One reason I have resisted thinking about my work-metaphors is that I was repelled by Mayhew’s own concept of his work as competition (what a stereotypically feminine reaction, but there it is; and to be fair, he is aware of how this sounds). But he does suggest other comparisons for both writing in general and specific projects, such as exploration, which he then breaks down: atlas, or Triptik? And other ideas: a balancing scale? Do you have a thread (textile) or a trajectory (rocket science)?
Are such ideas useful? Would I somehow be a better (faster, more fluid) writer if I thought of my work metaphorically? I can see how it would be useful for the prospectus, or the abstract, to present the book/article in terms of trajectory, or conversation, or whatever. But for the writing itself? Mayhew claims that “metaphors can be useful for clarifying what it is you’re trying to accomplish,” that they will change as you work, and that using the wrong one can make your work harder. Let’s assume for a minute that this metaphor idea is some sort of magic trick that will make writing easier by clarifying the project (Mayhew certainly represents himself as exceedingly productive, though I think that’s mainly because he is compulsive in ways I don’t want to be, and does not lack for self-confidence).
I think I may do more metaphorizing my own relationship to my work: as in feeling that it has grown too large and unwieldy for me to tame. Recognizing that allows me to extend the metaphor: if the work is Bucephalus, then I am Alexander, the only one who can ride it; and, further, that makes me the chosen heir. But then that picture makes me nervous: what if I can’t tame it?
Perhaps a more mundane metaphor would work better. The project may be a field that has gone a bit wild and needs to be cleared for new cultivation: just keep picking up stones and ripping out brush, one thing at a time. Sheer persistence will get the job done. I feel that it is easier to show up, doggedly, day after day, to pick up a few more rocks than it is to show up to ride a wild animal.
What am I doing in the Current Project? Map-making seems like the most obvious metaphor: I am representing what is in the manuscripts, and making it possible for other people to navigate them. I want to show my own route of discovery, but I also want to leave a map that could be used by other scholars to take their own journeys.
Is this the best way to think about the project? What if it were a balancing scale; what things am I balancing? Manuscript study and literary criticism? Attitudes of original editor and recent MS-studies scholars? Coverage or depth? The focus is fairly narrow, really, bringing to bear various disciplines (linguistic analysis, MS study, some art history, literary criticism) to illumine (another metaphor!) the story in its physical context. Miscellany or coherent whole? I sure hope it’s a coherent whole. A thread or a trajectory? The textile image appeals more to me. I like the idea of working with cloth. And weaving bits together. Slots that can be filled with the appropriate content? Yes, sort of; I’m trying to think of the organization in that way, anyhow. Overlapping circles? Sounds messy; I like a more linear construction; and yet I always get in trouble trying to make things go linearly, so maybe thinking of the circles as a possible construction would be helpful.
Even more helpful, of course, would be to Just Do It instead of blogging about writing. But today is getting all carved up by waiting for a contractor, and then waiting some more, then actually talking with the guy, and in a little while having to load up a couple of cats for a shared vet appointment . . . so I’m working on syllabi, instead. Today I have a more positive reaction to the course outline I didn’t like last week. It needed some tweaking, and may still need a little more, but I think the trajectory and amount of work (for me as well as students) now seems fairly reasonable.
And a final metaphor, one I find empowering: it is brain surgery. Finicky. Delicate. Important.