The magical metaphor machine

Peter Sansom’s Writing Poems (Bloodaxe Books 1994) is one of the best introductions to writing poetry I’ve come across. On page 76 Peter offers a technique called The Furniture Game which, he says, ‘lends itself to working in groups of four’. You think of someone famous and write about them as if they were a piece of furniture, the weather, an animal and so forth. Peter offers the example of the Queen: “‘a stiffbacked ornate chair in a mansion.’ For weather she would of course be ‘raining’” (Sansom 76).

It’s a technique I’ve used in the context of therapeutic writing with individuals who are bereaved or depressed. The words to describe the low feelings that accompany those conditions can be hard to articulate, but the invitation to describe yourself as an item of furniture or clothing, or a type of music, can be liberating. It can work at the start and end of a session too, as a form of checking in and checking out. I’ve noticed that someone who describes themselves as a thunder cloud before a writing session may become (for example) sunshine after rain by its close.

Metaphors are so much a part of our natural daily speech that we hardly notice them, but just as they add colour to our conversation, so they can bring alive a piece of writing in prose or poetry. It isn’t hard to generate them. Here’s a technique I’ve been trying out with writing groups recently; a sort of metaphor machine.

Take a big theme; something meaty into which you can sink your metaphorical teeth – life, love, friendship, anger, joy, despair, happiness, the sun, moon, stars, earth… go for it. Write freely for five minutes about your theme, using as many adjectives as you can think of including unusual and off the wall ones. This is your chance to rid yourself of the obvious adjectives and clichés and to start exploring wilder shores. One word I would use to describe the sun at the moment in England, for example, is ‘absent’.

When you have a page brimming with descriptions, start a new page and make a list of similes. Take inspiration from your descriptions, if it helps, and write them out in full: for example, ‘The sun is a like an absent friend.’

Once you have your list, take each simile a step further by adding an action to it. So, ‘the sun is like an absent friend, refusing to return’. Next, take your strongest simile and strike out the word ‘like’. This leaves you (ta da!) with a metaphor: ‘the sun is an absent friend refusing to return.’  You might want to apply your cliché alert at this point, just in case you’ve strayed from the path of true creativity, but once you have a good cluster of original metaphors the fun can begin.

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