Additional Exercises to Build Your "Good Writing" Muscles Help (page 2)
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.
Practice Using Clichés to Good Effect (To Better Recognize When They Don't Work)
If you play with clichés, you will be alert to the ways in which they creep into your writing and into the speech of those around you. Paying attention, you'll be able to use clichés appropriately for characters as idiosyncratic tag lines, but comb them out of your writing when they operate like placeholders instead of enhancing the vividness of your writing.
I created an exercise that uses clichés to advantage after I experienced a conversation filled with clichés at an airport gate before the agent arrived to give out boarding passes. I was standing behind an elderly man and a middle aged man, both dressed in tight jeans, cowboy boots, and cowboy hats, their belt buckles sparkling under the florescent lighting. They may have been father and son.
- Older man: There sure were a lot people downstairs at the check in.
- Younger man: Yup, these days, you can never give yourself enough time.
- Older man: They sure wanted us here early, and there's no one ready to see us.
- Younger man: Yup, that's how it is, hurry up and wait.
- Older man: I guess we could've gotten all jammed up at that place where they check the carry-ons and the people for weapons.
- Younger man: Yup, these days you can't have enough security.
The clichés hadn't really allowed either party to say very much. Each clichéd answer in response to the older man's comments seemed to shut things down. "What if we apply a strategy like this to a situation where there are higher stakes?" I wondered. What might I have answered people who warned me not to become a writer, if I were using only clichés?
- Think of a place or situation in which someone has power over you that you find annoying.
- Name your writing after this place or situation: "In the Dean's Office," "Talking to My Boss," "At Lunch with My Mother-in-Law," "The Conversation I Imagine with My Ex," "When My Teenage Son Comes Down from His Room," "Talking to My Parents About My Plans."
- Write a dialogue in which the annoyingly powerful person speaks the way he or she normally does. After every line of that person's, reply with a tired cliché (or something similar like an overused aphorism or expression). Don't worry about how it fits as a response. Just write down what pops into your mind.
To further explore and understand how clichés can help rather than hinder your writing try this variation: Take each cliché that you came up with in the dialogue you wrote and do a freewrite from it, exploring the meaning the cliché has for you, not only vis-à-vis the person you were responding to in the dialogue, but in other life situations and with other people, past and present.
This is something you can stop and do whenever you find an unwanted cliché has strayed into your writing. You'll most likely unearth much more to write, and you'll be able to easily take the cliché out.
Practice Identifying Occasion
Poet Stanley Plumly said to his classes that poems must certainly weigh more at the end than at the beginning. What matters to us has emotional weight, and as with poetry, all creative writing supplies vehicles for writers to seek out what matters and to feel the weight of it. As writers, we take ourselves, and ultimately our readers, on a journey during which we learn from our experience as we relive it on the page but maintain solid footing as we go. This solid footing comes partly as a consequence of the speaker of the writing revealing the reason he or she is urged to speech right now. Although as a writer, you may have been interested in your topic for a while, the speaker inside the writing must have an occasion upon which to start talking.
A journalist and technical writer approached me to coach her on personal essay writing. She wanted to describe her mother, an Italian immigrant who raised her daughter with gestures and words about the evil eye. She knew that her mother's old country superstitions had made a great impact on her, and she wanted to write about them as a way of exploring who she is as a mother raising her own children. The topic encompasses so much, however. It's that question again: Where to start? Well, what is the speaker's occasion? What prompts her to speech as the essay starts? Has she had an interaction with her son and responded in a way that reminds her of her mother? Is she facing a situation with her son that she doesn't know how to handle but thinks her mother would have handled by invoking fear of the evil eye? If this is so, she could start her essay with that situation and describe her hesitation about handling it and her knowledge about how her mother would have acted. Then she can write about what her mother taught her about the evil eye and what it takes to discourage it. She can write about the resulting effect on her thinking and feeling. Finally, she can return to the interaction with her son, ready to either do as her mother did or do something else she has figured out from thinking about her mother and her upbringing.
If you know the topic you want to write about or the subject you want to explore, and yet feel unable to make what is at the bottom of your heart and mind come into being on the page despite details, images, anecdotes and dialog, you might be confused about your occasion. Ask yourself this: "Why am I writing this essay now?" "Because I missed hearing Vin Scully at Dodger Park, and I missed having my dad there, too." "Because I caught myself in the act of doing something my mother had done in raising me, and I wanted to explore how her actions affected me so I might choose a different way of behaving as a parent."
Remember, your writing is a "made" thing. Once you realize why you are making it right now, you will find a way to start and end your writing. You can't know at the start what you or your characters will find out, but you can know by identifying the occasion for your writing what you or they are trying to find out about.
List five places you have visited—they can be local (as close as the rooms in your house or houses in your neighborhood), national, or international. Go back, and for each item on the list, write when you visited. List the most memorable moment you experienced there. Now, pick one item on the list and ask yourself what about it could urge you to speech right now (other than that you are doing an exercise!). Make that a first line, "It was in Madison, Wisconsin, that I learned just how much my father had sacrificed to raise a family." Then explain where you are in the locale as you experience the urge to speech:
We had driven for two days from northern New Jersey, my sister, my mother, my father and I, and we'd unpacked my suitcases of clothes and my portable typewriter. In those days, you really didn't furnish your dorm room with anything much; you just accepted the sparse furniture, and lack of a microwave and TV , and hoped your roommate might bring a phonograph or posters to hang. Now my father and I walked two abreast down the street leading from the dorm to nearby restaurants, my mother and sister behind us.
My dad turned to me, "These are the best years of your life. Enjoy them."
Remembering something in a particular place at a particular time begins to deliver an occasion for my writing. Here, my physical occasion is moving into my freshman dorm room. The emotional occasion is realizing, from what he told me, what becoming a dad when he was only 20 may have meant for my father about his longings.
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