Similes on the Spot

Raging Bull Roller Coaster How to Write a Poem Similes on the Spot
When you live ten minutes from a major amusement park and hate roller coasters, you spend a lot of time sitting on benches waiting for other people to disembark.

Upon finding myself with downtime in public, I usually stop first at my iPhone. I won’t pretend I’m above checking Facebook notifications amidst the scent of funnel cakes on a golden fall day. But I can also turn these often mindless moments into poetry, a quick on-the-spot habit worth practicing at least a few times a week.

Raging Bull is one of the highest-thrill coasters at Six Flags Great America. It starts with a turn, climbs a hill, then drops 208 feet into a tunnel before hammer-heading and helixing, reaching a top speed of 73 miles per hour. You couldn’t pay me to ride it. But over the years, I’ve grown quite fond of observing it from afar.

Recently, while waiting for my husband and kids to finish flinging themselves through the clouds, I decided to use that time to create some similes on the spot.

Similes are just metaphors that use direct comparison words, such as “like” or “as.”

During a typical poetry unit, much fuss can be made about differentiating among similes, metaphors, and personification, but they’re basically all figurative language–speaking about one thing in terms of another. The point isn’t memorizing terms as much as learning to think metaphorically.

Metaphor: The electric bass was a thunderstorm
Simile: The electric bass sounded like thunder
Personification: The electric bass growled at me

Infusing your poetry with figurative language turns it from merely descriptive writing into a transformative experience for the reader. While adjectives offer a surface understanding of an object, metaphors invite the mind to re-envision it.

Compare these two sentences:

The electric bass was loud.
The electric bass rumbled through the house like a line of tanks.

You can practice writing this way anywhere, any time. Writer’s block? Never a concern. As long as you have the five senses, you’ll always have five good ideas. Here are a few similes I “jotted” on my notes app as I observed the first, steep lift of the Raging Bull:

The roller coaster is like. . .

Sight: a tangerine peel, a bull’s horns
Sound: car parts dropped into a dump, skeletons in chains
Touch: a chill across the skin, the shiver before a sneeze

Now, unless I want to be kicked out of the park, I can’t very well taste the roller coaster. Smell it? Perhaps, but I’d have to get too close for my liking. But what if I were to imagine the senses that aren’t readily available? Confusing the senses, an actual medical phenomenon, is known as synesthesia. Sometimes the brain/sense communication pathways get disrupted, causing a patient to taste cinnamon, perhaps, upon “hearing” a violin. It’s a rare and maddening disorder. However, in the world of writing, synesthesia can be redeemed for poetic good.

If the roller coaster had a smell, what would it be? How would I describe the “smell” and “taste” of that 200-foot climb?

Smell: the iron scent of blood
Taste: overdose of red pepper

These similes may read more obscurely than the others, but they come from a visceral, sensory response in my imagination.

Try it yourself. Next time you’re in line, waiting for an oil change, or just sitting for a moment with your morning coffee, type or write down the five senses, fix your attention on an object, and imagine some similes. They don’t have to “make sense.”

That roller coaster climb isn’t steep and suspenseful. It’s an insuck of hot pepper, the iron scent of blood, a clank of bones I’ll stay far away from, thank you. But I might write a scary poem or two.

Photo by Patrick McGarvey, Creative Commons, via Flickr.

How to Write a Halloween Poem

Graveyard in the Red Woods Halloween Spooky How to Write a Halloween Poem
As I survey the ever-growing violence of Halloween displays in my neighborhood, I wonder if we’ve begun to replace fear and mystery with plain old boring gore.

Bodies hanging from trees, intestines spilling from graves, and all manner of dismembered, bloody zombies: where’s the imagination?

Luckily, I have some tips (tricks?) for writing a Halloween poem that will send shivers down the spine–because your words will be that chillingly fresh. Let’s use the power of poetry to recapture the meaning of “spooky.”

There are plenty of Halloweenish poems out there beyond Poe’s classic The Raven. One of my new favorites is “Theme in Yellow” by Carl Sandburg.

Theme in Yellow

I spot the hills
With yellow balls in autumn.
I light the prairie cornfields
Orange and tawny gold clusters
And I am called pumpkins.
On the last of October
When dusk is fallen
Children join hands
And circle round me
Singing ghost songs
And love to the harvest moon;
I am a jack-o’-lantern
With terrible teeth
And the children know
I am fooling.

—Carl Sandburg

Read the poem aloud several times and see what you notice. How do the images, colors, sounds and lines make you feel the way you do? (For more details about exploring poems, check out How to Read a Poem, which digs deeply into those messy, tasty poetic innards.)

One site describes this Sandburg poem as “harmless” and “cute.” Oh, I beg to differ.

No matter how many times I read this poem, the last four lines strike me as creepy. Perhaps the enjambment and lack of comma before “And,” turning this clause into a run-on, is just enough to add a breathlessness that makes me not so sure the children are completely fooled as they chant beneath that full moon.

