Life is a Cliche

Dear Readers:
Several of my readers continue to caution me about my use of cliché. I am told I need to ethnically cleanse (oops – a cliché?) my writing of these signs of lazy writing. Thinking I was avoiding them, I decided I must not be recognizing them, so I have done a bit of research. In general a cliché is something that lacks originality. Apparently writers have struggled with them over the years. George Orwell defined them as phrases stitched together that become so automatic they slink onto the pages and everyday conversation and insinuate the writer or speaker is on auto pilot (another cliché?). Now I find there are three broad categories: clichéd plots, clichéd characters, and what Jack Smith in Avoiding Clichés categorizes as “other.” Examples that fall into the clichéd plot group include predictable tales of the sympathetic hooker, the senile spouse, the gritty private dick, etc. How to fix? One recommendation: present the story in layers and keep the sympathetic or senile or gritty details in the background until other issues have been added to the mix (oops, yet another cliché?). So make the situation unusual with surprises thrown in. Now about those character clichés, they too tend to huddle in predetermined groups: females with eating disorders, men on the road to cirrhosis of the liver, pets that are doomed to misbehave, etc. The list stretches to the horizon (oops.) How to remedy? Don’t diminish these text-book cases (oops) by describing them as one-dimensional. Again, add surprise. And if you can’t show them as deeper people because you don’t know anyone like them, how about looking about for people you do know well who strike you as interesting and write about them? So what’s in this “other” category? cliched language for starters. To solve this problem, the writer comes to a screeching halt (oops) and, starting with the clichéd phrase, begin a substitution process. One word at a time is replaced with a new word that resembles the offender but is a fresher version. After six, maybe six hundred replacements, a unique set of words is born. Last but not least (oops) there is clichéd vision. Don’t know what this means? Listen for about one minute to any news broadcast and start checking off the overused, tired stories the producers push down the throats (oops) of their anchors, viewers, and listeners. My question about all of the above (oops) is how do we manage to communicate without using clichés every day? And when does a hip, cool (oops) word that is on everyone’s lips (oops) reach the pinnacle of success (oops) and begin to wear the label “cliché?” I routinely hear on NPR about “indy rock” or our “retro” culture and the Wall Street Journal runs a weekend column called the “Week in Words.” Erin McKean presents what she calls “A field guide to unusual words in this week’s WSJ.” Words like “Popo” and “actigraphy” or “nearology.” Do you use these regularly? Bet not. Will they be old hat (oops) and cliched in what? maybe a week? So I have a game plan for revision of my Patsy and Virgie story: Write what I think is fresh and resort to cliché only in dialogue – especially the colloquialisms used in 1939. Wish me luck (oops.) And (oops) the plot thickens.


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