An Extended Metaphor

Imagine two bathtubs in the same room, about five feet apart. One is mostly full of blue water. The other is mostly full of red water. You are sitting on a stool between the tubs, and you would like to get some of the blue water into the red to make a lovely purple hue.

Now rename the tubs. The blue tub is the author, and the red the audience or reader. The space between where you sit is the medium through which the author’s message (the blue water) must travel where it mixes with the reader’s existing knowledge (the red water) and where it will leave a permanent impression on the reader (a purple hue).

Writing is the colander you have to use to move the water.

You see the point? Writing is imperfect. At no time will all of the author’s meaning make it to the reader. The medium has holes in it through which some of that meaning leaks. The result, in more scientific terms, is a low rate of transmission.

The metaphor is drawn out, and I intend to confuse it a bit further. Next imagine that you, sitting on that stood, colander in hand, are part of the writing process. You may do things to that colander to help the transmission process, to make it go more smoothly. And these things you can do, these are the skills learned when you practice the craft of writing.

At first, you cover the holes at the base of the colander, right? The same is true with writing, you “cover the basics”: grammar, punctuation, definitions of words, the forms of sentences, the idea of thesis, effective paragraphing, transitions, and conclusions. When you have that down, you work your way up the colander, patching holes as you go.

Next come the harder parts, because as you move up the side of the metaphorical colander, it gets broader, wider. There are more holes to choose from. You don’t have enough epoxy to get them all, so which ones will you patch?

Will you patch the hole that deals with style and grace, or will you choose to patch up your clarity and concision? Will you choose to patch up your vocabulary or your verb usage? Your sentence pattern variation or your parallelism? The choices are endless, and it is possible to partially patch every single hole.

But it will still leak.

Don’t worry, though. Writing was never intended to be a perfect transmission of thought. If that were the case, there would be no wiggle room for interpretation, and a world without the room for your own ideas sounds very boring to me. Besides, think of that bathtub and that colander. Even if you had patched all the holes, the colander still isn’t the right shape to get all the water out of the bottom of that writer tub, now is it?

Writing is a process designed to be imperfect, if we could say that it was “designed” at all. Some prominent and deceased critics would argue that writing is eternal, that it was there before speech and that all means of communication are in some way related to or derived from writing. Maybe. When those theories are fully elucidated they are interesting and fun to ponder, but they are not our point. The point here is that writing is complicated, old, and half-broken at all times. It’s kind of like baseball. In that game, we praise the person who hits .400, which, if you think about it, is the guy who managed to hit the ball four times out of ten. The guy with a 40 percent success rate is our hero. Hmm.

Maybe there’s something to becoming comfortable with failure. We live for that imperfection. We live for the flaws that are inherent to the system. We live for the holes through which meaning escapes. And the sooner the budding writer becomes comfortable with that fact of life, the sooner he or she can get down to the serious business of patching colanders.


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