To say what you mean
Mean what you say
– Jimmy Buffett
In the heat of summer, it’s time for a re-run. This is from 2008.
Anyone who’s written a book has heard it from someone: “You need to get rid of a few clichés”. What? I can’t have any of those, I avoid them like a very contagious disease!
Everyone uses a trite phrase once in a while, and for good reason. They appear to be very rich in meaning and often have strong images associated with them. They are a form of poor man’s poetry in the sense that they bring color to writing and speech in a small number of words. So what’s bad about that?
There are a lot of problems with stock phrases. The first is that if you are using an image that someone else has formed in their head over many years of hearing a phrase, you aren’t necessarily getting your own image into their head. You may not care about this if you’re trying to sell something using someone’s scenes from childhood to do it. If you’re a writer, however, the trick is to get your own images into their head; you want to replace stock film with your own shots.
Another problem with cliché is that it doesn’t mean as much as people might think. Honestly, can someone tell me what it means to be “head over heels” in love? It seems to me that heels over head would be more problematic, unless you’re really into that sort of thing. If you listen to popular songs you’ll hear a lot of phrases like this which appear to mean something but actually do not.
So if the trite isn’t a kind of playing card hidden on your clothing, why do people use it so much? I think it’s mostly habit and the simple fact that language highly social; we fill up time by saying, “I’m from your culture!” because belonging is important. It’s a kind of Barking, not Talking, even if a very mild form of the problem. But to deliberately say to people, “I’m not from your culture” is to set yourself apart from the group. Doing that on purpose, like a verbal Goth, is a bit insulting.
The other problem is that a lack of cliché forces you to create your own subtext in speech. Anyone who knows me has heard me use phrases like “White Middle Class” in a way that deliberately makes it my own cliché. Why do I do that? Because I think they have it coming, that’s why. And it’s fun. I have to make my own stock phrases and invent subtext as I go because otherwise I would be very boring. You can’t call yourself a writer and sound as if you’re all opposed digits with the language, after all.
So that’s the long and the less long of it all. Cliché may allow you access to cultural subtext in a very handy way, but it’s usually better to craft your own images if you can pull it off. A conversation with your neighbor may not be the place to hone your craft, but you’re better off not allowing yourself to slip into bad habits. The main point is that if you’re gonna call yourself a writer, you have to at least be aware of the words you are using – and why they are the right words for the job.
What matters most is being able to read your own stuff the next day and say, “Yup, that’s the little piece of paper that gets me on the train.”