In my career as a writing teacher, I have frequently encountered writers who struggle with their writing. Common ways of teaching writing may be partly to blame. David Smith et al. found in their research that students do not necessarily learn to write better essays “by following prescriptions for good writing and/or imitating examples of good writing” (337), which is, unfortunately, a common way for teaching writing. Smith et al.’s study showed that in order to become better writers, students need “conceptual understandings of the essay writing process” (327). Having too narrow a concept of what writing is also poses a problem for students. Jonathan Alexander et al. argue that teachers need to adopt new metaphors for writing so that they can “take into account the expanded sense of literate possibilities available to those whom we teach” (120). Analysing common metaphors that describe the writing process, Alexander et al. assert that we need new metaphors for thinking about the writing process because doing so will provide us with a more expansive understanding of the conceptions of and practices of writing in which people engage.
While Alexander et al. do not suggest having students create their own metaphors, my sense was that the process of creating new writing metaphors could help students become better writers by inviting them to conceptualise a more expansive and personally meaningful sense of writing processes. In this essay, I explore how metaphors can be useful in writing pedagogy because they can help students be more successful writers through expanding their conceptions of the writing process. An expanded sense of the writing process can thus contribute to students’ wellbeing as writers.
What is the connection between metaphors and wellbeing? In offering a definition, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson posit that “the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” (5). Lakoff and Johnson highlight that “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature” (p. 3). Based on this assertion, being aware of our metaphors is important because “our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities” (Lakoff and Johnson 3).
Wellbeing is less easily defined, given that there is little agreement across and even within disciplines about what it is and what it includes. There seem to be two dominant strands of definitions – one that is labelled “hedonistic” and focusses on wellbeing as being about positive feelings, and another that is labelled “eudemonic” and associated with “meeting full potential as a member of society” (Simons and Baldwin 990). Gemma Simons and David Baldwin offer a definition that combines these two main strands: “wellbeing is a state of positive feelings and meeting full potential in the world” (990). Other scholars focus on the process through which wellbeing is created when they define the term. While he focusses less on positive feelings than other scholars do, Amartya Sen adds an important dimension to the definition of wellbeing, arguing that “one’s capability set determines one’s wellbeing by providing one with the ability to live out a meaningful life that one has reason to value” (Jongbloed and Andres 3). Richard Davidson’s extensive neural research adds another dimension to the conversation, arguing that wellbeing is a skill that we can learn and strengthen through expanding our ways of thinking and being in the world. If we consider these three definitions together, we arrive at a useful combined definition of wellbeing, one that emphasises the importance of having positive feelings and meeting one’s full potential through capably developing the skills that meaningfully contribute to one’s sense of potential in society.
When we put this definition of wellbeing in conversation with the definition of metaphor, we can see the ways that our metaphors can contribute to wellbeing by helping us clarify and expand our thinking about our practices and their effects in the world. The metaphors we use to conceptualise our experiences, thus, can contribute to our wellbeing. Helen Spandler et al.’s research illustrates this point clearly. They researched a men’s mental health program that used football as a metaphor for talking about emotions. They found that using the football metaphor was an effective way for the participants because it “helped to make the discussion of psychological issues safer, accessible, and comprehensible. This familiarity helped participants re-frame their own lives, understand them differently and learn new coping strategies” (Spandler et al. 552). By providing the men with familiar and valued language through which they could “do emotion” (Spandler et al. 552), the metaphor helped to challenge the stigma attached to mental health services. The football metaphor served as a “cognitive bridge’ (Stott et al.) which enables personal experiences and emotions to be understood and communicated” (Spandler et al. 552). There was nothing magical about the football metaphor itself; rather, it was important that the metaphor have value for the individuals and provide them with a conceptual lens through which to re-see their experiences and practices.
It follows, then, that different metaphors of writing could be “cognitive bridges” that provide different language to conceptualise writing practices. These metaphors could influence writing practices in dynamic ways. As Lakoff and Johnson assert, “new metaphors have the power to create a new reality ... . Changes in our conceptual system do change what is real for us and affect how we perceive the world and act upon those perceptions” (145-6). Therefore, new writing metaphors have the potential to strengthen writing wellbeing through expanding our conceptions of writing practices and skills.
