52 Ways to Shift Your Focus: Word Play

Shift #30: Word Play

Over the weekend, I was part of a discussion about how the language we use informs how we are in the world and how translations of books that people use to guide their lives (such as the Bible) vary greatly from one cultural lens to the next. We examined an excerpt from Steinbeck’s East of Eden that told the story of a Chinese man who had a question about a passage from the Book of Genesis that shifted from a promise in one English translation to a command in another English translation, only to learn that the original Hebrew was neither; the passage in question had offered a choice.

It’s serious stuff, this selection of words that writers undertake. When I read poetry, I’m often struck at how one word can make (or break) an entire poem. One word can carry the weight of a thought, an action, a decision. One word can be the difference between cooperation and perceived insult, between faith and skepticism, disregard and acceptance.

The discussion went on for a couple of hours. I left wondering what would happen if the Ten Commandments were repackaged as the Ten Suggestions or the Ten Ways to Have a Safe Society or Ten Things You Shouldn’t Do if You Want to Have Friends.

And then, as usual, my thoughts wandered from that serious discussion to general word play, which brings me to today’s shift in focus.

I like to play. I like to swipe ideas from all kinds of print material, rearrange those ideas, and surprise myself with something completely different. So, here is one technique that I have a lot of fun with.

Go get a newspaper. A magazine. Any bit of reading material on paper that you don’t mind marking up.

Now, go get your favorite highlighters – two different colors.

Find an article and highlight nouns in one color. Now highlight verbs or adjectives (your choice). It doesn’t matter if you get them all; just highlight what you see on a quick scan. Now mix them up for your own writing prompts.

Here’s an example of an essay I used from my University of Minnesota alumni magazine:

Here are some prompts I came up with:

encouragement barks
criticism paused
passenger overreacts
evenings began opening
face switched
ice cream gone

Time to just be whimsical. And recycle your newspapers and magazines.

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