Additional Exercises to Build Your "Good Writing" Muscles Help (page 3)
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.
Practicing Writing in Persona
It is true that even the most autobiographical writing creates its own persona from the material of one's life. The persona created for the page is always more cohesive than you, the one living the events. When we refer to persona writing, though, we usually mean the creation of a voice for something or someone very different than the writer. In first-person poetry or prose, that voice may be one of an historical figure, an appliance, or an animal. It can utilize the words and worldview of a teenager, a prison inmate or escapee, a celebrity, a detective, a car repairman, or a slacker, as long as that persona is not one the author can attribute to him or herself.
In viewing the world through the impressions of another or an inanimate object, the writer seeks insight and evocation otherwise not as freshly or convincingly stated. It's a transferable lesson: Practicing this kind of writing helps you develop your skill in inventing characters as well as in creating cohesive first-person speakers.
Believe you are your toaster. Believe you have gone out to find the perfect soul mate for yourself or to find a lover or a good companion. This might be a person who you believe will have just the right touch on the lever that gets you hot or an appliance that works the same hours as you do. Write what is going on inside the toaster's head as he/she searches and perhaps finds someone or something. Remember to think specifically about where the toaster is—a grocery store, a state fair, on a counter in the employees' lunch room; anything is possible. If you'd like to imagine yourself as a different appliance, go ahead.
Here's another idea: Select someone prominent in national, world, or local events. Have that persona hiding from the public and thinking about a situation, while eating a specific food. For instance, golf star Tiger Woods might be ripping pieces of a pizza and feeding seagulls in a picnic area while he reflects on the impacts of his unwanted 2009 notoriety for having affairs. President Obama might be eating roasted chestnuts on the steps of the Hayden Planetarium in New York and thinking about his historic election. What is important is that you can fully imagine the persona's actions, observations, and questions, as well as the place you have him or her thinking and eating. Write until the persona you have chosen says something that surprises you and/or seems to resolve or come to grips with his or her topic.
Practice Dialog in Conjunction with Persona
There is a full discussion of dialog in Part Four, but it is valuable to learn to use commands and questions to evoke feelings and thoughts on topics you are writing about in any genre.
Let's look at the strategies of authors Jamaica Kincaid and Bruce Holland Rogers. In her short story "Girl" (www.turksheadreview.com/library/texts/kincaid-girl.html), Jamaica Kincaid uses commands throughout. They are snatches of dialog that have become inscribed in the character's consciousness:
Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don't walk barehead in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak your little cloths right after you take them off; when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn't have gum on it, because that way it won't hold up well after a wash; soak salt fish overnight before you cook it; is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school? Always eat your food in such a way that it won't turn someone else's stomach…
As the story continues with the words the character's Caribbean mother spoke to her daughter, the phrase "slut you are so bent on becoming" is repeated several times. At the very end, when the daughter finally asks a question ("What if the baker won't let me feel the bread?") the answer is, "…you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won't let near that bread?" The lines in the story evoke the stifling fear and lack of freedom in this girl's upbringing, as well as maddening gender-related oppression.
Bruce Holland Rogers' story "How Could a Mother?" (www.vestalreview.net/howcould.htm) is written all in questions. The effect is horrifying and haunting. Though there is no answer supplied to any of the questions, the content of each question builds the readers' understanding of the situation:
When was it that your daughter—when was it that Josie started to cry? What was your state of mind when you punished her? What were you thinking when she wouldn't stop crying? Did your boyfriend say anything about Josie's crying…
What time did you wake up? How soon after you woke up did you check on your daughter? You could tell right away?
At this story's end, the focus shifts and draws the reader closer to the underlying subject of the story, which is that if we are honest, we realize that we, too, have experienced an urge to disastrous violence:
Do you have any thoughts about the question no one can answer? Not the one everyone asks, but the one only a mother who has felt her own hands shake with a rage that is bigger than she is can ask?
To practice using dialog, write a story all in commands. Think about ways you have been taught to behave in specific roles, places, or jobs. Choose the voice of someone who irritates you or has trapped you into doing something their way or behaving as they want you to. Next, write a piece entirely in questions. Fully imagine to whom you are asking the questions. Perhaps you are a mom who found her 18-year-old drunk and throwing up, or perhaps you work under someone who has very strict rules. Perhaps you are disappointed in how your behavior in a particular situation affected others. Alternatively, choose the voice of someone you admire. See how the feelings evoked by the same method are completely different.
Practice Building Scenes
It's nearly impossible to write without at least some scene building. Even so, too often we don't do enough scene building and that leads to telling rather than showing. In Part Four, there is more discussion about writing scenes, but here is an exercise to get you started seeing how recording the details in a scene helps you grow your writing.