This sense of possibility led me to create an assignment for my college-level students that asked them to create new writing metaphors for themselves. These writers’ metaphors highlight the power of metaphors to shape perceptions and guide actions. Although all of my students’ metaphors were fascinating, I share three in particular that illustrate how metaphors can be used in education to help students increase positive attitudes toward writing, imagine ways that writing can help them develop their sense of purpose, and explore how their writing connects them to society – which are all important aspects of wellbeing. (Please note that the students’ writing I quote from in this article was collected through study procedures approved by my institution’s Institutional Research Board. I have written permission from these individuals to quote from the essays that they wrote for my class, and I am using a pseudonym for each of them.)
When she entered my class, Astrid lacked confidence in her writing and was frustrated because “writing and confidence are going to be very important in my future professional writing goals. How can I become a successful writer if I am not confident in my writing?” Because of previous experiences she had had with writing in school, she had decided that she was not a very good writer. However, one night she watched episodes of Dancing with the Stars, a reality television show in which celebrities are paired together to win a dance competition, and she realised that her writing mirrored the path of learning illustrated by the dancers in the show. Watching the dancers develop skills inspired Astrid to reconceptualise her writing experiences.
Astrid’s creation of her metaphor helped her see that she was a growing writer who would continue to develop. She began to see herself as in process. Comparing her writing to Dancing with the Stars gave her hope that her confidence in herself would grow. She wrote:
by the end of the season, the person who wins the mirrorball trophy has no doubt in themselves whatsoever and that star knows they deserved to be exactly where they are. For my writing, I want to experience this feeling. I want to be self-confident in my writing and know that I have achieved everything in my writing for a reason. Even though I have not reached that goal right now that is okay because I am stuck in a ‘very uncomfortable tango’ and my new metaphor is going to help me sway with the dance one ‘week’ at a time.
Astrid acknowledged that to be successful in achieving her goals, she had to build a different relationship with writing. The process helped her to re-imagine that relationship through the lens of what Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset which helped her develop more positive feelings about her writing and her potential.
Astrid’s wellbeing as a writer increased as she conceptualised her practices differently. Through the construction of a new metaphor, she gained an understanding of her underlying conceptions of writing and how they were impacting on her. Creating a more positive. relatable metaphor helped her in the ways that the football metaphor helped the men in Spandler et al.’s study, giving her a new language to reconceptualise her writing practices. As Sen argues, our sense of wellbeing can increase when we expand our capabilities. By focussing on writing as a set of improvable skills, Astrid was able to begin to build a more positive relationship with writing.
Kyle’s Infinite Space
Kyle’s metaphor compared writing to a loosely defined idea of “space”, which he defines as “an infinite area that’s filled with infinite possibilities and infinite stars and planets that continue to expand into infinity”. As he wrote in his essay for my class, though, the process of creating a metaphor was not necessarily an easy one:
every time that I had thought about a potential metaphor for this project, it never really clicked with me. Nothing that I could think of felt right or felt that had fit in a way. Even now, with the metaphor that I’ve chosen, ‘Space,’ I still feel unsure about that being my true choice.
But his fascination with space and its sense of infinite possibilities attracted him to the metaphor. In his reflections on the process of creating a new metaphor, he admitted that “persisting through my own thoughts to get to the metaphor that resonated with me ... really made me think about my writing and how I felt about my future with it”. He related to this metaphor in much the same way that the men in Spandler et al.’s study related to football, and it thus built a cognitive bridge for him between a concept that he valued (space) and a practice that challenged him (writing).
Even with his reservations about this metaphor, Kyle found the new metaphor to be helpful in providing him with “a way to think about the infinite possibilities that I possess”. In the past, Kyle had experienced stress when thinking about his writing projects because they became all-encompassing in his mind. His new metaphor helped him to re-conceptualise the purpose of his writing: “space allows me to think about the future of my writing with no stress. With it, I recognize my own place in the universe and the grand scheme of things”. Gaining this new perspective on writing freed Kyle “to make sure that doing writing that I love is the only writing that I’m doing ... . I want to continue to have those infinite possibilities and those infinite ideas to span across my career. Space contextualizes that idea in just one word”. As Helen Sword advocates, “ideally, your chosen metaphor will exemplify your core values, reflect your own lived experience, and lead you toward a pleasurable space of writing” (241). Kyle’s metaphor did exactly this: it improved his wellbeing as a writer by managing the stress of taking himself and everything he does too seriously. His metaphor provided
a form of reassurance to myself. It helps contextualize that idea and how I can empower my own writing to become only writing that I want to write. To encourage myself in the future with my career to make choices that can make writing and my life the best and most enjoyable it can be. To ensure myself of my decisions, rather than stressing over little minute things. It allows my writing to become my writing, the way it is now, and the way that it will grow until the heat death of the universe.
