Grounds for Divorce in Writing: Crippling Clichés
Many elements build fine writing—it’s like a marriage on the page. A long-term relationship usually succeeds with strong communication, compromise, and growing together. Hard feelings and confusion can be avoided if each person in the relationship clearly understands each other. And just like a devoted life partner who snores loudly, stalwartly scrubs the dishes every night, and loves Saturday frisbee followed by a lunch of gas station hot dogs, your writing is not one-dimensional. At some point, you may need a break or want to explore other genres, but the page is steadfast—it will always be there to support you.
Yet, every relationship has its Kryptonite. In writing, this is often stagnant language, otherwise known as clichés. Similar to outdated beliefs or bad habits, eventually they will hold you back or create friction, and something will have to go. Hopefully, it’s those trite expressions and not your devotion to writing.
Perhaps you’ve also heard the argument that creative writing should allow space for all kinds of expression? This is true and it does. However, that argument is often used as an excuse when it comes to clichés. Some stubbornly stand by overused phrases as a valid and in-depth and form of communication. I agree—in some circumstances, you need a cliché. When used sparingly and in the right context, they’re great for establishing tone or humour. And clichés do have a certain kind of currency, but it’s more like taking your CD collection to the pawnshop. You’re sure you’re going to be offered gold for The Very Best of Prince and your Celine Dion box set, but you walk out with just enough dough to buy a frozen pizza.
In a conversation, we can infer. Our body language adds emotional depth to idioms and expressions which convey shared experiences. In writing, language stands in for this, so it needs to be precise. It also needs to be in your own words, as common expressions have lost their power to influence or move a reader. Clichés carry no resonance . They cripple and silence what we need to express most.
Clichés are worse than the seven-year itch! Nothing new or vital is being said and there most certainly isn’t any effort to dig deep for effective expression. So, it might just be time to say, “Thanks for the memories!” and file for divorce. Before that, you could seek a marriage counsellor, or in my case, an editor.
I’m the one who says, “Welcome, Page and Pen. Thank you for putting your trust in me. I will do my best to help you both solve this issue effectively and give you the skills to address this issue on your own. Please let me know if I understand your situation correctly: Page you are feeling frustrated because try as you might, Pen is just not writing your concerns or feelings. Pen, you are irritated because you think Page just isn’t reading you closely enough.” Page nods, Pen grunts an agreement.
“Page, why don’t you go first and tell me what is really bothering you.”
“Pen just assumes I know what they mean! Pen writes, ‘I’m as mad as a cat scratching a hot tin roof!’ What does that mean?!” Page turns to Pen. “That you feel like Elizabeth Taylor did in 1958? Are you even aware you’re mixing metaphors?!”
“Pen,” I ask gently, “Do you know what a mixed metaphor is?”
I ignore Page for the moment. “Pen, did you know the proper expression is ‘I feel all time like a cat on a hot tin roof!’ And the reply is, ‘Then jump off, Maggie! Jump off!’”
“…I think so.”
“Did you know that Elizabeth Taylor’s character then demands, ‘Into what?’ and her husband replies, ‘Take a lover.’
“No,” Pen replies, “I didn’t.”
“Do you want Page to take a lover?” I ask.
“That’s not what I meant,” Pen answers, “But if another genre would help, I will support Page as best I can.”
“That’s a very generous attitude,” I commend Pen’s obvious love for Page. “But what did you really want to say?”
Pen sighs. “I guess I don’t really know how to articulate myself now that things have changed in our writing relationship. I know Page wants to be heard on a deeper level, I just don’t see why saying ‘I love you more than the moon and all the stars’ isn’t enough.”
“I believe it is because those words don’t articulate how you really feel about Page. They also show a lack of inventiveness and effort. We all want to feel, and see, that we are foremost in our partner’s thoughts, right?”
Pen grunts in grudging agreement.
“What is your favourite meal to eat together?” I ask.
“Grilled cheese sandwiches and Italian wedding soup.”
“OK, Pen. Start there.”
Pen inhales. “I love you more than the cheese between our pan-grilled bread and the orzo in our soup!”
Page hugs a smiling Pen.
Well, I certainly served you some corn there. But writers are gleaners so we can also make clichés or tired tropes work for us. We understand that focused language and creativity combined with a twist of our own builds a unique perspective. We can then refine that into something that is profoundly ours. It’s not exactly what but how. But how does take, as Pen learned, inventiveness and effort. Especially since poets and writers have been composing for over 5000 years. I’m sometimes grumpy at Shakespeare for coining so many fabulous expressions which we now use every day.
However, clichés are also worthy of another functional role—as place markers. Over time, our work will talk back to us, telling us what it needs. It’s like psychology. Panic attacks, outbursts, and waning concentration may seem negative, but our bodies are communicating deeper signals. Clichés, I feel, also do this. In drafts they can function as sticky notes that say, Return to this and “dig”. “Unpacking” is when a writer digs deep to find their own unique expression and the right words for their subject, bringing their original thought to life, usually by showing rather than telling. One of my favourite references for digging under a cliché is Pixar Rule of Storytelling #12: “Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th—get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.” It does take practice to master unpacking clichés, but when you do you will uncover something worth more than all the clever phrases recorded to date. And you will be connecting with your readers because you’re only writing you.
KAYLA GEITZLER is from Moncton, which is within Siknikt of the Mi’kma’ki, the traditional territory of the Mi’kmaq People. Named “A Rad Woman of Canadian Poetry”, she is Moncton’s inaugural Anglophone Poet Laureate & host of the Attic Owl Reading Series. Her first poetry collection That Light Feeling Under Your Feet was a Calgary Bestseller & a finalist for two awards. Kayla is co-editor of the multilingual poetry anthology Cadence Voix Feminines Female Voices. She holds an MA in English Creative Writing (UNB), was a technical editor on Canada’s largest pipeline projects & designed courseware for Air Traffic Controllers. As an editor & writing consultant, mentor & creative writing instructor, Kayla's affordable expertise continues to help writers, non-profits & businesses achieve their writing dreams.