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When it comes to similes...

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Double Down, May 9, 2007.

  1. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    ...I feel like a rudderless ship at sea, praying with each sentence that I will somehow drift my way into port. I'm woefully impotent in front of a keyboard, like Hugh Hefner in the bedroom, fresh out of Levitra. I try to write them, and they feel as stiff and clumsy as a giraffe wearing roller skates. And as someone who adores the craft, it makes me feel as empty and as lonely as a widower on his wedding anniversary, drinking a glass of warm scotch, alone in the dark.

    Seriously, kind souls of SportsJournalists.com, this has been bugging me for some time now. I suck at similes. For years, I worked at a paper that deleted them from my copy as a general rule, regardless of quality. "That's just not our style," a copy editor complained when I pleaded for answers, as flummoxed and confused as a tourist in a city where he does not speak the language. As a result, I quit trying.

    I feel like I've grown, overall, as a writer in recent years, having tinkered with allusions, themes, metaphors and other writing devices and frills, but I'm worried the simile part of my brain has been jammed into a crate for so long, like a veal calf deprived of sunlight and the space to stretch its legs, it is now permanently deformed.

    I feel particularly tortured by this, as if I were one of Dick Cheney's sworn enemies held in captivity (ok, I'll stop), because I'm reading Michael Chabon's new novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, and Chabon packs similes into nearly every paragraph. Some are a bit overdone, some are WAY overdone, but most of them are beautiful. Every beautiful magazine piece I read lately seems to have a phrase turn that makes me feel woefully inadequate. I know every writer has to find his or her own style, a style to match their talent, and overuse of similes and metaphors is the express train to amateurish writing. And obviously for every Chabon, Jim Murray or Rick Reilly, there is a Hemingway, who limited himself to about three per book late in his career.

    Other than reading a lot, or simply having a brain that works that way, is there any way to get better at using them? Or finding the right ones to use?

    Or is that simply one of the many, many things that separates the above-average writers from the very good ones?

    I'd be grateful to anyone who might share some wisdom -- as grateful as the punch-drunk boxer who mercifully hears an early bell when he's caught in the corner.
  2. jaredk

    jaredk Member

    Ever put Chabon and Reilly in the same sentence again, you're deader than yesterday's newspaper.
  3. 21

    21 Well-Known Member

    My personal rule is if I really have to think about it, I don't go there.
  4. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    21's advice is good advice.

    If you have to think about a simile -- like, if you sit there with your chin cupped in your hand and stare at the newsroom ceiling, that kind of thinking -- then it's not happening.

    The tough trick about them is:

    1) They must be completely original.

    2) At the same time, they must read as though that's the only way to describe whatever it is you're describing.

    Again, that means avoiding those crazy-ass similes where you can tell the writer stretched his eyelids over his head trying to come up with something original.

    Another good rule: No pop culture references. Fucking hacky bullshit.

    And last, a personal little story, because I like to share. My first story for Esquire was on Barry Zito -- talk about stress -- and I was trying to come up with a metaphor (or simile? I don't really know the difference) for his curveball.

    I knew I wanted to use the word "dropped."

    First thing I thought of was an undescended testicle suddenly appearing.

    Second thing I thought of was a boner becoming flaccid.

    At last, I found, "It dropped like a broken heart."

    Tim McCarver (I know, I know) quoted it on TV during the All-Star Game that month. That made me feel really good just when I was feeling really shakey -- and it also made me feel glad that I skipped over the whole cock-and-ball thing.

    P.S.: I actually really like the veal one.
  5. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    DD -

    Keep your fingers crossed that Jones weighs in. He's one of our better figurative writers. Ask him in particular about his curveball.

    I had some of the same thoughts reading Chabon - but keep in mind that he's at once honoring and sending up genre fiction. So, like all hard-boiled detective stories, he's troweling the figurative noir stuff on very thick. And there's a hint in there if you want one - read more period noir fiction. Chandler, Hammett, Cain, et al. Ellroy among contemporary writers, and Leonard. It can't teach you how to conceive of associative stuff like similes, but it can show you the right rhythm and the ideal placement of the smart, pretty things.

    The novelist James Salter is another name that leaps to mind for great figurative language. I'll think of others and post them.

