Digging Deeper (Clichés Part 2)

My grandmother Eleanor (who you might remember from my letter awhile back about her broccoli-cheese casserole) was the person who taught me the expression, “It takes all kinds.”

It’s an abbreviation of the longer saying, “It takes all kinds to make up the world.” And Grandma loved it, because to her the world was a vibrant place full of interesting people she couldn’t wait to chat up at Jewel. When I was a bratty 13-year-old saying, “Look at that hair!” or “What is that weirdo doing?”, Grandma would tell me to be less judge-y and more open by saying, “It takes all kinds.”

“Just imagine how boring this world would be,” she’d say, “if everyone were exactly like you, or me!”

This is really good advice for judge-y 13-year-olds, and writers, too. It reminds us to be open to the strangeness of the world, and the people who make it interesting.

But also, it doesn’t go far enough. Because “it takes all kinds” is what psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton called a “thought-terminating cliché.”

A thought-terminating cliché is one that immediately wraps things up, a little too neatly, so that no one probes any deeper. Think of phrases like “It’s always darkest before the dawn” or “It is what it is.”

They can be dangerous, Lifton wrote, because they “compress the most far-reaching and complex of human problems into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.”

Already you can imagine all kinds of scenarios where this would be disastrous for a writer. A character says, “All things must pass,” and brings a funeral scene to an abrupt, unsatisfying end. An essayist takes 2,000 words to explore their family’s experiences with immigration, starting fresh, and loneliness, but ends with, “A stranger in strange land.”

Last month, I wrote that it’s OK to let clichés flow into our early drafts, as long as we go back and weed them out. We need to keep an especially watchful eye out for thought-terminating clichés. Because when they show up, we should ask ourselves, “What are you avoiding?”

Probably something uncomfortable. But important.

Once, Grandma and I together watched a story on the evening news about men who observed Good Friday by re-enacting Christ’s crucifixion, complete with having themselves actually nailed to crosses. I must’ve said something like, “That’s nuts,” because Grandma put her hand on mine and said with such tenderness, “It takes all kinds, honey. Remember that.”

She died five years ago, so I cannot ask her what she really thought of the penitents and their devotion. Did Gram, a lifelong Catholic, imagine those men getting closer to their faith? Or did she think perhaps they only brought themselves closer to the cruelty of the world?

Clichés happen. Next time you see one, though, don’t let it shut you down. Do what I wish I’d done with Grandma—ask for more.

Kelly Caldwell,

Dean of Faculty

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