Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 49.
So we’ve been working on gaps, and implication, and avoidance, nudging readers towards conclusions without spelling it out for them, ways in which characters might be passive-aggressive or sly or unaware, but we’ve not really yet swung the interrogator’s lamp back on you. What are you avoiding? What can’t you say?
That’s an unnecessarily aggressive segue into today’s exercise, so let’s dial it back a bit. Don’t worry, it’s not going to be that confrontational. I did warn you at the beginning of the course that there are going to be sections that challenge you, bits that bring you up against aspects of yourself or your life or your aspirations in a way that doesn’t feel a hundred percent comfortable. I mean, I’m sure just sitting down to write repeatedly, often in new or bizarre ways, has been less than comfortable for you sometimes.
But I have no intention of trying to break you down, or doing a kind of drill instructor style bollocking, or pushing you to some threshold where you fall apart and have to try to build yourself again from the ground up. I think these moments of encounter do exist in artistic practice – and in life – but they’re often subtler than this big oppositional clash, and they arise as a sort of gradually intensifying crisis that you can’t really plan.
I suspect, at some point during the course, you’ll come up against some feelings, some doubt, some internal barrier, and the moment or moments that happens will be different for every individual who works through these exercises. I’m not going to try to engineer those encounters. I think that might end up being a bit contrived. But I thought I’d acknowledge the possibility of their happening now, as we turn towards some more personal work, just so if and when they do, or if and when they have, you understand that they’re normal, expected, and that you take the time to process them.
When teaching writers on retreat I get to be there when they hit those barriers, discuss it with them, and suggest strategies for working through them. I can’t do that in the same way with this course, so it’s your responsibility to be aware of the possibility, the likelihood even, and to accept a duty of care towards yourself.
We’ve been looking at emotions and I’m always interested in you, as a writer, thinking about what emotions you feel most comfortable writing about, conveying on the page, and what emotions you feel most comfortable writing from, if that makes sense. Do your ideas tend to come from a place of wonder and enthusiasm, or do you get fired up by anger, or do you write therapeutically out of longing and grief? Maybe many or all of those things.
Over the last two days you’ve tried writing a scene infused by two different emotions. For the purposes of today’s exercise I’d like you to come up with an emotion or feeling or sensation you’d really like to get to know better. Now I use all three of those words advisedly because I’m absolutely okay with your going outside the bounds of what we might consider the cardinal emotions if you want to, you know: happiness, sadness, anger, fear. Although those are fine, too.
I’m just saying you could also have: greed, lust, panic, excitement. You can break it down as finely as you want, too: disgust, revulsion, loathing, antipathy – they’re all related but any one might have slightly different connotations for you. You could even pick pain, agony, titillation, boredom, focus. Things that might not be emotions exactly but they’re subjective states.
Now it’s up to you whether you alight on one you’re particularly interested in, or maybe one that feels unfamiliar to you – maybe even one that you feel particularly awkward about writing. Fortunately the format for today’s exercise is going to afford you some distance. We’re going to work in metaphor.
So once you’ve picked your emotion, your sensation, your mood, whatever it is, for the ten minutes you’re going to write a list that works like this. You’ll take the emotion, let’s say you picked envy. And in a second I’m going to give you a list to write down before you begin, a list of categories or things. Like fruit, animal, building. And for each of those categories, when your time begins, you’re going to construct a metaphor. And all your metaphors are going to start, ‘X is…’ So in this example, under fruit you might write:
Envy is a, hmm… what could envy be? I’d like you to get as specific as you can but also remember you’re not constrained by logic or rationality. Just as in yesterday’s exercise, feel free to go weird, surreal, to experiment.
I mean what did we learn right back at the start of the course? If in doubt, list. It’s easier to come up with six ideas than one. So don’t feel like you have to restrict yourself to one answer and spend ages over it. Better – and this is counterintuitive, I realise, which is why it’s worth returning to now and reinforcing – to rattle out several answers quickly. It’s like creating a series of prototypes. You get to see the rough shape of some possible answers which you’re then free to evaluate and refine.
So under fruit you might write: Envy is a poisoned apple. Envy is a bloated, overripe satsuma, oozing into the bowl. Envy is a rotten peach crushed in a fist. Envy is a glassy tangerine. Envy is an historical plum.
I don’t even know what most of those mean, or why I chose them. We’re not going for perfect, we’re firing ordnance off in all directions and rangefinding. You can try to come up with an apposite metaphor, for sure, you know, ‘Rage is a howling baboon’ or something like that. But don’t think that sort of answer is intrinsically any better than ‘Rage is a Glaswegian rhinoceros in the stairwell at 3am, bathed in a greenish light, dreaming of a bloodless storm.’ Just for the purposes of this exercise, I invite you to accept the premise that rationality and nonsense are linked by a million dendrites and exist in exquisite dialogue.
So that’s it, basically. If you can get ready I’ll list the categories that I’d like you to make metaphors up in, once you’ve decided your emotion, sensation or feeling. You can write as many or as few as you’d like, and make each one as long or short as you’d like. My main guidance is that specific is usually better.
So, are you ready to note down the categories? Here we go:
Item of clothing.
Way of getting someone’s attention.
Type of weather.
That’s it. Those are my suggestions. You can work through just a few of those or, if you run out, invent your own at the end.
Time for you to take the reins. Pick an emotion, then hammer out some metaphors, both subtle and baroque. Are you ready? Of course you are. Three… two… one… go.
And that’s it. You done it.
I hope some of that was useful to you. I suspect some felt a bit brain-melting or forced. Metaphors and similes are – I think, and this is just a personal preference – best when you limit yourself to one a page, max. Otherwise it’s like when you have multiple burger vans in very close proximity at a festival, all with sound systems blasting different music, and passing through the zones of overlap feels like you’re strapped to a chair undergoing enhanced interrogation procedures.
Or you can go all in and embrace turning the reader’s cortex to shuddering blancmange. This is writing. There are no rules. Only norms. Your only responsibility is to stay alive to the effects you’re producing.
Right. You know what tomorrow is, don’t you. You know it. Flipping heck. I’ll see you then.