My blog is still coming to you from the State of Michigan. I won’t bore you with the details, but the record snow, the record cold, and the lack of movement on our home here has made getting out of this state like breaking out of prison.
Which brings me to this week’s topic: metaphors and similes, and how I’m working to eliminate them from my writing.
The whole thing started more than a year ago, when I came across an article in The Guardian, which related writing tips from 28 great writers. Esther Freud (Hideous Kinky and many other books) offered this: “Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn’t use any and I slipped up during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.”
That caught my attention, probably because at the time, I used simile and metaphor like an obsessive… I was a man addicted… Well, I used them a lot. (See how hard it is to stop?)
I had to wonder what she meant. S&M in current mainstream fiction is very popular. And what was wrong with a literary comparison every once in a while? Quite a bit, as it turns out.
The first thing I did after pondering Freud’s advice was to check some of my favorite authors’ works to see how often they used S&M. I was surprised to find they rarely, if ever did. These were writers who I admired, and whose work was considered by critics as some of the best-written in our time. What did they know that I didn’t?
I began to pay attention to S&M in my writing. Many of those constructions started to sound cheap and lazy, as though by referencing something else, the thing I was trying to describe would be made clear. But too often the metaphor didn’t describe either, and was just the writer trying to show how clever he was.
Then I read the Gordon Lish notes. Here is what he said:
- Shun conventional metaphor, making your metaphor of your prose itself. Individual analogies subtract from the overall metaphorical effect of the piece.
- “Metaphor is at the very center of prose fiction, but not that kind of metaphor;” not the metaphor of “childish obfuscation… The way to make great metaphors is to be as literal, as literal, as literal as you can get.” As for the other kind of metaphor, “for you to begin with this adolescent quaintness, this encoding, is to make a terrible, terrible mistake. Say what it is. If it’s one, say one. If it’s two, say two. Chinese wisdom is very useful on this point—‘A white horse is not a horse’… True metaphor exists in the tension between the terms, and in the congestion within the terms.”
To me it made sense. And since then I haven’t consciously written a simile or metaphor into any of the fiction I’ve worked on. So far in my WIP novel, I’m 90 pages in and I don’t think I’ve used a single one. If I have, I’ll catch it on revision and take it out. I feel my writing is more exact, more communicative because of that. The metaphor is the story, not the flashy passages. It feels good. It feels like…
Just a reminder, Tahoma Literary Review, the new pro-pay literary journal that Kelly Davio and I have started, opens for submissions on March 1, during AWP.
If you happen to be attending the conference, here’s a list of places you can find us.