Additional Exercises to Build Your "Good Writing" Muscles Help
Practice with Metaphor and Simile
In a metaphor, the writer compares two unalike things to refresh our experience of the first. "My desk is my spaceship," a grade-schooler says, and we know something about his imagination and spirit. "When I soak in the bathtub at night, I am a larvae in a cocoon," a single woman breadwinner says, and we understand the way in which soaking in the tub is a respite from expectations and stresses.
Simile employs "like" or "as" to make comparisons. "When my teacher is angry, she looks like a horse with the reins pulled back," a young boy once told me. "The fluorescent lights on that ceiling look like parallel train tracks at the downtown station," an architect might say of inelegant fixtures.
Simile is valuable in writing, but emotionally, metaphor is stronger than simile because it says one thing is another thing: An angry parent is a broken chair; the empty page is a frozen lake. Metaphor creates a stronger jolt in the reader than when a "like" or "as" is inserted: An angry parent is like a broken chair; the empty page is like a frozen lake. Most writers prefer metaphor to simile, but there are times when the insertion of like or as is necessary for the word construction: He was as quick to take the money as a Lamborghini Gallardo on a German highway.
Practice with both metaphor and simile strengthens your ability to use both.
There is a short couplet form named Abantu, which you can read about in Technicians of the Sacred by Jerome Rothenberg. It comes from an oral tradition in Africa and is useful for developing dexterity with metaphorical thinking. In this oral tradition, one person offers an image and another person, as the rhythm of the work allows, offers an image in response. The participants are seizing an opportunity to use figurative language and refresh experience through association: The sound of an elephant's tusk cracking / The voice of an angry man. Whether you have never heard the sound of an elephant's tusk cracking or have heard it, the comparison allows you to experience something of the sound.
Creating Abantu will help you practice the associational thinking required for creating metaphor and simile. To do this, propose a first line, using a common image from your environment that appeals to one of the five senses. State the image in different ways to make several comparisons:
Next, "answer back" to these lines with an image that makes you experience a physical sensation:
To continually exercise and grow the metaphor/simile-making muscle, collect first lines throughout the day and answer them when you get a chance:
Later you might finish the couplets:
Think about forcing yourself to use all the senses:
Developing facility with associational and figurative language will greatly enhance your writing. Remember to insert the Abantu construction into sentences:
When i woke up this morning, i went downstairs for breakfast. My mother had put cornflakes in a bowl for me. When i poured milk in, the brown flakes became sand bars in a bay, like the one where my father always took me fishing.
The more you use sensory images, details, and metaphor and simile, the less you will lean on abstract, intangible words that tell readers how they should feel rather than allowing them to experience the feeling you have created. When intangible words make appearances in your writing where you'd be better off with tangible words, figure out how to replace them with specific, sensory information.
"When she is angry, my teacher looks like a horse with the reins pulled back" evokes something much more immediate than, "When she is angry, my teacher is gross," which is what the student said before trying to create a simile. With the summarizing word "gross," we don't experience how big the teacher seems to the child and how closely the child observes her; we don't shrink from the child's proximity to his teacher's big teeth.
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