Baltimore and San Francisco have Food Czars. London has a Night Czar. In New York City, recently, we’ve got a Czar too: a Rat Czar, whose sole mission is to eradicate unwanted vermin.
I, too, have been similarly single-minded in advocating for eradication. And I’m not alone. Writing teachers, the authors of craft books, and apparently the editor in chief of The Atlantic—we’ve all vowed to rid the world of the scourge of clichés.
And look, we’re not wrong. Clichés —sayings so overused they’re flatter than the wonton wrappers on the spring rolls I over-ate Friday night — suck the fresh air out of your writing. They make it stale.
So we shouldn’t be surprised when our fellow writers read their own stories and are dismayed to discover phrases like “time heals all wounds,” “dumb as a box of hair,” or “bright as a shooting star.” In class, students beat themselves up if just one slips into their work after a 10-minute writing exercise.
Here’s the thing: When we’re telling you to exterminate clichés, we mean in the final draft.
Sometimes, early on, it’s OK to let the rats into your kitchen, so to speak.
Because clichés can be our friends.
I don’t have research to back this up, so this might end up being the most crack-potty of my many crackpot hypotheses, but I believe that clichés are signals from our subconscious. They’re surveyors’ stakes, saving your place so that when you’ve finished pouring out your story, you find your way back to where rich deposits of meaning lay buried, and dig.
Let’s say you write in an early draft “slippery as a fish.” Perhaps your subconscious wants you to stop and smell the slime. Maybe it wants you to consider why a character can’t hold what’s slippery. Perhaps it’s figurative, and the reason something is hard, or elusive, is critical to your story.
A cliché like that is doing you a favor, as long as you don’t let it linger.
The late comedian and author Bob Smith once gave me a page from a draft of his novel Remembrance of Things I Forgot. Bob was trying to work out one sentence, describing a character’s smile. And instead of deleting each attempt that he rejected, he kept them, filling a single-spaced page of all of his misfires. Several of those early tries are straight up clichés. Real clunkers, too. We’re talking banana peels and ice skates.
But as you read, you can see Bob zeroing in on the clichés, pulling them apart, writing fresh takes in the same vicinity, until, finally, he arrives at the just-right one. Take a look here, and you’ll see what I mean.
It’s how we should all approach clichés. It’s not about keeping the rats out of the kitchen. It’s about being vigilant, and not letting them get too comfortable.
My friend and I are planning a beach vacation together, and lately, our giddy-anticipation texts back and forth have been fixated on one thing: Getting sand in our sunscreen.
We’re stupidly excited about whether the sand will be the coarser kind that, when it mixes with your kefir-like SPF 50, magically transforms into a sugar-scrub exfoliant they sell at Lush for $30 a pop. Or maybe it’ll be that baking-powder like sand, and hey, remember that time we tried that sunscreen that allegedly didn’t come off on your clothes? It was the consistency of ranch dressing, and with that soft, powdery sand everywhere, applying it was like rubbing melting gummy worms to your forearms.
There’s nothing like touch, is there?
Writers tend to neglect the sense of touch in our stories, (and smell, too!), preferring the flashier, sometimes easier senses of sight, sound, and taste.
Our stories suffer for this oversight —and not only because we ignore a wealth of material.
Did you know your body has two separate systems for processing touch? Your discriminative touch system tells you whether that fluttery brush of dune grass grazed your knee or your thigh. It’s what tells you whether it tickled or whether it itched.
Your emotional touch system doesn’t care much about where or how, but who. When the touch comes from a loved one, or is unwelcome, or satiates your skin hunger, your emotional touch system sends an entirely different set of messages to your brain. It’s the system that makes touch essential in bonding one human to another.
When we do remember touch, we tend to go for one system or the other, the discriminative one, more often than not. But look what happens when you invoke both, as Yusef Komunyakaa does in these lines from “Lust:”
He longs to be An orange, to feel fingernails Run a seam through him.
Frequently we don’t get granular enough. We’ll describe something as “smooth,” and move on.
Observe: Take off your shoes and feel the floor beneath your feet right now. (Unless you’re on the subway!) Now change rooms, and do it again. Both floors may be smooth, or carpeted. But they’re not the same, right? The waxy finish of your parqueted living room is not the same kind of smooth as your unyielding, chilly kitchen tile.
With touch, be choosy with your details and words, and profligate in your brain networks. And remember, simile and metaphor are your friends:
I can’t read the River, can’t see my hand when it plunges elbow-deep to feel the cool against the Mississippi heat— hot as a dog’s mouth.
–January Gill O’Neill, “The River Remembers:”
Your turn. Write about two best friends, barefoot and outdoors, and start the story with touch.
Good fortune found me working across the street from a movie theater recently, and as the smell of popcorn filled the air at 9:30 a.m., I thought, “Weekday matinee!”
Gradually, though, I realized, this was no regular Thursday morning matinee. It was an exclusive showing of Super Mario Bros. for students of a school for special needs children.
Four or five people arrived first, including a little girl in a wheelchair, squealing with joy. Beside her walked a boy with the flatter face and upturned eyes of Down syndrome. Another group arrived, and another, then another. Every group included a child using some kind of assistance: tiny wheelchairs, reclining wheelchairs, sticker-covered wheelchairs, crutches with arm braces, a walker. More children with Down syndrome arrived, too.
How did I know it was a special screening just for them? The doors to the theater stayed locked. Each group knocked on the door, then waited for an usher to let them in.
The exclusivity of the screening revealed itself through repetition.
Writers hear often on our early drafts, “This is repetitive.” But repetition isn’t always something to avoid. It can be a tool we use to reveal truths buried beneath the surface of our work.
You can call back again and again to objects that hold special meaning; you can return again and again to a setting, or repeat a distinct phrase or sentence.
You can use anaphora — repeating a word at the beginning of each sentence or paragraph, or, as Gotham’s Elane Johnson does in her essay “Aftermath,” each phrase. (Click here to read an excerpt.)
You can use epistrophe, repeating something at the end of each sentence, as John Steinbeck did when Tom Joad says goodbye to his mother in The Grapes of Wrath. (Click here to read it.)
Skillful repetition creates a strong emotion around what’s repeated. Think of Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” using anaphora to create a sense of urgency for justice. (Click here to read an excerpt.)
Or Carmen Maria Machado in her memoir In the Dream House, reiterating “You wake up, and the air is milky and bright,” until it curdles. (Click here to read excerpts.)
The trick is in the timing — the distance between what you repeat, and the rhythm in the way you do it. I’d love to give you a formula, but, as with most things in writing, you’ve just got to experiment. Read your work out loud, and when your repetition makes you flinch, or you long to skip over it, you know it’s not working.
How you break your pattern of repetition is important, too. Look at how King and Johnson and Steinbeck do it.
Which brings me back to the matinee — what broke the repetition is also what revealed that the moviegoers were students enjoying a morning off: A bright yellow bus, arriving after the movie, whisking everyone off to school.