There is a sense of hope and humility in the vision of writing that his metaphor encourages him to adopt.
What seems clear from Kyle’s metaphor is that the process of creating it helped him clarify his sense of his purpose in the world. The Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley University identifies purpose as one their Ten Keys to Wellbeing, which are based on extensive scientific research on wellbeing and happiness. The Center’s Website describes purpose as follows: “to psychologists, purpose is an abiding intention to achieve a long-term goal that is both personally meaningful and makes a positive mark on the world” (Greater Good, “Purpose”). Kyle’s metaphor spoke to his purpose to write material that is valuable to him. He wanted his own personally constructed meanings to be the guiding force in his writing career and the writing he undertakes. Creating a new writing metaphor, although challenging for him, showed him “how stepping into a metaphor to represent a part of your life can change how you view that part from a new angle”. Through his space metaphor, Kyle was able to identify and connect more deeply to his purpose, thus the process of metaphor creation enhanced his wellbeing. Through a more expansive sense of writing that gave him more positive feelings toward his capabilities, Kyle’s metaphor likewise strengthened his wellbeing as a writer.
Jasper’s metaphor compared the process of writing to the experience of making s’mores around a campfire with friends. Embracing “the entirety of the experience”, Jasper’s metaphor emphasised that while writing may seem like a solitary adventure, it’s actually a very social experience, a view which challenges the dominant narrative of the writer writing alone. Through the creation of the metaphor, Jasper reflected on the ways his community both shapes his writing and supports him as a writer.
Social connection played a significant role in Jasper’s “making s’mores” metaphor. He wrote that “the community that surrounds writing in all its forms is crucial to an individual’s writing development and skills ... . The joy and inspiration I am gifted from these people makes writing a pleasurable experience that is meant to be shared, rather than a task that is to be completed”. The community emphasised in his metaphor helped Jasper to conceptualise writing through a positive lens that illustrated writing’s social meaning. In describing his metaphor, Jasper was careful to emphasise that the joy comes not necessarily from eating s’mores (i.e. the final product) but comes through the process of making s’mores (i.e. the writing process). Through his metaphor, he thought about his writing practices more expansively.
Jasper acknowledges that those around him inspired and shaped his writing, that his ideas are socially influenced:
the ideas I get for things like characters or plot often come from people that I know personally, or they existed historically. In the novel I am currently working on, one of my integral characters (specifically their friendship with the main character) is based on certain aspects of a friendship I developed during my first semester of school ... . These relationships are important to me in real life so why would they not be heavily reflected in my writing?
His metaphor foregrounded a sense of connection he felt with those in his life and creating the metaphor allowed him to recognise that his writing was situated in the fabric of his life.
Another of the Greater Good Science Center’s Ten Keys to Wellbeing is social connection, which they define as “a valuable resource in life, creating moments of positivity and fun, supporting us through good times and bad, and exposing us to new ideas and new people” (Greater Good, “Social Connection”). Creating this new writing metaphor emphasised for Jasper that his community was not only a source of inspiration but also of support. Jasper’s metaphor emphasises this sense of connection, and makes him more aware of the important role that it plays in his writing wellbeing. This view of writing aids his wellbeing as a writer because it provides him with what he calls a “coping mechanism” that helps him to be more successful in his writing: “when my assignments and personal projects become daunting and frightening, I know that I just need to go sit by the fire, take a deep breath, and make myself a s’more”. Thus, his metaphor helps him reach his writing potential more fully.
What these three examples reveal is that creating new writing metaphors can enhance writing wellbeing by increasing confidence in writing, clarifying sense of purpose for writing, and highlighting the importance of social connections to writing. By experiencing one thing in terms of another – metaphorical thinking – students were able to create writing metaphors that supported their writing wellbeing through increasing their positive feelings about writing, expanding their sense of possibilities with/in writing, and illustrating the meaning their writing can have to them and their communities. The metaphor assignment thus helped students build important cognitive bridges that helped them be more successful writers and strengthened their writing wellbeing.
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Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2007.
Greater Good Science Center. “What Is Purpose.” Greater Good Magazine 8 June 2023. <https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/purpose/definition#what-is-purpose>.
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