When it comes to this subject, there is no neutral ground.
One camp – the legalists – boo and hiss at the mention of this word. Or, more precisely, they might read on with contempt or indifference, largely the same thing if the latter reaction is based on knowledge.
And the other side, well their eyes light up when this thing happens. ‘Where’s the problem, what’s the problem?’ ‘Finnicky old sods,’ they say, to no one in particular apart from the stated former audience.
And then there’s me, the moderator of this topic, conveniently wedged in the middle, that writer voice you hear which – uncannily, is usually just the sound of your own voice reading it out loud in your head, unless you’ve managed to implement a Steven Seagall (or Seagull) boom voice in your head or even a pleasant newsreader voice. Kudos!
So, here I am to present you with this polarizing subject which can either turn its audience receptive: engrossed; ‘touched’ and somehow ‘connected’ OR can repel its readership away; the reaction becoming aloofness, detachment, incredibility or simply just dislike.
My friends, I am talking about the humble (or proud, depending on what camp you are) cliché!
Counsellors tell us it’s good to talk about things, brush them up from under the carpet and hold them up under the light to examine and squint your eyes at: precisely my intention for this post.
Let’s talk about clichés. And that’s what I hope this will be: a kind of conversation.
By this I mean, if you want to respond/agree/argue/share an anecdote about your Aunt Fred who named her beloved dog “Cliché” or whatever, I invite you to write a comment below. Share your insights and tell me – what are your thoughts on clichés?
This might be my own admission time: where I openly confess that I love clichés. I do: it’s a kind of secret and I suspect hypocritical love affair.
Last year, when I was finishing up my postgrad studies in writing and literature at Deakin University, we did a lot of workshopping.
Writers, this is where we expose our soul: we allow our newborn stories to be printed, collated and passed around a class of a dozen people. Red pens, critiquing, suggestions and encouragements were given back to the writer.
Of course, this is a very healthy part of the writing process; where you’re both vulnerable yet in a position to improve through feedback.
And in this mode, when we switched from “creative writer” to “editor” the word ‘cliché’ seemed to be tossed around an awful lot. A fly on the wall might have called it a buzzword even!
Along with verbosity, spelling mistakes, character flaws, ambiguity, too little detail, too much detail and other cardinal ‘sins’ (apparently!) writers were commonly accused of clichés. In the same ‘kettle of fish’ (There’s a cliché’ right there! Whoosh, watch it fly past!) as the ‘its/it’s’ faux pas and in the same alleged trepass as ‘boring writing.’ (Gasp!)
Fun trivia fact: the word cliché’ is French, coming from the the verb ‘clicher’ which means to sterotype.
In this situation, with my wonderful professor and passionate classmates, I began to see the cliché for what it was: a cliché.
Earlier, high school teachers had tried to warn me and journalism lecturers wouldn’t have a bar of it,. although it wouldn’t be too far pressed to imagine some editors of weekend travel sections would be so opposed to it.
But back to high school. These were the days where a kid could buy red frogs for 20 cents each (subject to canteen inflation), before emos could officially begin divorce proceedings against their parents and when the Internet made funny noises as it dialed up.
I remember perfectly coiffed and formidable English teachers admonishing us against the evils of clichés. Most students were impassive or silently agreed with this about this affront yet most of us continued to unknowingly write essays on Romeo and Juliet and VCE texts steeped in clichés.
But what do you expect? We ingested them in our daily handwriting practise, only a few years earlier, as we copied some idiom or educational ‘catchphrase’ from the black board. The incentive was awesome: neat handwriting = animal stickers!
I was a weird kid: a hungry reader. By this I’m not just being poetic: I was always hungry. I’m still constantly hungry or thinking about food but I grew up with a couple of well-fed tabby cats and maybe their appetite and attitude to food influenced me!
But now that I’ve been ‘literal’ or ‘ironic’ or even just longwinded, it’s true: I was a ‘hungry’ reader in the voracious sense of the word. I ate books (paper is good with melted cheese), consumed stories and still remember begging my mum for story after story at bedtime. The MS Readathon was my idea of a good time!
During my childhood I read anything I could get my hands on apart from science fiction and suddenly realised I really fancied the ‘classics’ with the Bronte sisters and a whole lot of ‘Romantic’ or ‘Gothic’ novels I adored.Age 12, I used to try and memorise Lord Byron and Keats, even though I didn’t understand it. I began to crave big words and have outlandish dreams, like being a writer.
Yet, I also began to read with gusto a few other books as well. Or series you could say. Going to name them: Goosebumps, the Babysitters Club, Sweet Valley High, Sweet Valley Kids, Sweet Valley University and any other Francise Pascal spin off there was. Lola, Jessica, Elizabeth, Bruce, Winston: how I loved you.
If you’ve ever read the Sweet Valley series you’d know that there are literally hundreds of books in this series and a lot of them (maybe all of them, infact) will have this description somewhere on the front page.
“Jessica’s eyes were blue/green and shimmered like the Pacific ocean.”
Or, “Jessica was the prettiest girl in school, with her shoulder length honey blonde hair and shimmering blue eyes, like the Pacific ocean.”
And how’s this, “Jessica furrowed her brow and said haughtily, …”
I didn’t know what a brow was back then but I did read it being furrowed at least 500 times in the lifespan of my Sweet Valley years.
As the classics and other books married with these irrestible novels (set in sunny California where, apparently, the weather was always perfect) something started to happen.
I was inspired by the ‘twinkling blue/green eyes’ and did what all writers do to something they like – copy.
In my English tasks I soon became the master cliché writer. Creative writing was happily injected with lots of these words: “sparkling, shimmering and shining.” Peoples’ brows began furrowing, even though I still had no idea what it really meant.
Everything was suddenly Sweet Valley high: cheerleading seemed a noble sport and ‘meatloaf’ seemed like a reasonable dinner choice.
Resent and misunderstanding came like a sun shower as I wondered why, oh why was my high school missing: the blue/green ocean,cheerleaders, a school newspaper with an uncannily generous budget and real printing press and, of course, cars, because the 15 year olds set in Pascal’s high school Utopia all drove little red sportscars.
An English teacher – fiercesome and respectable and openly snobby to any other paper but a broadsheet – was reading out the winner of a “worst writing” short story competition.
“It was a dark and stormy night,” she read, I realise now contemptibly.
In my seat, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. What was the big deal? What was wrong with this story? It sounded fine to me, I even kind of liked it.
And I still do, in an affectionate way.
Let me be clear: I love clichés. I know my own writing contains them, and I certainly tolerate them, even enjoy them, sprinkled in others’ writings like 100s and 1000s: naughty, but in moderation.
Yet, allow me to reveal the discrepancy, even the hypocrisy: I don’t like clichés.
Sometimes they completely turn me off. Sometimes they annoy me. Sometimes they make me angry.
Angry: sad for the civilians of the clichés attack: the other words and sentences on the page because, you see, clichés done ‘wrong’ will make me close the book and wander back into the kitchen, for obvious and/or bored reasons!
My friends – and this certainly includes myself! – the cliché is a powerful tool. It can engage people and make them feel “sparkly” through descriptions like “shimmering”, “the sky twinked” and “her eyes sparked.” It can be a wonderful thing: a cliché woven into an otherwise tedious piece; it can make you laugh, smile or cring (in a good way.)
But beware my friends – including myself. It’s not that I’m seeking ‘friendship with oneself’ as much as an even playing field – the cliché should be used wisely, if at all.
And if in doubt, remember that the nemesis (and therefore antidote) of the cliché is Originality: something which blue/green eyes which sparkle like the Pacific Ocean will never compare to.