Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Humble Pie and Other Savory Figurative Expressions

While discussing idioms, a student asked me whether making someone "eat humble pie" could be a good thing. I said it could be good for the "eater," if the "server" doesn't embarrass him in a mean way, but rather, allows the "eater" to digest his mistake and correct it. I explained that the phrase is similar to "making someone eat their words," or take back what they've claimed and then apologize for offending people. In trying to find new ways to explain the old saying, I came up with this metaphorical line:


Creating memorable, original metaphors and similes is no easy task. While reading aloud with my students, I call their attention to masterful metaphors and spot-on similes whenever we encounter them in poetic prose. Sometimes I turn our analyses of apt expressions into lessons.

For example, in one lesson about writing fresh--rather than trite--words, I ask students to analyze the plethora of lively similes used by children's book author Bruce Hale in his "Chet Gecko" mystery series. Even though the series targets 8 to 12 year olds, the similes are even more appreciated by ages 12 and up, I've found. We discuss what makes Hale's figurative language memorable--their humorous, surprising comparisons, as well as the fresh twists on old sayings--such as: "It brought more trouble than a busload of candy-crazed chipmunks on Halloween night." I ask whether the opening phrase, "it brought more trouble than," sounds familiar--as in the old saying, "it brought more trouble than a barrel of monkeys." (Some kids recognize that saying, and some don't.) I then point out that the humor of Hale's chipmunk simile is doubled by his twisting of the expected old saying into a fresh, new version. Next, my students choose from a list of Hale's hilarious similes and metaphors a few lines to try rewriting in their own fresh words. 

Here are some samples by 13-year-old F.H., written in response to Hale's memorable lines:

Hale's simile: "The two bruisers advanced on us like a pair of tanks against tricycles."
F.H.'s version: "The two bruisers advanced on us like a shopping cart on Black Friday."

Hale's metaphor: "A buzz-saw voice sliced through the hubbub."
F.H.'s version: "An angry voice broke through the milk drinking contest for the lactose-intolerant."

Hale's simile: "Recess came, sweeter than a honey-covered fruit fly after a plateful of brussels sprouts."  (A gecko's perspective of sweetness, remember!)
F.H.'s version: "Recess came, sweeter than a burning of math text books."

A carefully written figurative expression not only has the power to amuse and/or broaden the reader's perspective, but also the power to develop the character of the narrator or character who uses those poetic words. F.H.'s last simile, above, shows us his narrator's level of love for math books--right? (Or maybe F.H.'s…)  

Anyone involved in teaching or learning about writing can benefit from emulating this exercise. As you read any story, fiction or nonfiction, note figurative expressions that you admire; copy them down; try to make them your own by altering the words as F.H. did. It's a great exercise of your figurative language skills, your humor, and your practice of "showing, not telling." And it will enhance your awe for words as it develops your own awesome writing!