A Big Place To Grow Grass

A student once asked her English teacher, “What’s a metaphor?” and he replied, “It’s a big place to grow grass.” I don’t think he understood the question. We’ve grown with up the distinction between similes and metaphors, but in a technical sense, all comparisons are metaphors. But let’s stick to this separation of powers, and think about why metaphors may be better than similes.

The problem with similes

Similes are far more common than metaphors. So if you write profusely in simile, your writing will not be distinct, and will die of being common. Metaphors are harder to write, but they sing like Caruso – wait, I just used a simile to tout the virtues of metaphors. See, I told you it’s harder than you thought.

Similes often suffer because of bad writing. They are sometimes attached to weak being verbs but not always. Something like, “Her voice bounced like a ball,” or “His jaw dropped as if it were made of iron,” use good action verbs. These similes are fine.

But too often they follow the dreaded “is.” Any simile like, “Her singing is like …” or, “The old house was like …” are so bad, I didn’t even want to finish the simile. The failure of these similes is that they are all examples of telling. Instead of telling me what her singing is like, or what the old house is like, show me how her singing or the old house can be compared to whatever it is you wish to compare them to.

The solution to the problem

This is a very easy difficulty to fix (is that a paradox or an oxymoron?). Just turn your simile into a metaphor. Take the sentence, “His head is like a baloney.” I know. I want to punch myself right now for writing that. Writing that loathsome sentence has made me more stupider, and I am afraid I shall never recover unless I fix it.

All you have to do is make baloney modify head in an adjectival sense and make the head do some kind of action, or at least put it in a sentence without an intransitive verb.

  • His baloney head looked too large for his body.
  • His baloney of a head couldn’t manage to keep his ballcap on in the wind.
  • His head glistened in the same way baloney does when it’s left out in the sun.

Well, none of these are perfect, but maybe they illustrate how any simile can be changed into a metaphor, and why that may be preferable. You can do better than these illustrations. You are only limited by your creativity. And remember, a metaphor is like a smile.

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2 Comments

Filed under Creative Writing

2 responses to “A Big Place To Grow Grass

  1. The whole simile/metaphor confusion has been unnecessarily frustrating for a long time. I think it’s the bogus “like or as” rule that has started all the trouble. Most teachers think that you have to use this rule as a shortcut because the distinction between simile and metaphor is somehow subtle. It isn’t.

    The first think I have to do in class is dispel the silly notion that a simile must have like or as in it. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day / Thou art more lovely and more temperate” comes to mind. When they get confused, I just point out that a metaphor is not at all the same thing as a simile. A simile (as should be intuitive, given the name “simile”) is a comparison. The speaker literally says that one thing is *similar to* another. A metaphor, on the other hand, isn’t a comparison at all. It’s an identification. The speaker is saying that one thing *is* another thing. Of course, the identification is often not meant literally, so many interpreters believe a metaphor to be a simile in disguise. Even if it is, that disguise is itself a clear bright line between a metaphor and a simile.

    I do agree that metaphors can hold a power that is lacking in a simile. Still, you aren’t saying that a simile is always inferior to a metaphor, are you? When I think of “My luve’s like a red, red rose” I can’t help that the “like” gives me some escape from the negative aspects of a rose (such as the thorns). Do you suppose Mr. Burns similizes the phrase in order to reduce it’s power or just to provide the needed syllable for metrical purposes? I can’t imagine a poet with his power would need to do either of those things. Might it just be that a simile is an attempt to be more transparent, telling the reader that a comparison is, at the end of the day, just a comparison?

    • Thanks for commenting. To me it is just a tendency and not an absolute. Also, it’s just my opinion. Most similies read rather clunky to me. You always have something worthwhile to say.

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