Breaking Down A Writer’s Block

From mental walls through computer firewalls…

The notes on my desktop are piled high. The backlog of metaphors for discussion at the Observatory is a single freeform mass of sticky, yellow intimidation. With each so-called “new” day, my hesitant index fingers sacrifice themselves to a voracious, thankless keyboard. I know I am damned with writer’s block. Not the kind of block that traps the yap or quells the quill; rather, the kind of block that dulls the points, the subjects and the senses. I feel like I’m poking holes into space.

My fatigue surrounds me, becoming the mortar that keeps these notes in place. I am walled in – fortunately by enviable tasks: I truly love metaphor, and therefore avoid letting it down by churning out soulless pap. For you, the reader, to whom I am indebted for patiently sitting as audience, I must perform at my best, however limited by my walls that may be.

“Wall, I’ll be darned!”

The metaphoric use of the word “wall” as a mental barrier with negative implications began in 1967, according to Douglas Harper, of the precious “Online Etymology Dictionary“. Use has developed to include phrases like “build a wall around oneself” and movie-music themes such as Pink Floyd’s “The Wall“. In fact, music and poetry covers wall metaphors well, creating extended systems that have insides, outsides, putting up and breaking down. Due to its popularity, the metaphor is currently on its long deathbed, destined for the dictionary – the crowded graveyard of metaphor.

In its most common form as metaphor, a wall is essentially an impenetrable two-dimensional perimeter around one’s mind or some portion therein. If it is somehow incomplete, and we try to further block another’s efforts to scale or circumnavigate it, it is said that we are “building the wall higher” or “building more walls“. It is not always clear if the wall is transparent and denying admission of the obvious, or if the wall is opaque and veiling a secret. Once we get in or through another’s wall, it is believed that we share the same mental space.

The mind is frequently considered a space by metaphor. This seems appropriate: if data makes the mind, and the data is stored in the brain, the neuron-held data itself and the physical area they take can equally be considered space.

Our second head agrees, with its hard drive taking up physical space in three dimensions, while it envelops data stored in bytes that are two dimensional. The mind of the computer is as boxed in as the mind of the human.

Climbing the walls

We can be closed-minded or open-minded, with closed-mindedness implying the shell immediately surrounds the existing data, and open-mindedness implying a space exists between one’s existing data and one’s own potential understanding. “Escapes“, such as daydreaming or fantasy, are merely wanton ventures into the realms outlying the perimeter of one’s existing understanding, since they neither intend to nor succeed at claiming new territory. Imagination, on the other hand, climbs over these same walls, somehow more tethered to purpose. Imagination is the scout of reason.

Facts are bricks. We ask for the “hard facts” we state that an argument does not hold together. The mortar of fact is then presumably reason, with imagination now behaving as the solvent of reason. We need time for a structure “built” of cohesive facts to “set in” or “congeal“. When we “digest” a given set of facts, we are actually placing them in some form of order, having already taken them in, but not yet forming an opinion. A bricklayer exists in every mind – and some are not so good as others at engineering or construction (building a hypothesis or argument). Some have no solvent, perhaps forming irrevocable fieldstone structures or relying on outside help – help which may build to its own design in order to seize mental real estate (a cult’s grooming process, for example).

Integrity is structure

According to Webster, integrity has three meanings: incorruptibility, soundness and completeness. This applies equally to both physical structures and (metaphorically) to structures of the mind. The more integral the mental structure, the neater our metaphor becomes for it, ranging from “loose” or “free” associations to “boxes” and “fortification“. The metaphors for thought and personality like “vaccuous“, “air-headed”, “bubble-headed” or “spacey” bring to mind a sense of gaseous disjointedness that is ever-temporary, while related metaphors like “heavy“, “hard facts”, “well-founded“, “make up [one's] mind” or “firmly believe” bring to mind a sense of solid, structured permanence. The parricidal metaphor “ponder” was born from the meaning “to weigh“, growing up to become “to weigh in one’s mind“, as if consideration puts facts on a set of scales – seen today in the terms “scales of justice” or “weigh the facts(in “pounds”, perhaps…?!).

