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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Advice, Writing Prompts

Describing Faces: Significant Detail

Most novice writers, when describing their characters, mention only hair and eye color and figure they’re done. However, hair and eye color are the least telling aspects of a person. You don’t have to tell us a lot about how your character looks, but give us some physical details that set them apart from other people and somehow symbolize their character, such as a wide mouth for someone who is expressive and has lavish appetites, or a Roman nose for someone who has that certain gravitas.What we mean by significant detail, is detail that does double duty, that tells us how a person looks as well as how they feel or behave, what kind of personality they have. The length of their eyelashes or color their hat is irrelevant when they are setting by a hospital bed watching their mother die of cancer. However, their bitten fingernails or dark circles under their eyes are significant.

A good way to develop your ability to describe people is to practice. I’ve composed a series of faces, paired only by similarity of hair and eye color to show you how DIFFERENT people of the same hair and eye color look.

Directions: Spend 60 seconds per slide. Quickly write down what distinguishes one face from the other by describing one or both faces using concrete detail about the shape and composition of face and features. Think about the spacing of the nose or eyebrows, or about the shape of the chin or forehead. Do NOT use judgement words (such as pretty, handsome, ugly, mean) or make assessments about personality. Simply describe what you SEE. This can be hard, at first. Try one or two slides with your writing group or in class. Compare notes, then continue. If you get stuck, try some of the metaphors from the sites below.


500 Ways to Describe Faces: While I don’t hold with everything said on this site, it has some great ideas in the first three sections for face shape, colors and animal metaphors. For this exercise, avoid the opinion adjectives like (“frank” or “cheerful”). This is not a permanent ban, just a temporary one until you get a handle on really seeing and describing the physical.

Don’t stop practicing here. Keep a notebook with you or use your phone note taker, and when you’re standing in line at the store or sitting in a coffee shop, do some people watching and try to jot down one or two significant and distinguishing physical traits of the people in front of you. If you find you are always describing chins and noses, force yourself to notice different traits like forearms and feet.

Happy writing!

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Tools of the Trade, Uncategorized, Writing Prompts

Facing It: Poetry Writing Prompt

Kenneth Koch’s Rose Where Did You Get That Red is classic book of poetry invention exercises geared to fourth graders. He uses the structure and premise of existing poems as a template or recipe for a new poem. For example, the recipe you might extract from William Blake’s “Tyger” is: ask a magical creature how it was made and what makes it tick, and make each question describe an awe-inspiring aspect of the creature using metaphor. This recipe technique is a common writing prompt for adults, also.

Inspired by Koch and the “Where I’m From” poetry template broadly available online, I developed a template based on Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Facing It” which has resulted in some excellent student work in my college introduction to creative writing classes.

If you haven’t already, outlining some basic components of poetry reliably steers students in the right direction, especially those afraid of poetry.

Rough Poetry Rules

Poetry usually:

  • Uses images and more than one of the five senses to show rather than tell
  • Balances concrete and abstract word choices
  • Uses the space on page for evocation (line breaks to emphasize last and first words, white space and stanza breaks, etc)
  • Comes from the unconscious and speaks to the unconscious
  • Reverberates with more than one layer of meaning the more you read it
  • Uses language concisely (is compressed)
  • Involves leaps of association (from light to dark, inside to outside, etc)
  • Progresses (as in change of mood, plot, character-development, or perspective)

Good class discussions also occur when I ask students to extract their own recipes from published poems.

The Writing Prompt

Good video of Yusef Komunyakaa reading “Facing It” here.

Preparation: Yusef Komunyakaa’s  poem “Facing It” takes place in front of the black, reflective surface of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C.  Read the poem two or three times, each time asking students what images they remember ( as per Sheridan Blau’s literature workshop).  Note how Komunyakaa uses reflective surfaces to shift from outside to inside the reflection, from flesh to image, from surface to depth, from past to present, and from illusion to reality.

Directions for students:

Compose a poem following these steps. Break the rules wherever inspired. The numbered directions loosely correspond to the lines of the poem. When confused, notice how Komunyakaa’s poem does it and substitute your own images/ideas. Continue reading “Facing It: Poetry Writing Prompt”

Writing Prompts

Toenail-Tombstone: a Group Writing Prompt

typewriter.jpgAs I’ve mentioned somewhere before, I balk at the typical kind of writing prompt, like “Write about a secret” or “Imagine you just won an award.”

I like prompts that give you the material to manipulate, preferably with some element of chance, so that it causes you to trip over a stool and fall into a new piece of writing.

Here’s one I developed after walking in late on a session at a conference long ago. I never quite found out what the directions were or point was, so I developed my own.

Writing consists of splitting the brain between conscious and unconscious choice, between free association and deliberation. This exercise builds on that, isolating the activities so you can hone them in the same  way you would build up to a back hand spring.

Sit in a circle. Begin by warming the group up with quick associations. One person should say a word, say, toenail or pomegranate. The next person says the first thing that comes to mind, no pausing, no thinking, no passing. Then the next person says a word, then the next and the next. Keep it moving. If you freeze, say ugh, aaak!, lemon, blah, anything. Laughter is good. Do this until the words are flowing easily and no one is getting stuck. It may take as long as ten minutes.

Now slow down. Instead of choosing the first thing that comes to your mind, pause after the spoken word and allow your mind to leap from one word to the next until you come up with a peculiar, contrasting, truly unusual association, an association that causes friction or wonder. The next word should never be something that bears any close or common connection like toaster – oven. But toaster – tornado would be acceptable, or tornado – omelet.

Say the word slowly, savoring its flavor and texture.  Maybe even say it a few times, pronouncing short vowels long or long vowels short, or pronouncing odd spelling the way it looks, like veg-et-able, vege-table. Everyone should write it down on their pad.

If someone’s association is lame, don’t correct them. However the group facilitator may at some point ask people to slow down, pause longer and search farther. It is essential that that you not choose the first word that comes to mind, but the fourth or fifth, always going for the delightfully surprising, mysterious or strange. Do this until you have about 100 or so words – a thick, paragraph-sized chunk. Then throw it on a floured board and knead — oh wait, where was I?

Now write something and use every word in the chunk you collected.

Feel free to share results in your comments below!

Writing Prompts

Use the Random to Write

510-playing-cards-randomI read a poem in a magazine recently by someone famous who shall remain nameless, and it made absolutely no sense. Each line/image seemed random and unrelated to the next.  He/she then wrote an explanation of what the poem meant or what life experience it rose from, and again, it seemed to have nothing to do with the poem.  What a great writing prompt, I thought.  So here it is:

Write ten random sentences. Just look around you and write down ten thoughts that occur as you look. Be sure to get something concrete/physical/visual in each line.  Or if you’ve been writing in the same spot for 100 years and are sick of your surroundings, pick ten random lines from 10 different poems by other people. If you happen to miss-read the lines, even better.

Then write a preposterous explanation of what it all means.  Or, if you like, somehow fashion these 10 lines into a coherent piece, changing them all to make them your own, of course.

This exercise has never failed to generate new material for me. Hope it does the same for you.