Analogies Like Land Mines: Treading Carefully When We Discuss Teaching Writing

Metaphor is a powerful element in the craft of language. Writers and speakers seek metaphors, similes, and analogies to produce rich expression, but the analogy is a part of everyday discourse and all types of public expression and debate.

One of the staples of my years teaching high school English was Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a dark satire and enduring example of the brilliance found in Southern literature.

My students and I always paused early in that story, the second paragraph, that begins:

Bailey didn’t look up from his reading so she wheeled around then and faced the children’s mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like a rabbit’s ears.

As a cabbage? we would always ponder. The early descriptions establish O’Connor’s use of contrast to cause tension between some of the cartoonish elements with the grim reality of the story’s plot.

But I also feel in the cabbage simile that O’Connor was poking a bit at metaphorical language itself—something like a meta-metaphor.

Less as craft and more as a strategy for argument, however, Donald Trump, apparently, has posed that he avoids exercise because, he claims, humans are like batteries, having a finite amount of energy. He believes we waste that energy store when exercising.

Both of these example highlight, I think, that we must always investigate the use of analogy for the essential validity of the relationship being presented.

At different times in the past, the mind, for example, has been characterized as a blank slate and a muscle—and then, evidence and careful consideration of these analogies have been discredited.

Where analogy fails, it seems, is when we take a position and then reach for a comparison that confirms the position. Trump, in his baseless battery analogy, simply clamored for something to justify his position—one that falls apart if we interrogate the comparison.

Yet, the analogy is a powerful tool, and often compelling because analogy brings the concrete and the understood into complex and often abstract settings: the mind as a blank slate or muscle is far more manageable for the average person than how the mind actually functions, a domain for specialists.

As a writer and a teacher, my world is often deeply entrenched not only in language, but also in investigating how language works (and doesn’t) to create warranted meaning.

Both as a writer and reader, I have come to live by a guideline that helps remind me of the need to resist the uncritical allure of the analogy: Just because someone can make a comparison doesn’t mean that the comparison is valid.

Writing Is Like?

Recently, I have had several experiences with people making analogies in order to understand writing (composing) and teaching writing: writing like learning to ride a bicycle (starting with training wheels to justify teaching the five-paragraph essay), writing like playing a piano (moving from scales to playing a full piece).

Both of those are recurring analogies, and thus, they must be compelling. However, here I am asking us all to think more carefully about these analogies.

Writing (composing) is nothing like riding a bicycle, and is also nothing like playing the piano, because writing (composing) is creating something from nothing, an act of synthesis.

“Writing” as a term can cause some of the problem, in fact, so let’s first consider writing (as handwriting) versus writing (as composing).

Even in behaviors that depend on something like rote actions (such as handwriting, riding a bicycle, and playing a piano) [1], the repetition of behaviors must be “correct” (or you are learning to do something “wrong”) while also incrementally moving from something like novice to proficient to expert.

Let me risk next an analogy between coaching a scholastic sport and teaching.

As a soccer coach, I worked hard to maintain some level of quality in drills during practice (isolated and rote), for the fact above, to prepare players for playing an actual soccer match (holistic and autonomous, although conforming to a body of rules); but my work as a coach would have been much different if I were helping the team create a whole new game instead of teaching them how to conform to an existing system.

Now we have come against the inherent flaw in the analogies about writing like riding a bicycle or playing a piano because writing (composing) is not of the same kind of behavior. Instead, writing is more validly analogous to visual art such as painting or drawing.

While writing (composing) and visual art do in fact have discrete skill sets that can and should be honed in isolated and somewhat artificial ways, practice, composing a written piece and visual art come from trying the whole thing inexpertly at first and then continuing to do the whole thing in incrementally more proficient ways until some level of expertise is achieved.

Writing (composing) and visual art begin by facing blank paper, acts of synthesizing and creating from nothing to something.

And thus, in pursuit of a more valid analogy, just as we do not teach painting by first asking students to paint-by-number, we should avoid at least an overuse of templates (five-paragraph essay, etc.) when teaching composition.

Further, the field of composition has ample evidence (as do those of us who teach writing/composition) that once students have been prompted to conform to a template, they are dogged in never letting go; the template, sigh, is not a set of training wheels easily removed.

Metaphor, simile, and analogy are powerful tools, but the pursuit of analogy is like navigating a field littered with land mines; we should tread more carefully when making our comparisons, avoiding the Trump error above (selecting the analogy to confirm a belief without investigating if the comparison is accurate, without starting with a credible claim itself).

Just as we scramble to understand better how the brain/mind works, often resorting to analogy, we who write and teach writing (composing) are confronted with something equally complex, and are rightfully looking for how to better navigate that understanding.

In that pursuit, I believe the bicycle and piano analogies to writing mis-serve us and our students. Let us seek instead analogies grounded in capturing the holistic and chaotic nature of rendering meaning from nothing and presenting comparisons that are of the same kind.


[1] I urge you to look into how the 10,000-hour rule was misrepresented in the media by Gladwell and others.

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4 thoughts on “Analogies Like Land Mines: Treading Carefully When We Discuss Teaching Writing

  1. “In that pursuit, I believe the bicycle and piano analogies to writing mis-serve us and our students.”
    Bicycle riding is very different from piano playing. “I can do it !” is the cry of success. Piano playing continues from one success to another, and another and maybe another. It is not “I can do my scales now, so on to real piano playing”. The similarities between wring and piano playing are vast. I see a blank piece of paper, so I create and destroy spoken words, or just ideas, before “writing” occurs.
    If of course the teacher says “Write about this stuff” I am largely stuck.
    Check out my mathematical writing. I’m sure it sucks.

  2. I double-dare you to say what writing IS then, or at least to expand on what you say to your students who are learning to compose!
    Tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine.
    And I do enjoy your writing and your perspectives as presented in your blog!

  3. Was not aware of the Trump battery analogy. Funny, and perhaps hopeful. I have not previously seen evidence that he was capable of such sophisticated thought and expression.

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