Some of my prompts have titles; this one is “Similes and Metaphors.”
First, I ask everyone to make a list down the left-hand margin of five nouns and five verbs ending in “ing.” This is a free write, so I remind them to just write whatever words pop into their heads.
Then I have them write “is like” next to each of those words, setting up the foundation for a simile.
Next, I have them finish the phrase using whatever words come to mind, or borrowing from other words on their lists. So we get phrases like, “Coffee tables are like friendships,” and “Kisses are like promises,” or Flying is like freedom.”
We each choose one of these and read them around to hear the variations.
Next, we cross out the phrase “is like” and create a metaphor. Now we have, “Coffee tables are friendships,” and “Kisses are promises.” Very different indeed.
As with all of my list exercises, I have everyone choose three that they’d feel comfortable reading out loud, and we read them around, leaving enough time between each reader to write down any we find inspiring or interesting in any way.
Finally, we choose one, write it at the top of a blank page, and begin writing, using the metaphor as a prompt, repeating it if and when we feel stuck. We write for twenty minutes.
My metaphor was, “Postcards are memories.” Here’s what I wrote:
The most difficult part of death is what’s left behind: furniture, photos, letters, people. My inheritance is in a few small spaces: the flat leather box on his old dresser (now mine), the box I bought to hold my cufflinks (and his), the orange Le Creuset pots and pans (and a new matching gratin pan I bought for myself), the wine box stuffed with photo albums (some black and white photos with scalloped edges, and color photos, of which I own most of the duplicates). And then there’s that envelope of letters and cards. They’re all letters and cards we sent to him—all five of us—as far back as 1986, including that silly card I wrote to him when I moved out of the house (a card that read, “I’m so proud of us”).
These items—and his two marble-topped coffee tables (one went to my brother and the other went to me)—are his whole estate. No one needed to manage that, but the envelope of cards and letters somehow came to me, so I divided them up, gave each pile to the appropriate sibling, and read through my own pile in chronological order, a record of my life in communication with him.
The postcards I kept separate—that part of my life that began at thirty and continued for fifteen more years of his life—France, England, Italy, Germany, Mexico. Later, on a Baltic Sea cruise, I would send one from every country I visited (except Russia); I nearly missed the shuttle back to the ship in Estonia, determined to find postage stamps and a mailbox on a Saturday afternoon.
I became obsessive about sending him postcards whenever I traveled, partially because I knew he’d appreciate being there with me in that cafe moment, and partially because I felt guilty traveling to places he’d never been to and would never get to: British Columbia, Quebec, Switzerland, the Bahamas. He saved every one of them.
The last few years of his life, my sister pinned several of these postcards to the wall of his tiny room in the nursing home. It didn’t take more than an hour or so to pack up what was left of his long life. I saved the postcards for last, reading each one as I took them down, savoring the thought of my sister reading them out loud to him as they arrived, re-tracing my steps, seeing myself through his eyes all over again.