s great to know what an adjective is and where it will most likely appear, but it’s not like a writer wouldn’t use one if he couldn’t state the definition of an adjective or point one out in a sentence.

In spite of these observations, my intention is not to devalue the discussion about metaphor use. It can be academically fulfilling to learn about what something is instead of just how to do something. As a writer, however, I am currently primarily interested in improving my skills instead of being told what I am already doing without conscious consideration. My search for instruction among the observations has yielded two main results thus far: an understanding of how certain metaphors can strengthen or weaken impressions and an understanding of the power of creating new embedded metaphors.

Lakoff and Johnson describe the CLOSENESS IS STRENGTH OF EFFECT metaphor as a powerful tool that can strengthen and weaken meaning in language. One of their examples is the difference between saying someone is “not happy” and describing someone as “unhappy.” Unhappy clearly means that the person described is sad, while not happy could just mean that the person is not particularly pleased but not sad either (Lakoff and Johnson 130). Through a variety of other complex and diverse examples, the point is made. When words are closer together, like the use of a prefix instead of a different word to indicate negation, a stronger and more meaningful connection is made. Therefore, a writer can intentionally manipulate the structure of a sentence to create the desired results. I am sure I was already utilizing this tool to some extent, but its more intentional use may still have a subtle impact on my writing.

A far more difficult way to use knowledge of metaphors to great effect would be to craft new metaphors to be subsumed into the use of the English language. Lakoff and Johnson write that “Many of our activities (arguing, solving problems, budgeting time, etc.) are metaphorical in nature. The metaphorical concepts that characterize those activities structure our present reality. New metaphors have the power to create a new reality” (145). Popularizing a new metaphor to the extent that it would be adopted into common usage is very unlikely. Nevertheless, the thought that it is possible to integrate new metaphors into a written work and in doing so alter reality is a very interesting one. A writer capable of such a feat would be in a position to glean a lot from learning about the use of metaphor.

The few practical writing lessons that I have managed to retain from Metaphors We Live By thus far have been useful and interesting, but I remain unsatisfied. The half of the book I have read thus far seems more akin to a dry grammar textbook than an engaging nonfiction book to aid writers. I can’t decide if I am missing something engaging and particularly helpful, if the beginning of the book is providing an extended amount of background information, or if the entirety of Metaphors We Live By will be equally dense and observational. My hope is that my readers can offer a different perspective on the content seen thus far or identify with my own interpretation so that I may have a better grasp of the utility that others have found in the book.


The Myth of the Original Author

When I was in high school, delusions of grandeur had an immense influence on my conception of writing. I thought that legendary authors like Poe, Hawthorne, and Rowling were examples of the truly original. Why not? They wrote alone, didn’t they? The greatest realization that my college experience has produced has been that no author, no matter how legendary, ever writes alone. I believe Metaphors We Live By provides excellent fodder for an examination of what it really means to be a writer. It portrays exactly how much borrowing a writer really does.

Metaphors We Live By postulates that metaphors are everywhere. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson assert that “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature” (3). But wait, our kind authors tell us later. That was just the warm up act. The pair write, “In actuality we feel that no metaphor can ever be comprehended or even adequately represented independently of its experiential basis” (Lakoff and Johnson 19). Since metaphors are everywhere and they cannot be utilized realistically without an experiential basis, both metaphor and experience are everywhere. This seems rather reasonable; after all, every action we do or do not take results in an experience. Still, that is not all. Lakoff and Johnson proceed to inform us that “it would be more correct to say that all experience is cultural through and through, that we experience our ‘world’ in such a way that our culture is already present in the very experience itself” (57). Now our authors insist that there is no experience without cultural influence. Since metaphor always requires an experiential basis to be effective and every experience in culturally influenced, culture is everywhere just like metaphors and experiences are. If cultural influences have an extremely notable impact on our thoughts and words, it seems preposterous to me to think of any writing as truly original.

Since Lakoff and Johnson write about metaphors, I will use a painfully extended figurative metaphor to illustrate how I now feel about the writer’s role in the process of a composition’s creation. A man is trying to construct a brick wall. Before he can begin, he will need the mortar, bricks, and other assorted equipment vital to his task. He cannot proceed without them, and he does not work in a quarry, a factory, or any of the other places that play a large or small role in providing him with the necessary equipment for his task. He does not even have the equipment needed to transport the building equipment to him. If he does have the necessary building equipment, what he can do with it is limited. The wall has to be built to fulfill certain parameters or it will have to be torn down and reproduced by a more competent builder. The worker still makes choices; he determines how much mortar to put between the bricks and the pattern that the brickwork follows. Some choices will result in a better looking product and some will result in a more lasting product. If the builder is particularly accomplished, his wall might be both attractive and long lasting.

Like the builder constructing a brick wall, writers start with a large supply of equipment. We have letters and the vocabulary of our languages, work of other authors, memory of experiences, metaphorical frameworks, ingrained cultural teachings on a nearly endless number of subjects, and demands from readers and relevant discourse communities to guide and control us. If we don’t have this equipment transported to us through education and experience, then the writing task will be difficult or even impossible to do well. The product has to meet expectations when completed as well. If my blog post reads like it should be in an instruction manual from the 19th century, no will bother to read it and readers will find a better writer to entertain them. Writers still have some choices; they get to decide how all the materials they have been provided with should be put together. They can have priorities about whether to write to elicit positive responses from modern audiences or to create a composition that they will take academic pride in when it is completed. Talented writers may be able to simultaneously satisfy both objectives.

Nevertheless, a writer who is bound to the conventions and influences of the day is not original. He or she merely puts what already exists together in a new way. As a writer, I don’t find this reality particularly flattering. It would seem a lot more heroic to be a lone writer standing as the distinguished creator of a new kind of discourse and rhetoric. However, such a view is not a realistic one. That is not to say that writers are not important or valuable; after all, no one wants to live in a house whose walls were constructed by an untrained and uninterested novice. However, writers are still just workers like a great many others who struggle to produce something of worth for themselves and others.