Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Vivisection of Clichés

In the now distant past, my dear friend the ingenious Tangled Lou—audience participation bloggess extraordinaire—invited us to think outside the dead horse. Her challenge was to think about cliche, and then to choose one, to defend it or disprove it, and generally to open that sucker like an chloroformed frog and find out what's inside. I waited to do this because I was supposed to be writing fiction all October, per my own dictate, but I did not forget.

Faith in Ambiguity does not walk away from a chance to vivisect a cliché.

However, in the spirit of my entire life history, I'm going to go about this the wrong way and make a bold attack at the entire human mind with my small scalpel, rather than confining my activitities to the frog (or horse) at hand. You may want to back up. Sorry about the spatter.

I will start with this. Clichés are oft repeated, it is said, because they have a kernel of truth. And that, my friend, is a cliché about clichés—a masterpiece of tortured language and thought. Let me be clear: It doesn't mean that it isn't true. Only that it's a cliché.

Are you confused yet? Me, too. Never mind then.

Here is a phrase oft-repeated, which I loathe infinitely more. This phrase, I believe, is responsible for all of the evil done to things that should be left to lie exactly as they are:

It is: "Think outside the box."

Here's what cheeses me off about this piece of good advice: Who stuck the fracking box in the middle of the conversation to begin with? This advice goes along the lines of:

"Don't step in the vomit."

"Stop thinking of cod pieces."

"Forget about Macedonia for a minute."

There are, I entreat, no boxes in my mind that are not put there by ill-conceived group-think exercises. My mind is box-free. I was just this minute thinking of baking lemon cookies with Christopher Walken in Kenya while singing with him "The Vagina Dance." Now, thanks to you, I am inside a cardboard box and trying to get out. This cliché-avoidance stop sign has landed me smack in the middle of a trap.


But is my mind really box-free? Here's the real thing about clichés. It is possible to avoid slathering them all over your writing like a thick buttery topping of unpracticed thought. It is even possible to ask oneself to question them. Is this so? Is it true that this child's parents, unknown to me, are snotty, obnoxious, and rude because the apple does not fall far from the tree, or is this perhaps a prejudice of thought—a piece of language onto which I have I have stepped and become adhered, as if to a piece of cast-off gum?

What is not possible is to stop thinking in ways that lend themselves to cliché. Cliché is the oatmeal-raisin to prejudice's chocolate chip. If you think you don't know the taste of those, take a bite of your beliefs, opinions, politics and personal tastes. Such an array of delicious assortments. They are all baked in the same kitchen, that place where passing thoughts become congealed.

A cliché sounds off-key to the practiced ear because it is fixed and immutable, over-used and tired, and no longer touches new truth. But 99% of what we say and think falls into that category. We do almost nothing but make clichés out of bold creation, so that we can pretend we have understood the world.

Why? Life without the protection of this unconscious categorization and prejudging would flummox us. Nothing but sensory information pouring in. Nothing but discovery. Everything like new. Each day through the door walks a new husband. We meet him and begin the process of finding out who he is. Every day in our home wake new children, who might do completely surprising and unexpected things. Set the house on fire, become addicts, valedictorians, strangers.

This is intolerable. So we categorize.

My husband, he is always late. He makes me laugh. He understands politics better than I do, but he never understands subtext.

My eldest son is scientific, logical. He is smart. My middle son is kind and sensitive. My youngest is eccentric, compassionate and full of dreams. 


In the natural world, there is no "is." This is invented, pretended. Things operate in probabilities. Even matter which seems solid is almost completely empty space. One day my son is logical, the next he has left nick marks all over his arms because he can't remember what not to do with knives. My middle son is kind one moment, cruel the next. My youngest is eccentric and wants nothing more than to fit in. Each of these known humans contains multitudes.

I cannot truly see them because they live inside a box, a box in the conversation, a box called "is."

I am a writer. I have to get good at clichés. I will paint my horses like zebras and set fire to the trite. I will slash and burn the over-used expression until I've laid waste to my writing, a mudslide of un-moored thought.

I will think, think, think outside that box that language has given me, that box called "is."

And I will crawl the devastated forest floor on hand and knee seeking un-burned kernels that can be planted to grow truth.

For all that, I will never be truly free.

Here's the truth: most of my deep thoughts don't really communicate. I often think that 90% of what I write can be easily taken to mean exactly the opposite of what I've meant to say. This is not a good place to be as a writer. And yet there I am. What do you think? Do you buy it? Have I misunderstood cliché? Am I making too much of a fuss? Or do you find any of this provocative? Be honest. (But, you know, be nice.)


  1. I'm so excited that you posted this. I have been mulling in similar circles these last few weeks. Language, in many ways, is that box. When we put things to words, there are only so many ways to describe things. When we think about things, it is often exhausting to paint them fully, so we just put tidy labels and space holders on things. I suppose the challenge is to simply realize we do this and catch ourselves when possible to open things up and look at them. That is why cliches in writing and speech make me sad - they cause me to wonder if I have just used personal shorthand for something I know to be much more complex and complicated than the words indicate or if I have just stuck at the trite description, seeing it as the whole. You know which one I would prefer to think, but that requires a great deal of reversing and stopping to sight-see and getting muddy and sometimes I just want to get to the grocery store and buy some chips and queso, you know?
    Brilliant as always, Tara.

  2. :-O

    You make my brain hurt sometimes Tara!!! But I get what you are driving at, I think.

    A cliche is just another shorthand lable and labled things have a tendancy to do things you don't expect?!?!?

    Hmmmm plenty to think about, thank you!

  3. Cliches are sometimes exactly what we need - they often came about because they were such an apt description of a particular situation. Unfortunately, by overuse they have lost their punch and become just a concatenation of words with sometimes inappropriate connotations. If I use a cliche in my writing, it's because it's shorthand. If I tried to explain in other terms, I would end up rambling in a pointless circumlocution. Sorry, I can't think of an example right off.
    I always thought "thinking outside the box" was a business or engineering term for getting outside your cubicle and coming up with new ideas.

  4. I love this--particularly the part about cliches being a form of self-protection.

    In the recovery field (where I work, wholly untrained, except by life), cliches are rampant--epidemic even. This both grates on me to the point of pain and seems entirely unavoidable--how else to talk about these gigantic things in ways that make them seem more manageable? These slogans are only rarely useful and then only to certain "sorts" of people, but it is so intimidating to step outside of them, to really talk about what's at the heart of addiction and poor life choices that we fall back on the slogans and cliches again and again. For the moment, I'm trying to stay continually aware that oft-repeated does not necessarily equal true. These things sound wise not because of any inherent wisdom but because we've heard them so damned much and because things would be so much more convenient if they actually were all true.

    I realize that's somewhat off the beaten path (heh), but that's the way my brain tends to wander.


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