    As a creative matter, I'll tell you this. Newspaper writing can really straitjacket your creativity. You get a lot of the figurative beat out of you on the copy desk. To remedy that, try this: read as much poetry as you can stomach in your free time. Any kind, from any age, doesn't matter. From Homer to Charlie Simic. Plath, Stevens, Dickinson, Whitman. Anybody. It'll help bring the color and deeper meaning back into the language for you.

    And since poetry is writing stripped to the bone - you'll need to try to write some.

    An hour or two a week to start. Don't edit yourself, or expect it to be very good. Just play with the language. Weigh the words. See what they're capable of. Fuck with 'em. See what makes 'em mad. Relearn the sensation of being surprised by your own work. Get comfortable with whimsy. Relax. Allow your head to make the kinds of leaps and turns in logic and music that are the spark for all comparative language.

    The secret, as 21 said, is not to force it. By playing with words again in your spare time, you'll start to oil up the simile dendrites in your brain. Before you know it, you'll be writing like a __________________.

    Edit: Re Jones. See?
  6. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    I blush, jgmacg.

    A couple of other things I've just thought of... I like simple language when it comes to these things. Nothing too showy or verbose. Especially if you're going for something tender, a lump in the throat. Then I think you're best off with a few short words, nice and crisp.

    And as for usage, I think spare is better. Too many of them, and it's like Reggie Jackson's old saw about fastballs and ice cream. If I'm writing 3,000 words, say, I might blow out three or four, tops. (That makes them sound like farts. Believe me, I run about a fart per word in that department.)

    The poetry is a good idea, too. Just to start looking at things differently. Anything that gets your brain chugging along on a different plane.

    And if the poetry jam fails, there's always that skull-shaped bong in your closet.
  7. \\

    I learn so much from your advice, jgmacg. (And yours, Jones, though it comes a bit less frequently.) I really appreciate you taking the time to offer it.

    Jg, a serious question: why can't I understand ANY poetry? I read a ton of prose, a lot of it complex political/historical/theoretical stuff, and I comprehend just fine. But I don't think I've come close to understanding a poem in the last five years.

    Is there some way to train your mind for it?
  8. MartinEnigmatica

    MartinEnigmatica Active Member

    When you say understand, how do you mean? Not seeing some profound point? Seeing the poem as pure gibberish? There is a lot of space between those two.
  9. Good point. Mmm...depends on the poem. With older stuff, written in unfamiliar styles (and sometimes with unfamiliar words), it's often gibberish. With newer stuff, I have less trouble plowing through, but yeah - the Profound Point, or any of the profound points anyone else might see, just doesn't/don't come through.

    Sometimes, I wonder if it's some sort of weird brain problem...I feel like I'm somehow lacking those poetry-interpreting wires. Other times, I wonder if many poets are just deliberately opaque.

    Anyway. Are there, like, Poetry for Dummies poets? Sophisticated, for-adults poets that could be good introductory people?
  10. MartinEnigmatica

    MartinEnigmatica Active Member

    It's probably a fair mix of the two. In the hardest poetry course I ever took, my professor reamed me for being opaque, as it were. I used to love writing fiction that, when read, confused people because the analogies and figurative language was so off the wall. I'd take entire pages as figurative asides.
    Biiiig mistake, because it leaves people scratching their heads, wondering if they're dumb - when the writer is really at fault.
    What made me a better poet was understanding the basics, the rhythms, and basic constructions. More often than you'd think poets follow a nearly scientific writing process. The ideas and language are bare bones, but they're following rules of meter and verse, just like an architect follows the blueprint. Occasionally you get your Frank Lloyd Wright, but those are few and far between.
    Have you ever taken any poetry courses?
  11. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Spring is the mischief in me...

    Here's a place to start. Don't worry too much about "meaning," or "interpretation" - and not at all about profundity.

    Click on "Poets and Poetry" from the pulldown menus and dig in.


    I'll post a list of likely poets later on.

    Add: And while I was rooting around the site I found this essay on figurative language, the very thing we're discussing.

  12. Twoback

    Twoback Active Member

    I guess it's a good thing Rick Reilly didn't start at your shop.
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