M.C. Benner Dixon on Creating Persuasive Metaphors
“In English, every word, almost, is an efficient little vehicle pointed outward at the wide and literal world.”
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My name has always felt, somehow, apart from me. But names, like all words, are approximations. From the day of my birth, I was called Christie, though it wasn’t really my name. My real name was Christine. Well, my middle name was Christine. My first name—Miriam—I heard only at the receptionist’s window of the dentist’s office or on the first day of school. Whenever someone would call that name, reading it from a card or a chart, I would timidly acknowledge myself as Miriam, made shy by the strangeness of this unused word meant to represent me, and then correct the record.
“I go by a nickname,” I would say. I remember looking up my names in baby name directories. Miriam means “rebellious.” Christine denotes belief in Christ. I never could embody both at once—finally finding my rebellion, I lost my faith. I have always been a little out of phase with my names. When I married, I added another name—I liked the x—to my collection, as if it were a figurine on the shelf. There they were, my names: glass images lined up in front of me but never mine entirely, never me.
And like glass, they are fragile. A typo at the Social Security office once gave me, briefly, the surname of Benne Dixon, an almost-welcome error, redolent of blessing. I am regularly mislabeled Chrissy, Christy, Kristen, or Kirstie, in endless permutations. Friends forget my first name and, in their guessing, make me Marian or Muriel. I myself chip off pieces of my names and sign my writing and my checks with my initials. I find it hard to get attached to my many, frangible names. But then, they do not seem particularly attached to me, either.
My names are metaphors. They refer to things outside of me, to people who are not me: Moses’ sister and the savior of the world. My names are genealogies. “Christine” is my aunt’s middle name, too. I am a reference to her. Long ago, somewhere in Germany or Switzerland perhaps, there was a wicker-weaver—a maker of “Bennen” baskets, a “Benner.” This basket-weaver was named for his occupation; the name, Benner, was then attached to his sons after him, until we reach my father, and then me. In the Lowlands of Scotland, I’m told, there was another man, whose father was named Richard. This man called himself Thomas Dick’s Son, and so they called the others in his line Dixon, until we reach my husband, and then me. My names dress me up as other people, cast me in stories that aren’t quite mine.
Or are they? I can’t deny that I am, at least in part, what my metaphors say I am. I am a rebellious sister. I am faithful and credulous. I am as patient and meticulous as a basket-weaver. I am someone’s child, someone’s wife, someone’s niece. Perky and blonde. Austere and old-fashioned. I am an accidental benediction. I am broken glass shards of myself. With every name, I gain a metaphor that expands the definition of me. Maybe I should learn to accept my metaphors as a matter of fact.
Keeping a collection of all these strange, fragmentary, and countless metaphors has given me a visceral understanding of the figurative power of language, how it binds ideas together more than it draws distinctions between them—at least this is so in the languages that I know best. In English, every word, almost, is an efficient little vehicle pointed outward at some piece of the wide and literal world.Metaphors have a way of reifying, like the puppet who longs so desperately to be a flesh-and-blood boy that he grows warm and weeps real salt tears.
For my college graduation present, my four siblings pooled together and bought me a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary—minutely reproduced with nine normal dictionary pages crowded onto a single page and accompanied by an extremely powerful magnifying glass, which was necessary to read this unraveled genetic history of English.
Immediately upon opening my gift, I began to pore over the miniscule entries, even as everyone else was having cake, and I found the pages heavy with casual metaphor. Word after word pointed back to some ancient referent. Look here: the same long-ago root of blowing connects weather, wind, and wing. Understood this way, the hawk does not merely ride on the air current—her wing is part of it, bound to it by language. And here: the same turning and twisting that gave us thread, also gave us contrition and trout. Does the trout repent its errors, does it spool out its regret into the stream?
I was wholly at home among these metaphors. They had been waiting for me there in every word I had ever spoken. Crammed with chipped-off meanings that are not quite what they say they are and not quite separate from their origins, every sentence is a poem, a linguistic re-approximation of reality. Without metaphor, my language would have little to say.
The English language started by connecting one image to another and so it continues, full of shade and starlets, regional branches and saturated markets. Don’t you love it, how we fall asleep, polish a presentation, scroll through Twitter, fight the trolls? Doesn’t it make you feel like an illusionist to say a thing by reaching for something else?
I am not just saying all this to sound poetic. Metaphor is foundational to our thinking. In their seminal work, Metaphors We Live By, cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that “metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action.” Certain metaphors, Lakoff and Johnson say, have become dominant in both our cultural and our personal worldviews. When we accept that “argument is war,” for example, we strive to “win” debates, as if every disagreement has a victor. Believing that “time is money,” we grow stingy with it. These are something more than cliches. They are alive with the power of substantiation. They are meaning-making bonds between our lives and the things we see and touch and hold in our hearts. They determine how we conceive of our lives, our bodies, ourselves, and each other.
Think, for instance, of the way we calculate how many hours of sleep we need, as if electricity is trickling back into our batteries at a metered rate; the way we name the flavors of our companions—sweet, sour, salty, bland—as if they are a form of nourishment. Aren’t they? Don’t our metaphors take on substance? Don’t you feel the meter of time spinning, racking up a costly bill? Doesn’t a heavy conversation pull on your shoulders, doesn’t it weight you in place until you can hardly stand?
Metaphors have a way of reifying, like the puppet who longs so desperately to be a flesh-and-blood boy that he grows warm and weeps real salt tears. It happened to me that way. When my parents were choosing my name, my father argued in favor of giving me the first name Miriam, although even then they knew that they would never use it for me. “Maybe,” he said, “she will write books, and she could use it as a pen name.” My parents only told me about this conversation later, after I had already begun to call myself a writer. My metaphors, apparently, are no mistake. Thank goodness they named me more than once.
If there is a lesson here in any of this, this is it: do not be stingy with your metaphors. When the sun sets, let it be both liquid and photonic. When you speak of a city street, give it pavement and a melody. Let the girl be a girl and a tidepool. She can be both. Or more—give her a shelf full of names. To get at the whole of her, she will need them all.
Excerpted from Millions of Suns: On Writing and Life by Sharon Fagan McDermott and M.C. Benner Dixon. Copyright © 2023. Reprinted with permission from University of Michigan Press.