all my marbles

my whole current thing with clichés started with kelly, my writing student. she had spoken about how her high school writing teacher forbid the class from using clichés in their writing and that got me thinking. it's generally the advice young writers get from their teachers, the old "avoid clichés like the plague" adage. but i happen to find some clichés wonderful, particularly the ones that have fallen out of fashion and had time to gather suggestiveness again. i think my absolutely favorite cliché is "in two shakes of a lamb's tail." it sounds so much more melodic and evocative than "in a minute."
anyway, so i decided that for my next lesson with kelly, it might be fun to do the opposite of the conventional tendency to avoid the cliché, and instead immerse ourselves in its company completely.
during my preparation for our meeting, i found the tower of english site with all the wonderful interpretations of idioms and clichés by children for whom english is their second language.( prepare yourself; i still have a few more i want to share.) what i re-realized during my search was that a cliché is an inherently rich and interesting thing, perfectly encapsulating an idea or an image or a feeling. it is not the cliché's fault that it has become hackneyed. when anything is in one place for too long, we eventually stop seeing it. many of today's clichés once enjoyed the glory of being invented by shakespeare; it is time we stopped disdaining them and began looking at them more closely, examined their musculature, see how and why it is they have endured.

i don't think it is only because people are lazy in their speech, and would rather use a common phrase than devise a new one, though this seems to be the natural tendency. as i am pulling here for the value of the cliché, i will, for now, try to ignore the role it plays in the lean of language toward mediocrity. i am interested now in its merits, not its faults. everything has both, i think.
what i'm getting at is that the cliché fulfills a human need for collective life, for experience as a shared thing. the sensation of having a cliché articulate perfectly a tangled wordless emotion i am having is akin to being understood by someone, long ago, who interpreted my experience and left a trail for me to find it. it is infinitely consoling to be understood, and i think that this is the deep appeal of the cliché. it holds a net out for us to let ourselves fall into. it is a common space belonging to all of us and owned by no one. we can inhabit it like a curb when we feel tired, and no one will cite us for loitering.


chris said...

Great post! It makes me think of the opening of Jeanette Winterson's fantastic novel WRITTEN ON THE BODY, where she talks about cliché, specifically the term 'I love you'. She writes, "Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to hear?"

Julie R said...

yes. why is that so true?