For this exercise, I write descriptions of places I've been to recently:
Dr. Ottoman's office is not crowded this morning. One of the office assistants is playing with a toddler in a designated play area, with a sunken square of floor and large plastic primary-colored toys. The little girl is giggling and running out into the main waiting room. The office assistant lures her back with a blue truck. The waiting room chairs are made of blond wood and pink upholstered cushions. Magazines for adults and children rest neatly against a far wall, held in wooden-slatted racks. Medical records hang with brightly colored tabs in file carts behind the receptionist's counter. When the nurse swings into the room from a door beside the magazines, she calls, "Penny Sharp? The doctor is ready for you." Three people look up, two women and one man. The younger and heavier of the two women gets up and walks toward the nurse, using a cane, and her large black purse swings near her hip, its silver buckle catching the sunlight through the window. Just as she and the nurse are headed through the door, a young woman approaches the door from the exam room side. She waits a moment while Penny and the nurse slowly walk through the doorway. When she steps into the waiting room, the young mother hurries to scoop up the toddler and then stands at the receptionist's counter to make her next appointment. The toddler pulls at her mother's hair and her mother gently takes the little girl's fingers away. As the little girl rides out of the office on her mother's hip, an elderly man enters the office using a walker. His back is curled over it like the hump in the young mother's ponytail. For a moment, it looks like he is headed to the play area, but he takes a seat, his walker parked just on the edge of the sunken area, standing like a guard railing to keep the blue and yellow plastic vehicles from entering the pedestrian-only area of the waiting room.
Then for fun, I drop a character into the scene, myself or someone I know or someone I have invented. In this case that someone, the she, is a composite of several people I know:
She was so relieved that Dr. Ottoman's office was not crowded. She had no idea, really, why she had said yes to accompanying her mother to this appointment. But doing this would give her a chance to show that she had gone out of her way, staying over a night after a Sunday afternoon visit with her mother. She hadn't wanted to stay over. She was much too busy to not wake up in her own bed and get going, long vacations she blocked out months ahead excluded. Seeing her mother for an afternoon once every quarter, now that it took two hours to drive there, she could keep to her schedule and not have to miss her social and community service activities. It was hard enough to squeeze them all in around the regular trips she and her husband made to visit their daughter who lived across the country. And she also liked taking trips abroad every year, real trips like she'd always admired her father for planning. She liked doing impressive things like he had.
As she sat waiting, she thought about the calls she'd make to figure out one more stretch of lodging for the trip to Australia only a few months away. One of the office assistants was playing with a toddler at the back of the room in a small sunken square of floor with large plastic primary-colored toys. The little girl's giggling and running were very distracting. Thank God the office assistant lured her back into the center of the play area with a blue truck. She didn't need a toddler coming over to start her mother reaching into her purse for some treat or other to engage the child's interest. She glanced over at her mother sitting quietly in the waiting room chair beside her, a square-ish blond wood and pink upholstered affair, not nearly as modern as the stainless steel and leather chairs in the city doctor's office. When she saw the magazines stored neatly in racks against the far wall, she got up to find one that might have articles about traveling. She'd been thinking of the Caribbean or Fiji or maybe some islands off Spain for a next trip after Australia. As she passed the receptionist's counter with carts and carts of medical records behind it, she raised her head slightly up and to the right, comparing things. This little town did seem to have its act together, she had to admit, but it sure would have been easier for her if her mother had stayed in the city. It was more fun, if you could call it that, to bring her books from Costco and cans of seltzer and Diet Coke on her way back from doing her own shopping, than it was to make the trip out here.
The nurse swung into the room. "Penny Sharp? The doctor is ready for you." Penny walked toward the nurse using a cane, her large black purse swinging near her hip, its silver buckle catching the sunlight through the window, spilling coins of light on the walls and upholstery. Fifty bucks, that's what she calculated the trip out here cost between ferry fares and gas.
An elderly man with a walker entered the office. He took a seat at the back of the room and parked his walker on the edge of the sunken area. From where she sat, the walker looked like it was keeping the blue and yellow plastic vehicles where they belonged. She looked again at her mother. She had no idea why she was needed here.
As I dropped my character into this scene, I wrote without stopping and then went back and did a little revising to make sure I had the scene as much from the character's point of view as I could manage. I went from 300 or so words to more than double that almost effortlessly. It's a good idea to give yourself a chance to write, write, write without wondering how you are going to shape something. In this way, you can gain confidence that starting with where you are or what you remember brings material you can have fun developing.
Think of a place you can describe in detail. Write a description of 250–350 words. Put the description away for a few hours or a day. Take it out and think of a character to drop into the scene and write from that character's viewpoint and life situation. As you do this exercise, pay attention to how you alter the scene to make it work from the dropped-in character's point of view. Some details might become important, while others are no longer important. More details might come to mind.
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