An Enthusiasm for Similes

I’ve been reading a lot lately and when I find a sentence or paragraph I like I’ll go over it a few times, savoring it the way some people enjoy wine. I have a special appreciation for the artfully crafted simile. They’re difficult to write. It’s pretty easy, in fact, to come off sounding hackneyed. I’ve read some laughably embarrassing ones; they’re usually an indication of a lazy (or inexperienced) writer. I use them sparingly.

One of the most memorable similes is from Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides: “The spanish moss hung from the trees like the secret laundry of angels.” That may be a slight paraphrase but isn’t it beautiful? A pretty girl may or may not be like a melody. And love is not at all like oxygen. See what I mean?

In my apartment building there’s a spot where people leave things, a sort of “free box,” and it’s where I get most of my books. I used to get them from my mom (and still do, occasionally) but she reads so voraciously that she mostly checks them out of the local library. Anyway, one of my recent acquisitions was Speaking with the Angel, an anthology of short stories edited by Nick Hornby. He assembled an impressive collection of writers, including Helen Fielding (of Bridget Jones’s Diary fame) and Dave Eggers (author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which totally was, and editor of McSweeney’s). I found myself dog-earring pages a few times:

“I mean, I recognize what’s going on in my head, what’s been going on for a while, actually, on and off. It’s middle age. I know that. It’s getting older, slower, tired, bored, fat, useless. It’s death becoming something real. It’s the old neighbours from my childhood dying. And even people my own age. Cancer, mostly. Car crashes.” That’s from “The Slave,” by Roddy Doyle. Brilliant.

“What about mystery? What about allure? What’s the point of marching the poor boy round Sainsbury’s in a filthy mood when you could be sliding your toe up his thigh in the Caprice while he slips his Gold Card to the garçon? You’re a woman, darling, not some sort of Chinese coworker in a communist cooperative. You’re not supposed to be his equal, you’re supposed to be his empress.” That’s “Luckybitch” by Ms. Fielding, an impressively tender take on old age.

“We go down a corridor full of old newspapers, beer cases and musical instruments and speakers all in their black suitcases. The carpet is like fungus on cheese.” How’s THAT for a simile? It is the work of Patrick Marber in his coming of age, uh, romp, “Peter Shelley.”

The collection was originally published to raise money for and awareness of TreeHouse, a school in the UK for autistic children. I highly recommend it. (The book, not the school. Unless you’re autistic and of elementary school age.) Other books I’ve read over the past few weeks and enjoyed: Water for Elephants (ooooh, I would SO love to run away with the circus!) by Sara Gruen, Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende (everything she writes is mesmerizing) and Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (a boggling multi-decade tapestry of relationships).

Reading wonderful writing simultaneously inspires me to write and puts me off writing. I just downloaded Netflix and started watching House of Cards so maybe I’ll find myself more motivated to write since I won’t be freshly remembering someone else’s genius. Someone told me about this web site where you can see which famous writer “I Write Like” and, after pasting in four different excerpts (erotica, a rant or two and something more general-ish) I was informed that I Write Like: Cory Doctorow. Well, one rant came up with William Gibson. I’m not overly familiar with either of them and would’ve preferred, oh, I don’t know, Hemingway or Hunter S. Thompson or Bukowski. I guess I have some new reading to do! Ummm, after I’ve binged on every Netflix series I can handle!

4 responses to “An Enthusiasm for Similes

  1. Not being a writer I am no doubt wrong but your words..’savoring it the way some people enjoy wine’, struck a cord and made me read your posting. Living the isolated life I do I read continuously and have found certain authors to be master chiefs! There work like a fine meal leaves you wanting more and the words assembled together to me are ‘delicious’.

  2. Abby – I tried three different excerpts of mine on the “I Write Like” website, and according to its textual analysis I write like Leo Tolstoy, Ursula K. Le Guin, and David Foster Wallace. So how come I can’t get anything published?;)

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