Making Metaphors, Part II: Exercises

Like a lot of great poets, William Butler Yeats paid attention to verbs. Pitcured: A 1900 portrait of Yeats by his father, John Butler Yeats. Public domain

In the last issue I promised exercises to help you tone your metaphorical muscles. Here they are. Of course, simply reading them will only give you understanding. Doing them is the point. You don’t build muscle by reading about exercise.

EXERCISE 1

Get a group together, at least four people. Divide the participants into two equal groups. Each member of one group makes an arbitrary list of five interesting adjectives. At the same time, each member of group two makes an arbitrary list of five interesting nouns. Then their arbitrary lists are combined, usually resulting in some pretty strange combinations. For example,

adjectives | nouns

smoky | conversation

refried | railroad

decaffeinated | rainbow

hollow | rain forest

understated | eyebrows

Think about each combination for a minute. They evoke some interesting possibilities. Take any combination and try to write a sentence or short paragraph from it. Like this: “Since I got your phone call, everything seems dull. My day has been bleached of sound and color. Even the rainbow this afternoon has been decaffeinated.”

EXERCISE 2

Try writing a sentence or short paragraph for these combinations:

smoky conversation

refried railroad

hollow rain forest

understated eyebrows.

Now jumble them up into different combinations (for example, smoky eyebrows) and write a sentence or short paragraph for each one. The point of the exercise is to see what overtones (linking ideas, metaphors) are released by this blind striking of notes. Wonderful accidents happen frequently.

EXERCISE 3

Each member of one group makes an arbitrary list of five interesting verbs. At the same time, each member of group two makes an arbitrary list of five interesting nouns. Like these:

nouns | verbs

squirrel | preaches

wood stove | vomits

surfboard | cancels

reef | celebrates

aroma |palpitates

Again, take any combination and try to write a sentence or short paragraph from it. Like this: “The red squirrel scrambled onto the branch, rose to his haunches and began preaching to us, apparently cautioning us to respect the silence of his woodlands.”

Your turn.

Wood stove vomits

Surfboard cancels

Reef celebrates

Aroma palpitates

If you don’t already have a writers’ group, these exercises might be a good reason to start one. Just get some people together (even numbers are best) and start making arbitrary lists. Put your lists together and see what your combinations suggest.

One thing becomes clear right away: you get better results combining nouns and verbs than from combining adjectives and nouns. Verbs are the power amplifiers of language. They drive it; set it in motion. Look at any of the great poets — e.g., Yeats, Frost, Sexton, Eliot. If you actually go through some poems and circle their verbs, you will see why the poems crackle with power. Great writers know where to look. They pay attention to their verbs.

EXERCISE 4

Each member of group one makes an arbitrary list of five interesting nouns. At the same time, each member of group two also makes an arbitrary list of five interesting nouns. Like these:

nouns | nouns

summer | Rolls-Royce

ocean | savings account

thesaurus | paintbrush

Indian |beach ball

shipwreck | mattress

Remember the three forms of expressed identity, the first type of metaphor? Try these noun-noun collisions in each form. For example,

Summer is a Rolls-Royce

the Rolls-Royce of summer

summer’s Rolls-Royce

Summer is the Rolls-Royce of the seasons.

Winter is gone. Time for another ride in the Rolls-Royce of summer.

Once again, summer’s Rolls-Royce has collapsed into the iceboat of winter.

Your turn again. Use whatever form of expressed identity seems to work best. Write a sentence or short paragraph for the other four.

EXERCISE 5

After you have spent a few sessions discovering accidental metaphors through the previous exercises, you’ll be ready for the final method to activate the process: a five-step exercise guaranteed to open your metaphorical eyes and keep them open.

Step One: Make a list of five interesting adjectives. Then, for each one, find an interesting noun that creates a fresh, exciting metaphor. Take as long as you need for each adjective — hours, even days. Keep it in your vision. Push it against every noun you see until you create a breathtaking collision. Be patient. Developing a habit of looking takes time. It is the quality of your metaphors and the accumulated hours of practice that count here, not speed.

Remember that you can make vivid adjectives out of verbs: to wrinkle becomes the adjective wrinkled (wrinkled water) or wrinkling (the wrinkling hours.) These are called participles. Remember?

Step Two: Now make a list of five interesting nouns, and locate a terrific verb for each one. This will be harder, since you’re used to looking at things in the world, not actions. Again, take your time. Develop a habit of mind that can see a doe stepping through the shallows as the water wrinkles into circles around her.

Step Three: Make a list of five interesting verbs and track down a noun for each one. Most likely, you’ve never looked at the world from this angle before. You’ll find it unnatural, challenging and fun.

Step Four: Make a list of five interesting nouns and find an adjective for each one. (Don’t forget about participles.)

Step Five: Make a list of five interesting nouns and find another noun for each one. Use whatever form of expressed identity you think works best.

This last step brings you full circle. You’ve looked at the world from the vantage point of nouns, verbs and adjectives. This is a practical result: Because you’ve developed a habit of looking, you’ll see countless opportunities to create metaphors in your writing. After all, you run into nouns, verbs and adjectives pretty frequently …

These exercises focus your creative attention on a practical way to find metaphors using expressed identity, qualifying metaphors and verbal metaphors. You don’t have to wait for a grand bolt of inspiration. Simply look at the word you’re on, and ask,

1. What characteristics does this idea have?

2. What else has those characteristics?

Then watch ideas tumble out onto your page.

Pat Pattison is a professor at Berklee College of Music, where he teaches lyric writing and poetry.