This month we’re bringing you a series of articles with practical writing tips from Mary Nilsen. Mary has facilitated writing workshops at the Collegeville Institute for several years, and is the author of the book, Words that Sing: Composing Lyrical Prose, among others. The first week, Mary discussed how to turn up the dial on your verbs; last week, she turned her attention to power sentences; today, she discusses the transformative power of metaphor.
For years I puzzled over this: Why have many of us who believe the science, who care about the earth, who are willing to make changes in the way we live—why have we not been willing to make sacrificial choices, not been willing to live with urgent concern for global health? I blamed the word choice: Global Warming.
Recent study in linguistics and neuroscience suggests there might be something to that conclusion. Hardwired into all our brains are certain conflations that combine sensory input with nascent judgment. Warm is always good. “We had a warm relationship.” “He warmed up to the idea.” Our first sensory experience of warmth, post birth, is of our mother’s body and milk. Warm is good. So how could global warming be bad?
I note that Cornelia Mutel, in her book A Sugar Creek Chronicle, modifies the language of global warming and speaks instead of “climate change.” “Change” is value neutral. I wonder why she didn’t use a stronger word like “disruption,”—something that is always bad. Perhaps she chose “change” to avoid an instant fear response in her readers.
What she did, I finally realized, is both more subtle and more powerful: she recognized a metaphor buried deep in her prose, lifted it up, and extended it throughout the book. More on Mutel in a moment. First a question.
The Power of Metaphor
Why do theologians of comparable intelligence and education, with access to all of the same information, come up with opposite conclusions about biblical interpretation? Why do politicians equally committed to the common good, equally free from lobbying interests or donor money, equally educated and trained, stand on opposite sides of every issue? The same question can be asked of any group.
In the last century, one academic discipline after another has added research to the notion that our thinking, our “rational” mind is but a wave on the ocean—what goes on beneath, out of sight, out of conscious mind, out of our control, is a world of images and mini-movies that determines how we think and feel about any given thing.
If that is true, then persuasion depends not on convincing people with research and data, but on dropping a new metaphor into their subconscious and linking it to the subject of concern. Sometimes the task is made easier because the image is already lodged in the person’s subconscious. What is needed is simply blending that image with your issue.
Consider the one book in my lifetime that set in motion a decade of environmental action—Silent Spring. I wondered how Rachel Carson had accomplished that. If the metaphor theory is correct, she had to have written something to alter the way people felt and then thought about DDT and other pesticides being sprayed all over our cities and farmlands. I began reading, and sure enough, there it was on page six: “Strontium 90, released through nuclear explosions into the air, comes to earth in rain or drifts down as fallout,… Similarly, chemicals sprayed on croplands….” DDT is like nuclear fallout!
We all lived in dread of a nuclear attack. We knew where the closest fallout shelter was, what the easiest paths out of town were. We kept our gas tanks half full and our cars stocked with water and food. And we knew what happened to anyone exposed to nuclear fallout. By linking nuclear horror to DDT, Carson unleashed energy in the land, energy enough to pass major environmental legislation. The power of metaphor.
Mutel explained to me that in the early stages of writing her book—an experiment in blending science and memoir—she wrote lengthy poignant, powerful descriptions both of her mother dying of cancer when she was a teenager, a cancer that was not discovered until it had reached stage 4, and of her own battle with breast cancer, first diagnosed when she was nursing her youngest son. She has lived over 30 years since that first diagnosis. Her mother lived only months.
Soon enough, she realized that she had unknowingly written her controlling metaphor: climate change is like cancer. Are we catching it in time? Is mother earth going to go the way of my mother or the way of me? The diagnosis is in. Can we get on with the cure?
Suddenly I understood this book’s power to grab me on some deep level. Many in my family have died of cancer. And they died young. I dread and hate cancer. But I also know that early diagnosis and quick action produces hope.
We can handle metaphor in our writing in various ways. Mutel shows us one. With few exceptions, she sets up her metaphor, climate change is like cancer, and then, without directly referring back to the core metaphor, uses metaphorically related terms to talk about her subject—climate change. By using cancer as metaphor, she is able to draw on an enormous stockpile of health-related language. The earth is like our mother. Our mother is sick. Her “lungs” are being choked with carbon dioxide from fossil fuels…
Mutel writes in the preface, “…that such uncontrolled growth of greenhouse gasses could set off reactions that could limit our ability to mitigate future disasters and restore the earth to health.” And “…because of our dependence on a healthy and fully functioning planet….” Long before she tells the story of cancer in her life, she references the metaphor by using health-related language to describe the earth.
By the time Mutel reaches her conclusion, what we know about cancer is fully blended in our minds with what she has shown us about the problem of climate change. Late in her book she writes (notice the health related words): “It leaves me wondering if we are close to losing the ability to opt for planetary remission. As if I and all of humanity are now wanderers on a failing planet, trapped within a system that lacks any certainty of healing and recovery, defining home more by its weaknesses than by its exuberant vigor and health…”.
The transformative power of metaphor
Western culture, released from the false belief in the power of reason, logic, even facts to change the way people think and act, stands ready to embrace the notion that change happens deep in the ocean of our imaginations, when one image, one mini-movie, butts up against another, envelopes the other, alters the other. For writers desiring to affect readers, the tool most likely to work is metaphor. As Aristotle understood, “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor.”
In my fourth and final article, I will discuss fresh metaphors—how to find them and how to develop them.