My kids and I have a game we play in the car sometimes. I play them a piece of music and then we all take it in turns to say what it sounds like. It passes the time, they have fun and I get to secretly brainwash them with my musical taste which, as everyone knows, is one of the many joys of being a father.
The other day, I played them Singapore by Tom Waits. A while back, I tweeted that I thought Tom Waits’ voice sounded like an antique desk being thrown out of a steam train. I was trying to be clever, showing off, trying to get people to like me. I don’t think anyone retweeted it.
You know what my son said Singapore by Tom Waits sounds like? He’s two, by the way.
Of course it does, that’s exactly what it sounds like. Not a desk.
I barely had time to register this piece of genius when the track ended and Three Hours by Nick Drake came on. As I started thinking about a suitable simile for Drake’s unique and vulnerable lilt, my son floored me again.
“The moon, Daddy. He sounds like the moon.”
My daughter then went on to say that The Pogues’ seminal album If I Should Fall From Grace With God… is “pirate music” and that one track in particular – Metropolis – sounds like a monkey going shopping. Which it does. It really does.
Bloody brilliant, my kids.
I’m currently completing rewrites of my second novel, a post-apocalyptic story called The End of the World Running Club. It’s a very enjoyable task, like ‘word mining’, and part of the process is to make sure I’m describing things correctly. I’ve been thinking a lot about how strange this process is – of trying to get people to imagine what I’m imagining using a long string of words. Stephen King calls it telepathy in his brilliant book On Writing. I think it’s more like resonance. The drama of a thunderstorm or the desolation of a burned forest already exists in everyone’s head. The job is not to describe it, but to trigger it. The job is to resonate – the deeper the simile, the stronger the resonance. If you use similes that are too precise, too close to the actual thing, you create a dull image. If you try to be too clever, call Tom Waits a desk, and people stop reading.
But go deep, trust the reader’s imagination, call Nick Drake the moon, and the image ignites. The fuel already exists in the reader’s head. All you have to do is make the sparks.
I suppose I was trying to do this with my Tom Waits tweet. He writes about things that are strange, sad and mechanical, so a broken old desk and a locomotive fit quite well. I also think that Year after Year by the band Idaho sounds like heavily sedated monks playing guitars outside in a thunderstorm, and that And Justice for All by Metallica sounds like a half-naked tramp coming at you with a cricket bat. But neither of those are as good as elephant or moon.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to find some way of shoehorning Nick Drake into a post-apocalyptic running fable.