Metaphors Are People, Too

Many people who love to write share an anxiety about being A Writer: How do I qualify? What will I tell my parents? Are there dental benefits? It's also a trendy truism that the only way to be a writer is to write. An orthodox interpretation might even hold that you only are A Writer during periods of time in which you are moving your pen or cursor from left to right (or in whatever direction your preferred language moves). I subscribe to that. Writer is not a title, and writing is not a job.


Rather, writing is a tool as basic and essential to humanity as the bone hammer. You would not call someone who builds houses a hammerer, would you?

"Metaphors are people, too."


My friend, Randall, is staying with me this week as he connects with other programmer-revolutionaries in Portland. We've been walking and talking a great deal. The range of topics has been vast, but, in essence, we've been talking about one thing the whole time: writing. We're both writers, or perhaps I should say that we both write for work. I write words (email, mostly), and he writes code.

I have a great deal to learn about his writing. He writes about such complex problems, like how to store, organize, and migrate huge amounts of data, all without attracting the attention of the users on the other side of the interface. These are concrete problems with abstract solutions, and I am fascinated by the details.

I mostly write about problems in the middle, the human-level problems, the social problems, whose origins are always somewhat vague, and whose solutions are often not quite complete.

His writing requires very different language from mine. He is very well-practiced in both kinds of language, whereas I only know mine well. But as a writer, or as one who tends to write, I love all forms of language, and I love learning new forms even more.

Randall has been teaching me little snippets of Python grammar and vocabulary, and he's taught me much more philosophy, which is what I'd call the discipline behind language that helps us figure out how to apply it. In turn, I've offered some philosophy of my own, and I think these talks have helped us both prioritize our problems, polish our language, and figure out what to write next.

So we're both writers, a lot of the time, and writing is how we make a living. But I suspect many writers, myself included, who fret about being A Writer don't feel that Randall and I have settled the matter.

There's a piece missing, and English does have a word for it, but it's a word I'm always hesitant to use. As a writer, when I'm not being a poet, which is usually, I'm very careful to use words that convey precise meanings. But the word for this missing piece has encoded in its very definition the fact that it means something different to everyone. But we need a word here, so I'll just spit it out:


Yes, I'd venture to say that writers, whether their language is English, Tagalog, or Python, don't feel like they are being Writers unless their writing feels like art.

Maybe I should speak for myself. When I'm editing an article about women's shoes, I feel like an editor. When I'm creating an index page to show off our vast library of NewsTrust buttons, I feel like a website administrator. I'm writing the whole time, but I only feel like I'm being A Writer when I'm saying what my heart wants to say.

I don't want to get into a discussion of What Art Is. That's turtles all the way down. But I'll say this: I think that art is something like the practice of letting the body say what the heart wants to say. Yes, I'm being a little poetic, since the literal heart can't literally want or say anything at all. But my point is that, if we want to fulfill our wants, we must allow the wanting part of us to express itself. For the sake of argument, call that "art."

So we are Writer-Artists when we are writing what we want to write.

That is the dream.

But are there dental benefits?

Well, you get dental benefits from jobs, and jobs involve doing work, which is to say solving problems.

A carpenter doesn't get dental benefits from hammering; she gets them from being A Carpenter, solving people's lack-of-house problems.

A writer doesn't get dental benefits from making the tapping noise and pushing the blinking cursor along. A writer gets dental benefits by solving problems, whether they're database scaling problems or misinformed citizenry problems or selling-things-to-customers problems.

So if you're worried about being a writer, try to think of a problem you'd love to solve.