How do you read “Theme in Yellow?” And how can this poem inspire you to write your own?

1) Make one person or object your star

You don’t need to replicate an entire graveyard cast of characters to write a scary poem. Sandburg focuses on a pumpkin. Paisley Rekdal, in her stunning poem Bats, focuses, well, on bats (though the poem, like most good poems, is about so much more). By zeroing in on one subject, you are more likely to write about it in detail and make it come alive.

Need some ideas?

• Cats. But maybe a white one.
• A piece of candy left in the street
• Something hidden under a pile of leaves
• A costume malfunction
• An egg-smeared window
• The cousin of Frankenstein
• A runaway mummy
• Those plastic spider rings everyone hates

2) Wake the senses

Halloween is all about laying your eyes on scary sights, hearing the howl of wind, getting goosebumps, and tasting candy corn. Notice how Sandburg not only describes the visions and colors of the scene but implies feeling and sound by touching the air with the chill of dusk and ghostly songs. Take a moment to freewrite about your subject first, exploring every sense that comes to mind. Sometimes you may need to use similes, metaphors, or personification to see your subject in a different light–or darkness.

3) Don’t say it all

What makes most poems and stories spooky is knowing when to stop. If you don’t use any sensory language, of course, you won’t grab your reader in the first place. But if you overkill, so to speak, telling them exactly what to experience to the very end, well, that’s the suburban lawn covered with plastic corpses. (For more on the tingly subject of Mystery, see the book How to Write a Poem).

Sandburg leaves us wondering about the pumpkin’s “fooling.” What mystery can you leave in your poem?

4) Make it a treat

Why keep your poem to yourself this Halloween? Post online for friends to read or even give one away on the spooky night itself. Just make sure you attach it to a piece of candy first, or you will wake up to the scariest Halloween sight ever: toilet paper hanging in your front yard’s skeletal trees.

Photo by Andrew Mason, Creative Commons, via Flickr.

How to Write a Poem

Check out How to Write a Poem!

How to Break Your “Writer’s Block”

Writer's Block and Wicker Chairs
I don’t believe in writer’s block. With kids, dogs, work, and Facebook to keep up with, I don’t have time to get stuck. I’ve got to find a way to write when my busy schedule allows.

But what if my brain turns cloudy during my allotted thirty minutes before the bus drops its noisy cargo home from school? How do I write a poem then?

In How to Write a Poem, I offer strategies for getting writing: now. All it takes is a few minutes, a piece of paper or computer screen, and an idea.

According to Peter Elbow, author of the classic Writing Without Teachers, freewriting opens the power of your voice, while “premature editing. . .makes writing dead. Your voice is damped out by all the interruptions, changes, and hesitations between consciousness and the page.”

In other words, you catch “writer’s block.”

Freewriting allows you to get words down on the page without the perfectionism that might cause you to hesitate and stall. It produces surprising phrases and lines you can later shape, rewrite, and, yes, edit through several dozen drafts. Revising means good craftsmanship—unless you grab that red pen right out of the gate. Because self-censorship at the beginning of the process is a word killer. And a blank page is, well, nothing.

But how do you even begin freewriting? You can find plenty of creative, emotion-provoking, and just plain quirky prompts in How to Write a Poem. You can also call upon your friends.

Wanting to write something different this morning, I messaged my friend Nate for an idea:

“Quick. Give me a writing prompt.”

He replied with the following:

“Describe something seemingly gross or disgusting in a way that ‘redeems’ or ‘beautifies’ the subject.”

So I set my timer for five minutes (I recommend anywhere from five to ten) and went for it. Whatever came to mind, no stopping, cross-outs or backspaces allowed.

I won’t share with you exactly what I ended up with. It’s…um, something that even friends might not want to read (definitely not before lunch or after dinner). I will, however, give you some of the cool highlights I could draw out of it if I wanted to shape it into something… readable.

– This morning Esther the puppy

– Lemon yellow, sun yellow, girls in sundresses yellow

– puppy pearl knives in swaying ropes

– garlands of daisies catching the sun from the window just now accepting the morning.

– The day will bake up something, I know, something this pure gold like the swirling, curly leaves that blow across the front years

– October tomorrow. Where do those leaves come from? my daughter asks.

– We don’t have any trees like that anywhere.

Sure, it’s a mess. But it’s a sensory, colorful. Elbow says, “in your natural way of producing words there is a sound–a texture, a rhythm, a voice–which is the main source of power in your writing.” I know there is a voice seeping, so to speak, from this mass of words. Now I need to spend some time uncovering it.

● What surprises me? Entertains me? Makes me catch my breath?
● What words or images jump out?
● Where is the power source of my voice?

And then, with hope and an open mind:

● Can I find any seeds of poems?

What do you see in these words?

Moreover, what do you have to say today? Do you have five minutes? A pen or a screen? Take a prompt–perhaps even the one I used today–and go.

Photo by Randy McRoberts, Creative Commons, via Flickr.