I learned years ago that metaphors and similes had to be precise. Several of my students have heard the story of my metaphor about sidewalks, “the skeletal frame that defined my world.” My editor deleted this phrase from my ms Taking Hold: My Journey into Blindness. But I wanted to keep it. I was writing about having had the final retinal hemorrhage that had eliminated all residual sight. I woke to this major loss, freaked out, then dressed, and went outside to wait for my boyfriend at the time who was driving me to work.
Six inches of snow had fallen overnight, concealing the sidewalk from street and from grass shoreline. I walked to a short-cut so that he wouldn’t have to turn a corner and I got lost. My cane couldn’t detect the sidewalk. Pretty traumatic and pretty important in explaining life for a blind traveler.
“But a sidewalk isn’t skeletal,” my editor argued.
We settled on “the solid structure that defined my world.”
Recently I read Ted Kooser’s take on these terms. He claims that they have personality. Metaphor has certainty, while simile suggests uncertainty. In the sidewalk situation, I realize now that everything about that scene was overwhelming and obscured. What traffic there was spun its wheels or hardly moved, giving me no help. The sidewalk offered my only clue, the only certainty, and it was hidden. Metaphor was the right choice in that instant.
In the book, I’m writing now about the guide dog/human partnership, I describe an average day in the life with Dave. I say that he is as much at the front and center of my schedule as my grandkids are to my daughter’s. Of course, there are enough differences in the demands of dog and children, so that simile seems to be more effective than metaphor: Dave, the preschool human equivalent, or a similar metaphor, seems overblown.
Kooser also says that choosing metaphor or simile shows the author’s personality. Smile. I know writers who are definitely metaphor types. I think I’m more the simile sort: “well, it’s kind of, I mean, pretty much like…ah…”