How to make change come alive in your writing 📚 Metaphor Map #7

Via Vinegar, Chrysalis, and Lenses

Hey friend, welcome to Metaphor Map!

You’ll notice this issue is different from previous ones. I’m experimenting with themes. In this issue, I’m curating another 3 great metaphors but they all have to do with one thing: change.

I write thousands of words a week and change is one of those things that’s always hard to capture. This week, we're looking at metaphors from an two writers and a psychoanalyst that show us 3 ways to do it well.

Let me know if you like this themed issue! Leave a comment below or hit reply.

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I write a lot about change. Every time I do, it’s surprisingly hard to describe. 

This week, I wrote an article about digital transformation in a stubbornly analog industry. For years, record keeping in this industry happened on paper. Only in the past decade did a regulatory agency finally force companies to switch to electronic records.

Change is hard to describe. A → B describes a sequence, not the change that got us there. Going deep into the nitty gritty of all the changes that are part of A Change leads us to missing the forest for the trees. So how then, can we get change across to our readers?

This week, I’m sharing three writers who did this beautifully: a depression-era American writer, an early 20th century French novelist, and a modern British psychoanalyst. 

Let’s map it out.

1. Vinegar: Change from influence

“Vinegar he poured on me all his life; I am well marinated; how can I be honey now?”

- Tillie Olsen, Tell Me a Riddle

In this excerpt, Tillie Olsen writes about mistreatment and the way it changes a person. The same way a marinade, over time, seeps into meat and imparts a flavor, so too does mistreatment, over time, make someone bitter. Olsen deepens this metaphor by specifying the marinade (honey) and specifying the unrealized result (honey). 

This metaphor captures one of the ways change happens over time. It’s rarely in one fell swoop but instead happens through influence, through slow but persistent penetration.

Sometimes change happens merely by being near something for a long enough period of time.

Sometimes too, this change is counterintuitive. A piece of meat seems much more solid than vinegar and yet, as Olsen writes, the vinegar imparts an indelible, bitter flavor. It just needs time and contact. 

2. Chrysalis: Change from inside

“Perhaps the great sorrow that follows, in a daughter such as Mamma, the death of her mother only makes the chrysalis break open a little sooner, hastens the metamorphosis and the appearance of a person whom we carry within us and who, but for this crisis which annihilates time and space, would have come more gradually to the surface.”

- Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

Bear with the grimness. A discussion of change can’t miss death. Writers have been grappling with the topic for thousands of years and there’s millions of examples we can learn from to describe change. 

In this excerpt, Marcel Proust writes about a mother grieving the death of her mother. Grief, here, is a process of transformation whereby his mother changes into a new person faster than she would have otherwise.

Change isn’t B replacing A. B is more often than not already within A, emerging over time. (If you’re interested in philosophy, the term “dialectics” will be useful here).

The metaphor of a chrysalis is so effective here for that reason.

The butterfly is within the caterpillar the whole time it’s a caterpillar. But certain conditions indue that change. Grief didn’t create a new person; it pushed his mother into the cocoon and brought the changed person out. 

When we see change, often what we’re really seeing is the pace of change made fast enough to be noticeable. The change of age, for instance, strikes us all eventually. But grief, as Proust describes, makes age happen fast enough for the change to take place in a day. 

3. Lens: Change is nuance

“More people are seeing a more nuanced social landscape. The opportunity is here for reframing how we represent the social body. It is of necessity differently hued, and that needs acknowledging, as does the shame of our previous marginalising. Covid-19 is cleaning the lens, so we can see more clearly.”

- Susie Orbach, Patterns of pain: what Covid-19 can teach us about how to be human

Change is often hard to describe because we focus too much on trying to describe the change itself. Sometimes, we feel change through its effects in the same way we observe erosion through a river’s smooth rocks, not its coursing water. 

Here, psychoanalyst Susie Orbach describes treality pre- and post-COVID-19. She focuses her efforts on describing the perspective that undergoes a change. She uses the metaphor of glass or glasses to evoke this perspective and show us how it changes. 

The lens, for the most part, stays the same—the change is what happens after a big event cleans it. Orbach sets this metaphor up by evoking details of the lens: its frame, its hue.

We’re seeing with these words by the time she cleans them, letting us see as clearly as she wants us to. 

The next time I describe change, I’m going to apply what I learned from these writers.

Perhaps digital transformation isn’t an event.

Perhaps some industries have marinaded in new technologies long before they changed.

Perhaps the new, transformed industry is already within the old one, and new conditions induce a chrysalis that delivers change.

Or perhaps the change is one of perspective and a wave of new technology allows us to see things in a new way. 

Hoping you learned something new too.

- Nick