My friend Jennifer Trafton’s most recent book is Henry and the Chalk DragonOne of my favorite scenes occurs when Miss Pimpernel of La Muncha Elementary School tries to teach her third-graders about similes: 

“A simile uses the word like to compare one thing to another. Can anyone think of a simile starting with ‘The sunset is like . . . ‘?”

“I know one, Miss Pimpernel,” said Simon loudly. Simon always had the answer, even when he didn’t. “The sunset is like the sun sinking lower in the sky until everything is dark.”

“Well,” Miss Pimpernel said, “that’s true, Simon, though it isn’texactly comparing the sunset to something else . . .”

“Does anyone else have a simile for us?” Miss Pimpernel asked.

Marybeth answered, “The sunset is, like, so pretty behind my house and I, like, so much want to learn how to paint so I can paint things like the sunset.”

“The sunset is like the sun got a cold and wiped its nose all over the sky,” said Trina.

As Miss Pimpernel’s students show, it’s not always easy to strike just the right note with a simile or metaphor. 

It’s important to point out that simile and metaphor require just as much precision as literal language.   (I’m tempted to say they require more precision.) Figurative language isn’t a hiatus from verbal rigor. I will grant that when you put different writers’ similes next to one another, you can get the impression that anything goes. Robert Burns says “My love is like a red, red rose.” Sir Philip Sidney says “My love is like to ice and I to fire.” I might say my love is like a summer’s day. Or I might say my love is like a hurricane. So which is it? you might ask.

Well, if you have ever loved anybody for any length of time, you already know that your love is sometimes like a red, red rose, sometimes like to ice, sometimes like a summer’s day, sometimes like a hurricane, and at other times like any number of other things. (I recently saw something thing that said, “My love is like a candle: forget about me, and I will burn your house down.”) 

If I say, “My love is like a hurricane,” in one sense I am broadening the reader’s conception of what love (or, perhaps, a lover) is like. But in another, very important sense, I am focusing and narrowing the reader’s attention on one particular aspect of what it is like to love another person. “Love” is a vague term; the reader who encounters the word might picture anything from a heart-shaped box of Russell Stover chocolates to an old man sitting by his old wife’s side at the nursing home to many, many things in between. The simile “love like a hurricane” uses a shared experience (we all know what a hurricane is like) that both surprises the reader (“Hmm…I’ve never thought of love as being like a hurricane”) and directs the reader’s attention to a comparatively narrow sector of that broad category (“But when I think about the ways in which love could be like a hurricane, I see what you mean…”)

When you use simile and metaphor in your writing, you are always walking a tightrope. You want to surprise your reader, but you are also looking for a comparison that serves as a point of connection with your reader (“My love is like a strombite” is going to be lost on almost everybody). You want to broaden your reader’s conception, but you also want to narrow your reader’s attention in a way that is both precise and in line with your larger purposes in writing.

When Miss Pimpernel’s student Simon says, “The sunset is like the sun sinking lower in the sky until everything is dark,” he fails to broaden my conception of a sunset. When Trina says, “The sunset is like the sun got a cold and wiped its nose all over the sky,” she fails on a few counts, not the least of which is fact that anyone whose nose-wipings are the color of a sunset has an ailment that is much worse than a cold. In addition to that failure of precision, Trina’s simile doesn’t point the reader’s attention in a helpful direction.

Last week one of the students in my Writing with Flannery O’Connor online class submitted a lovely story about a launderer named Katy. The writer and I started a conversation about one of the similes in the piece, and she gave me permission to continue the conversation here in The Habit. You may think I am being picky when you see what I scolded this writer about. Let me just say it is a pleasure to read a piece of student writing that is sufficiently good that our conversation ends up being about such small things as a simile that doesn’t quite land.

The story in question begins with this comparison:

Katy hunched over a zinc tub poking clothes down into blue rinse water with a broom handle, the water bluer than chaste sky after rain. 

Here’s what I wrote about that comparison: 

In the simile “blue as a chaste sky after rain,” you are trying to communicate to the reader how blue (or what kind of blue) the water is. But instead of envisioning the water, I as the reader end up wondering what “chaste sky” even means. You pull me out of the scene and get me to thinking about your writing and your choices as a writer rather than the blue water. As a general rule (and, of course, there are exceptions) your similes should move from the less familiar to the more familiar. A “chaste sky” is less familiar to me than a tub of blue water.  

The writer responded as follows:

I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of a simile as moving from the less familiar to the more familiar. That guideline seems to suggest that similes must only be concrete. Am I misunderstanding? I think I often use them just to deepen or enrich insight, not to make a thing more concretely clear.

Do similes have to be concrete? This is an excellent question. I would say that similes tend toward concreteness, but the Y in “X is like Y” doesn’t have to be concrete.

I have often, for instance, said that being a Vanderbilt football fan is like loving a mean woman. In that simile, the Y-variable, “loving a mean woman,” is abstract. So we’re not moving from the abstract to the concrete, but hopefully we are moving from the less familiar to the more familiar. You don’t know what it’s like to be a Vanderbilt football fan (at least I hope you don’t; I don’t wish it on anybody). But the idea of a man who loves woman even when he knows she is likely to hurt him, a man who grasps at every strand of hopes and gets his hopes up way too easily–that is probably a more familiar idea (even if you haven’t experienced this first-hand, you have probably listened to enough old country songs to be familiar with the concept). A good simile focuses the reader’s attention by way of common experience.

When my student says, “I often use [similes] just to deepen or enrich insight” she is very much on the right track. But deepening and enriching typically happen by connecting a less familiar idea with a more familiar idea (or, perhaps, a more general idea with a more specific idea). That’s not exactly the same thing as moving toward greater concreteness, but there is definitely overlap.

In explaining her choice of the phrase “chaste sky,” my student wrote, 

I’m pretty certain I don’t always move from less familiar to more familiar in my similes. Sometimes I move from the less familiar to abstraction (I guess that’s why the word “chaste” popped into my mind–the blue of the Virgin Mary, for example, a kind of cleanness or purity in the sky which I often think of after a rain. It’s not color so much as cleanness, a rinsing of the sky, as the poet said. That was my thought.) 

Now we are getting closer to the problem. In the writer’s mind, the blue of the launderer’s water is linked to the blue of the Virgin Mary’s garments in old paintings. Mary’s blue garment is a shared experience that we can all picture, and it would have worked quite well as a simile, narrowing our various notions of blue (from aquamarine to bruise-blue to royal blue) down to a specific blue. But the writer went abstract on us, moving from Mary’s blue garment to an abstraction–chastity–that we associate with Mary. Our writer’s good visual instincts got overruled. Rather than connecting with the reader, her simile caused a disconnect.

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