It hurts to be present

Humans tend to favour analogical reasoning—we regularly look for the similarities between two or more unlike things or systems (compare reasoning from first principles). But when is relying on analogy a problem, and does doing so prevent us from living in the moment and engaging deeply with our writing?

In Rob Walker’s new book, which is full of strategies for paying attention, he quotes the poet Marie Howe: “It hurts to be present.” He explains that line more fully in a recent episode of Hurry Slowly, when he refers to making “metaphor-free observations.”

Rob believes that inexperienced writers use metaphor as “a distancing act.” But, he says,

to be truly present requires punching through these kinds of distancing techniques that we use as a matter of course, and be really in touch with what’s actually there.

We know that being present (or mindful) can result in more happiness, connection, innovation, and productivity. But being present is not always easy, and can expose us to uncomfortable truths—that’s why it hurts.

I’m notorious for using metaphors as a way of giving advice on a manuscript. For a long time, I believed that analogy made space for the writer to come to their own conclusions about the problem and solution. But I also appreciate that using metaphors is a way of circumventing what I’m actually trying to say: “This isn’t working.”

These days, I’m making a conscious effort to be more “gently blunt” in my feedback.  Committing to giving precise feedback forces me to pay more attention while I’m editing. Being present enables me to concentrate on the needs of the writer and the demands of the manuscript.

Hemingway avoided metaphor—to sparse, powerful effect. But Fitzgerald revelled in it, creating a layered atmosphere in his books—sometimes uplifting, other times devastating.

The secret is knowing when you’re hiding behind metaphor instead of getting to the point.

  • Are you using metaphor as a “distancing technique”?
  • Why might describing the object with more direct, literal detail have more impact?
  • Why might truly engaging with your writing—even if doing so is painful—be the best strategy?
  • How can you break down your writing into its principle components?

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