Advice, Writing Prompts

Describing Oranges: Writing Metaphor

Metaphor is a natural human invention. We all do it. But some people have forgotten how to do it intentionally and originally. “Sun-kissed skin” is a common metaphor, now a cliché. “I was thunderstruck” is such a common metaphor we don’t even think of it as metaphor. “We’re just chilling,” is a metaphor that has lost its element of surprise but is effective.

This exercise will help you conjure vivid vivid metaphor AND learn about the power of synesthesia. Some of the questions were inspired by Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers, an invaluable book, written all the way back in 1973!

Synesthesia is actually a neuro-a-typical condition some people have, where the their senses are cross-wired. For example, they might hear sounds when they see colors or vice versa. It can be a mild condition that enhances writing, or can be extreme and disabling. For writers, it’s a great way to create an ethereal, other worldly, altered state sensation. Give yourself at least 35 minutes to try this. If doing it in class, pause between steps to have students share to assure them when they are on a productive track and steer them when they aren’t.

As with any writing prompts on my site, you are welcome to use them in class, just please mention my name and provide a link to my work. Thanks!

DIRECTIONS (Reserve at least 35 minutes. 60 minutes if sharing)

Take a piece of fruit–oranges are good, but strawberries also work well. Slice it up and distribute. It’s important not to try to do this from memory, but to have the physical object in front of you.

Step 1: Objective Observation and Description ~5 minutes

Describe the fruit physically using all five senses. Keep pen to paper for the entire five minutes. Try to see this orange in a way that you’ve never seen it before. Do not write what you think about it, only what you physically perceive. Avoid metaphor here. Just be a scientist logging what you observe with all senses.

  • Look and describe it in extreme physical detail
  • Touch it and describe
  • Listen to it and describe (twist the rind, taste and listen)
  • Smell it and describe
  • Taste it and describe

Step 2: Free-Association, a Brainstorming Session ~ 5 minutes

Write everything that oranges make you think of. What do you associate them with? This is a a very quick brainstorming exercises exercise where you do very little thinking and choosing; you just blurt. Don’t worry about whether it makes any sense. The definition of brainstorming is that no idea is wrong or stupid. Put it all down whether it makes sense or not, but keep coming back to the fruit and branch out from there.

Step 3: Create Metaphor-Brainstorming and Selecting ~7 minutes

You are now being asked to free-associate like in Step 2, but to go one step further…keep free-associating until you find a truly unusual correspondence between two things which on the surface are very different, but which in some essence are similar. In other words, brainstorm, but don’t always chose the first thing you come up with, keep brainstorming until you find certain resonance between the physical sense of the orange and the animal or thing you are comparing it. When you find the right word, you will literally feel a sense of release or expansion in your body, an internal “ah,” where the feeling and the words reverberate with each other and make each other seem bigger or more rich. If you don’t experience any of this, don’t worry, just be silly. Be selective, but don’t be overly selective. If you stall, throw something down and move to the next question.

  1. Smell it. How does the smell move inside your nose? (I love this, because scent is VERY evocative of other emotions, but also hard to describe concretely. This is a great workaround… does it bubble, fizz, explode, creep…?
  2. Smell it. If the smell was a kind of animal with a distinctive movement, what kind of animal would it be?
  3. Taste it. If the taste was an event (party, conference, church service, battle, etc…) what kind of event would it be?
  4. Look at it: What kind emotion is the color of this fruit?
  5. Imagine: If this fruit was a building (office building, Guggenheim Museum, hut, etc…) what kind of building would it be? And if you went inside this building, what would it be like?
  6. Free-Associate: If this fruit was a kind of weather, what kind weather, what kind of weather would it be?
  7. Feel it. Focus on the feel/texture of this fruit. If the feeling or texture was a certain habitat (beach, forest, desert, suburb, city), what kind of habitat would it be?
  8. Listen to it: When you bend the skin next to your ear (watch your eyes!) or when you chew on the fruit, what does it sound does it sound like? What other things sound like this?
  9. Imagine: If this fruit were an instrument, what would it be and how would it sound if you played it?
  10. If this was a form of transportation, what would it be? Train, plain, ox-cart? What would it feel like to ride it?

See? Who needs drugs. All the benefits and none of the side effects.

Step 4: Read and Select ~ 2 minutes

Read over this mad scribble and underline anything you like. Don’t try to pick out things that relate or make sense, you’re just looking for the most vivid nuggets, the things you wrote that truly surprised you, that maybe don’t even sound like you.

Step 5: Revise and Shape ~10 minutes

Fashion some kind of statement about oranges in a paragraph or three, making sure that it is full of surprising images and physical descriptions and associations. From that, you could turn it into flash fiction or poetry, using line breaks. Try to find the revelation buried in the piece, the moment when something is discovered, or a leap of association is made that is particularly thought provoking. Put that at the end of the piece. Voila!


To learn more about synesthesia, watch this video Seeing Sound and search for others.

Examples of metaphors: eagle
was perched on a jag of burnt pine,
insolent and gorged, cloaked in the folded storms
of his shoulders...   - Robinson Jeffers
Summer was slack
a dog chain with it's dog gone... - Michael Chitwood
Examples of synesthesia:
The oriole, a charred and singing coal
still burns aloud among the monuments... - Amy Clampitt
The dark hills at evening in the west
Where sunset hovers like a sound
Of golden horns that sang to rest
Old bones of warriors underground  - Edwin Arlington Robinson

Please comment below- adding ideas, links to other prompts or letting me know how it went!

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