Friday, June 28, 2013

Cliches For Dummies

At one time in its lift, a cliche was a beacon of originality, a life preserver thrown to a drowning essay or story, an indication of how language could team up with ideas to produce a vision of how someone felt, how a thing looked or tasted, of how a person may have come to resemble the appearance of his dog.

A cliche gave us something to reach for at one time, but now, finding one in our language, written or oral, is like having a fleck of spinach on one's front most teeth without our being aware of it.

To be fair to the cliche, it was once awl-sharp in its presentation, so much so that it helped us see a thing in perspective.  Comparing a thing, for example, to a dead horse was only the first step in the formation of a wonderful vision.  Someone, somewhere, had arrived at the unimpeachable notion that a dead horse could not be kicked, which may seem a bit overstated, but when used in connection with some implacable resistance, some unrelenting stubbornness or failure to think a matter through, the trope became as much a part of the language as, say, States Rights are to a GOP politician.

Some man or woman in dim reaches of history, was fond of and therefore observant of turnips, perhaps even to the point of dissecting several, studying the vegetable for texture, tensile strength, fiber content.  That nameless individual came to realize that turnips may have a moisture content but no circulatory system involving blood.  

There was, in fact, no blood to be found in the turnips under observation, leading the individual to conclude some now-forgotten behavior or response was as fraught with difficulty as getting blood from a turnip.  (If you were dealing with the matter, you'd be more likely to consult beets.  Even though beets, like turnips, do not bleed, they at least have the virtue of a dark red moisture.  But the point is borne home when, to your knowledge, no one has used the analogy, like getting blood out of a beet.)

The simple, organic truth is that cliches were once apt definitions of a situation or circumstance in reality.  The cliche has, like yesterday's toast, become stale, overused to the point where it is offered as a shorthand to describe a situation that might provide more insight were it to be addressed with a fresh take.

When you address editorial chores on your work or the work of a client or student, you try to devote a complete, focused pass to rooting any trace of the cliche, however apt the cliche might be.  Using a cliche is the equivalent of wearing a rented tux to a formal gathering.  Rented tuxes are notoriously first-time associations of young men with a ritual of finery and display to which many are not familiar.  

This is by no means a bad thing; traditions and rituals do have to begin somewhere, but the average first-time use of a tuxedo is associated with graduation from high school and the senior prom.  Two or more cliches are scraping their heels on the floor in impatience, the one being a cultural association that this is a time to cross the barrier of initiation into the ranks of those who are sexually experienced.  Although sexual mores have evolved, this entry into sexual experience may still be associated with such rituals as forming romantic connections that may lead to marriage.  In some cases, these cultural stepping stones may lead to unwanted pregnancy, which leads to other choices that transcend mere sexual urges.  In any case, we are presented with the masculine cliche of a high school senior in a rented tux as a symbol for a young person on the cusp of a major plateau in life.

Acute, illustrative proto-cliches provide a remarkable vision of behavior.  You believe Will Rogers (1879-1935) was responsible for the observation of an individual, "He was as nervous as a long tailed cat in a roomful of rockers."  A splendid observation, memorable, illustrative, but, alas, now a cliche unless it is used as a barrier to mark where the bar should be set for another, acute observation of a similar nature.

Part of your concern for excising cliches from your work is your desire to keep your own narrative voice, such as it is, free from distracting elements, one of which is the use of trite and convenient material.  For a long time, your reaction, on discovering some monstrous cliche squatting in the foundations of a narrative of yours, was to contrive a fresh metaphor, but what you learned in the process was that a contrived metaphor, which is to say a metaphor catered for this particular banquet, has the look and sound and feel of contrived dishes at numerous banquets, where it joins the already cliched rubber chicken or banquet fame.  You cannot contrive freshness. 

Freshness comes from being so engaged in the material that the visions of it are closer to the intent the story conveys to you as you write it.  You look for cliches that have--here comes a cliche--piggybacked onto your text, hopeful of finding them and replacing them with direct, declarative sentences, which are often the more illustrative way of conveying information, in particular emotional information.  You are embarrassed, therefore, when, after your own efforts, a neutral or supportive editorial hand finds cliches you've missed.

Finding cliches in your work suggests to you a laziness in your dealing with the material at hand.  One positive approach is to attempt a new draft without reference to the old.  The mind is like--watch for this cliche--a magnet, attracting--another cliche on the way--the iron filings of association.  Do you risk the associative, no-thinking approach to get at your deeper feelings?  No question about it.  Yes.

Thus this observation:  We--you included--live in a world where cliche abounds.  When we're in a hurry, we often find the temptation to reply in a cliche.  There are choices to be made.  Depending on your relationship to the person who asks you, How are you? there are choices to be made.  Do you think that person really wants to know or is merely throwing up a conventional and casual greeting?  Do you say, Not bad,  What about you?  Do you say, Oh, same-old, same-old?  Do you say I have an intermittent ache in tooth number twenty-two which I am attempting to insulate with Tylenol?

And this question:  Do you live in a world of cliches, from which you are attempting to rid yourself in order to make even your talking to yourself as fresh as possible so that you can come closer to getting at the more accurate sense of your feelings and responses?

Is there some moral imperative, having admitted you wish to lead the literary and writing life, to develop a sense whereby you can discriminate between your views, the views of others, and the splendid opportunities the writing life gives you to engage in dialogue rather than solipsism?

If you said yes, smile.


Querulous Squirrel said...

This is extremely helpful. Thank you.

Querulous Squirrel said...

By the way: when asked how I am I go the Tylenol route, way more than anyone wanted to know. And I love the word and concept of solipsism which I think of as narcissism.

Querulous Squirrel said...

Read the last story letter to a funeral parlor by lydia davis: