I couldn’t get past the fifth page of a crime novel I’d borrowed from a friend when I read, “a tear rolled down his cheek.” I reported this to my friend who told me to get over myself (this is why she is my friend). But I couldn’t.
What’s wrong with “a tear rolled down his cheek”? For one, where else is a tear going to roll, unless the crier is hanging upside down, which he was not in this case. It was just the knowing that I’ve read about single tears rolling down sad cheeks so many times I ardently refused to care for one more of them. Why the hell should I? On page five, the investment just wasn’t there.
Intelligent, arrogant, British novelist Martin Amis said that, “literature is a war against clichés.” In an interview with Charlie Rose, Amis added that, “whenever you write ‘the heat was stifling,’ or ‘she rummaged in her handbag,’ – this is dead freight.” He calls novelty expressions (“been there, done that, got the T-shirt”; “hellooo” etc.) herd words. “Cliché,” he says, “is herd writing, herd thinking, and even herd feeling.”
Single words have become clichéd, particularly “suddenly.” If we write that “suddenly” main character X jumped off the roof or was hit in the face with a club, we have robbed our readers of the shock we no doubt intended. “Suddenly” has the effect of softening the blow by warning readers. Better to just start with the sound of the cracked head. If that’s your thing. Using “suddenly” is a good example of Hannah Arendt’s warning that “clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality.” It may facilitate ease in social situations (“Lovely day, isn’t it?” “Cold enough for you?” is much less awkward than “I don’t know about you but my existential angst is ruining my life despite meds, therapy and regular exercise”), but it ruins otherwise good writing.
I know writing instructors who forbid their poetry students the use of certain words: sunrise, sunset, heartfelt, heart, ocean, tree, cloud, sky and even the word love. This is unreasonable, you say, these are just words. But they are not ‘just’ words anymore. We’ve heard or read them too often. Please never put me in an old folks’ home called Sunset Manor. I will just hire a teenager to graffiti its anagram on the outside wall: “Anus Monster.” That’ll teach my kids.
It’s not that we can’t use these words, and writing instructors know this; they are simply tired of reading the hackneyed phrases that signal lazy, unimaginative writing. Of course you can write about clouds and sky — if you can write about them like E. Annie Proulx does in The Shipping News (1992):
A few torn pieces of early morning cloud the shape and color of salmon fillets. The tender greenish sky hardening as they drove between high snowbanks. A rim of light flooded up, drenched the car. Quoyle’s yellow hands with bronze hairs, holding the wheel, Wavey’s maroon serge suit like cloth of gold. Then it was ordinary daylight, the black and white landscape of ice, snow, rock and sky (p. 294).
“Torn pieces” of cloud, “the shape and color of salmon fillets.” And not a blue sky, but a “tender greenish sky.” Light flooding can be a cliché, but here the water metaphor is extended: “light flooded up, drenched the car.” Light that drenches. Beautiful. And at the end of this section, E. Annie Proulx writes an ordinary sentence, because it was, after all, “ordinary daylight, the black and white landscape of ice, snow, rock and sky.”
In his 1954 nobel prize acceptance speech, Ernest Hemingway wrote: “It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.” He wasn’t writing about clichés (or women!), necessarily, but his point encompasses the problem of clichés. When we write, we write after Shakespeare, Milton, George Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, Alice Munro… We shouldn’t think about this too much, but we should think about it. The more writers stacked up in the decades and centuries behind us, the more difficult it is to write something original, even just something good. Just now I had to stop myself from starting a sentence about how we are “swimming in a sea of…”
Good luck writing about the sea. Or the shore in particular. Many waves before ours have lapped the shore, or crashed on the beach. And please don’t make your characters have sex on a deserted beach. Especially under moonlight. Or complain about the sand in their groins later, coyly or otherwise.
This is the problem: clichés roll off our tongues. I didn’t intend that one but perversely, it helps make my point. They are easy because they are neatly tucked away in our overworked and under-slept brains. They confer meaning quickly. They are friendly, really; they mean well. But in a piece of writing, they don’t mean, well, anything really.
Clichés in literature are not just a problem of the amateur or early-career writer. American author Donna Tartt’s immensely popular novel The Goldfinch (2013) was slammed for, among other things, the clichés on its bestselling pages. In an article in Vanity Fair, (July 2014), Evgenia Peretz writes:
In The New York Review of Books, novelist and critic Francine Prose wrote that, for all the frequent descriptions of the book as “Dickensian,” Tartt demonstrates little of Dickens’s remarkable powers of description and graceful language. She culled both what she considered lazy clichés (“Theo’s high school friend Tom’s cigarette is ‘only the tip of the iceberg.’ … The bomb site is a ‘madhouse’ ”) and passages that were “bombastic, overwritten, marred by baffling turns of phrase.” “Reading The Goldfinch,” Prose concluded, “I found myself wondering, ‘Doesn’t anyone care how something is written anymore?’”… A book like The Goldfinch doesn’t undo any clichés—it deals in them,” says Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, perhaps the most prestigious literary journal in America. “It coats everything in a cozy patina of ‘literary’ gentility.”
Ouch. I’m sure that annoyed Tartt all the way to the, well, you know.
As well as single words and expressions, there are also clichéd beginnings to stories (short or novel length), clichéd characters and character traits, plots, twists, endings and titles. You can find good advice about all of these on a number of sites, but I recommend editor Ellen Brock’s videos on the subject.
We shouldn’t start a story with a person in bed, just getting up, or sitting in a plane/train/car/jail cell thinking about her or his life. True, Kafka wrote a story about a man waking up and realizing he was a bug, but that was “The Metamorphosis” and he wrote it first and best.
A detective story shouldn’t start with a hungover, bleary-eyed detective, especially if his wife has left him. There have been too many. Drunk and lonely detectives, I mean. Yes, you will rightly argue, it works in Hollywood, over and over. True, but the big money behind Hollywood relies on the success of formula writing and millions of dollars of visual effects. Most publishers won’t even let you use a second font.
Now I am fighting the suburban urge to end this on a lighter note. A cliché in itself. Some writers advise that, for your first draft, advice be damned — just write like a demon until “the end” and only worry about the sentences/images/themes/characters later. I think this is good advice, particularly for those of us who get tied up in the fear and anxiety brought on by perfectionism. But perhaps we could start to worry just a bit during that first draft, in order to train ourselves out of habits we didn’t even know we had. The best advice is to read more, and more widely (am I the only one who worries that there are more aspiring writers than readers anymore?).
Consider Kafka’s wonderful image: “every word first looks around in every direction before letting itself be written down by me.”
In February, a few people noticed that the Descant.ca website and blog vanished for a couple of weeks. While the descant.ca site is temporarily back up, it will be coming down soon.
Next week, the new descantonline.com will go live. The new site will host this blog and a wide variety of resources for writers. As well as serving as an online archive for Descant magazine, which folded in 2015, the new site will post previously-published Descant submissions (including some funky stuff going back to the less-conservative 70s). And… who knows what else will happen there 😉
I’ll send a link in this blog when it’s up and ready. Heads up, it works best if you are using the latest Chrome browser. Safari will work ok. Firefox, not so much.