September 26, 2012

The simile and you

As a longtime writer of not only grammatically viable sentences but also the occasional full-length paragraph, I’m often asked about the proper role of similes in today’s challenging writing environment. Are they as overwrought as erotic fan fiction? Are they as anachronistic as a phone booth? Or are they every bit as contemporary and expedient as retweeting a royal family member’s nude photos?

Indeed, those questions are good ones. But are they as good as a Nigerian nun quietly handing out condoms in a Lagos slum behind the Pope’s back? Perhaps practicing the art of the simile, known in English-major circles as “the metaphor’s developmentally challenged cousin,” will shed some light on this important subject, ideally a light as bright as the Los Angeles sun reflecting off David Beckham’s bald spot but as environmentally conscious as an incandescent light bulb being gently unscrewed by a Greenpeace activist.

If you are going to go to the trouble to include a simile in your writing, you should endeavor to make it the best simile possible, given the constraints of the subject matter. For instance, suppose you need to describe something that is wildly out of place, perhaps a kitten in a rugby scrum. You might say, “That kitten is as out of place as President Obama in a sports bar.” That would seem to be a solid simile because Barack Obama drinks beer like girls throw.

However, upon further consideration, this might not be the best possible simile. For one thing, even though Mr. Obama reportedly brews beer in the White House and might very well like beer, he looks as uncomfortable as a kitten in a rugby scrum while drinking it on TV with some good ol’ boys from the heartland. For another thing, the insinuation that girls can’t throw could be perceived to be as sexist as a Mazar-i-Sharif warlord’s dress code, even though University of Wisconsin psychology professor Janet Hyde recently released a study confirming that, as many suspected, girls throw like girls.

So perhaps there is a better simile for our poor kitten. Another option would be to posit that the kitten is as out of place as Mitt Romney at a NASCAR Sprint Cup race. But that simile also is probably not the best simile because, let’s be fair, a kitten in a rugby scrum isn’t that out of place. Furthermore, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would obviously both be way more comfortable in a K Street boardroom reviewing PowerPoint presentations on the alternative minimum tax than either one of them would be shooting beer cans off a fence post from the back porch of the average Kentuckian. So our search for the perfect simile slogs on, like the third hour of a post-apocalyptic movie featuring robustly sexy yet implausibly starving gladiatorial teenagers.

And yet, the question remains: Just how out of place is that kitten? As out of place as a Samurai warrior trying to go through airport security? As a “Battlestar Galactica” fan on a date? As a Kai Ryssdal cameo appearance in one of Paul Ryan’s sex dreams about Ayn Rand? And so the search continues.

When striving for the perfect simile, it’s important to be patient — as patient as you are, dear reader, while waiting for me to mention that University of Wisconsin professor Janet Hyde found out why girls don’t throw as well as boys: Because they don’t practice throwing in our culture. Girls who do practice throwing throw as well as boys. And, if post-apocalyptic gladiator movies are an indication, girls who practice archery are also awesome at archery.

So by practicing, we can become highly skilled at a given discipline, like an Academy Award-winning actor talking at length to an empty chair. Or an unregulated corporate CEO destroying the middle class. Which begs the question, should we all be practicing loving-kindness like a Tibetan lama hopped up on 50 shades of tantra?

To miss that opportunity would be unfortunate. But would it be as unfortunate as global self-annihilation? Or merely as unfortunate as Paul and Linda McCartney’s matching mullets during the Wings years? We may never know.

Regardless, you should keep the simile in your writing toolbox as a means to finding the solutions to today’s tricky problems, much like a chimpanzee uses a stick to whip up an especially delicious termite value meal. Only by practicing and hard work can your writing become as illustrative as a simile. 

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