Object Memory: A Practice in Metaphorical Meaning-Making

Meghan Giles

When I think about what first brings me to poetry, it is often to make sense of my experience through language. In order to communicate experience emotionally, we often rely on metaphor in a similar way that our bodies do: when I see an army figurine in a thrift store, I am not only reminded of the army men my brother and I would dig up in our flowerbed when we were kids, but also the emotions behind that memory—the feeling of childlike wonder at uncovering something that was buried long before we lived there, the love for my brother, the small moments in which I realized there is mystery in the world.

So much of the way we experience the world and the objects within it is associative, and so many of our associations can bring us back to a memory without us knowing why. I created this exercise with the hope that it can help students examine the way in which objects are tied to memory so that they can explore the associative power of objects when they use them deliberately in writing and so they can mine for the significance of their object through their description of it.

Ultimately, this writing exercise is designed to make the associative connection between object and memory. Then it allows students to practice metaphorically applying attributes of the object to describe the emotional element of memory.

Step-by-Step Instructions

Have your students get out a sheet of paper and something to write with, then give them the following instructions one step at a time, so that they are choosing (we hope) the object that is most associative for them instead of trying to pick an object that they think will “fit” the assignment.

  1. Think of a memory and free write about it. (5 minutes)
  2. From what you’ve written, what object most represents this memory to you? Describe that object, being as associative and sensory as possible. (5 minutes)
  3. Describe that same object as if you’ve never seen it before, as though you are from a different planet and seeing this object only now for the first time. Based on what it looks like and where you found it, what might you think some of its uses were? (5 minutes)
  4. Use that object as an extended metaphor for that memory you wrote about in step 2, incorporating any emotions you have from that memory through the way the object is described. Try to rely mostly on the descriptions from steps 2 and 3 as jumping-off points for this metaphor. (10 minutes)

At the end of  the writing period, ask if anyone would like to share their metaphors, and discuss the associative connections that they made through this exercise.


Meghan E. Giles received an MFA from McNeese State University. Her poetry has appeared in South Dakota Review, The Dock: Hayden’s Ferry Review Online, Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry, and elsewhere. She is a PhD student and creative writing instructor at Texas Tech University.

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