The solid nature of these fact-structures has its limits: a fortress is a prison – a box. When we are driven to escape the barriers of knowledge or assumption it is said that we must “think outside the box” (circa 1975, referring to a specific puzzle). The box metaphor brings to mind the unimaginative flat sides of efficiency, and no style. However, physically, its shape more likely resembles a neurological tree, with a thick bark of inhibitory neurotransmitters. Breaking through this bark – possibly the very essence of the chemical process of lateral thinking – leads to “turning over a new leaf“, “finding another avenue of thought” or “making a leap“, all of which imply a controlled relocation of a solid in a space – otherwise known as transportation.

Break through: I change, therefore I travel

Cadillac marketers first captured the power of this metaphor system in 2002 for its CTS sedan. The campaign, centred on the slogan “Break through” has enjoyed notable success and staying power, targeting and skewering the boomer skew with its meisterfully pointed schtick. This multimedia prison-break of technological, age and class barriers uses an energetic horizon of music from target-viewer’s days of youthful, riotous freedom a lifetime ago. “Been a long time since I rock and rolled…” is heard. What is not always heard, but is quickly summoned to mind are the lyrics and middle-age melancholic mantras “let me get back, let me get back, let me get back” (as if a barrier prevents this) and “…carry me back, carry me back, carry me back” (as if a vehicle is desired).

The Great Firewall of China

A firewall prevents fire – which is heat, therefore change – from breaking through. A wall in one’s mind that can “take the heat” of a “grilling” while “under fire” is a wall not built as coddling blanket that comforts and assures the status quo, but of a fortification from outside change. This type of wall assumes and even prepares for an attack, thus reflects or deflects such forces. The protective nature of a true firewall is as insular as a blanket, however it is as fortification rather than containment or shelter. This subtlety is not lost on some product’s metaphors, such as “Check Point“, “NetFilter” and “iWatchDog“.

Now compare the prior tacit references to enemies, infiltrants and criminals with, say, MetLife insurance’s advertising use of a “blanket” and Citygroup insurance’s “umbrella” logo. Blankets and umbrellas protect us from the cold and rain, which are both passive threats, while enemies, infiltrants and criminals are active threats. If a rhetorical division can be made between acts of God and acts of the devil, the metaphor will be quick to reveal it. And when we wish to diminish the fearsome seat of the devil, we reduce him from threat to vermin (PestPatrol) or filth (Webroot’s Spy Sweeper or Ashampoo‘s AntiSpyWare).

Earlier this year, when Google was forced to choose between filtering worldliness out of Chinese-based search engines or walking away from its vast market, the media promptly e-quipped itself with the headline “The Great Firewall of China”. If you know what Google is, you probably know what a firewall is. An architectural wonder that is visible from space makes for an easy target, and the fact that the Great Wall was a Ming Dynasty equivalent to today’s virtual firewall made this headline a smash success.

Thinking inside the box office

Not quite the same smash success was had by the celluloid “Firewall”, released earlier this year. This blockbunter movie, starring two versions of the firewall metaphor (computer and human), was originally titled “The Wrong Element”, but its name was changed before hitting the theatres. The new title may be signalling increased popularity for this metaphor, making it a potential candidate for this year’s Top Ten. Had the movie been the talk of the town, so too would the firewall metaphor.

A grueling six-week assault on my writer’s block is coming to a close. As this long period ends with a period, I am forced to ask “Did I finally have a breakthrough?“. I can’t tell, though. I just can’t quite wrap my mind around it.

Note: If we consider the “box” of “think outside the box” to be formed by walls of neuroinhibitors, and that these neuroinhibitors are the “residue” of one’s own prior conclusions, it is not difficult to imagine that “shaping the minds of our youth” is to some unknown extent building neurological walls. To “mold one’s mind” is to do much the same, but without the implication of cutting. We get our kids into educational programs, unaware of the implications of the word itself: a program is thought control. And there, an undisciplined or unruly student may become “whipped into shape” or told to “shape up or ship out“. Could it be, that the rebellion of youth has in its roots the destruction of faithfully outsourced old walls and the reconstruction of new introspective ones? If these conceptual walls are truly built of neuroinhibitors, this process would likely be chaotic in nature and neurologically traumatic in effect. One thing for sure: this is the age in which one is most likely to experiment with mind-altering drugs – it seems at least some form of cognitive renovation is underway.

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