If rule one for most writers is, “Show don’t tell,” then rule two is probably, “Never use clichés!” The exclamation point is mine – because although I would never argue with either of these rules, it seems to me that rule two is our most punishable offense, the schoolmarm’s knuckle-cracking yardstick of writing wisdom. I don’t believe in doing anything to avoid punishment. This to me is a backward way to go about things, since life, whether we like it or not, is always led toward and never away from. So let’s take another, more compassionate look at clichés and why our work is always better served without them.
All clichés worked once. One of my favorite clichés is, “The silence was deafening.” Isn’t that lovely? And quite deft, using the oxymoronic “deafening” to compel the reader to re-imagine overwhelming silence. The problem for writers is not that someone has already used this phrase and by doing so yourself you are committing the shameful sin of unoriginality; rather, by using this cliché you are denying your reader the opportunity to see the world new.
Whatever your readers pictured in their mind’s eye when they first read a cliché like the one above will remain with them forever, to be regurgitated whenever those words appear on a page. Whatever it is you are looking to describe cannot possibly be the very same thing your readers were having described to them when they created their mental image, and yet that is what they will see.
If you write to avoid shame, all your efforts are, in the end, selfish in the very worst sense of that word. There is no satisfaction in selfishness; selfishness satisfied is only fear delayed. But when you write generously, you write toward the gift and not away from the shame. Your gift is vision, to see clearly what has always been directly before us, and in so doing remind the reader, and yourself, that every silence and every flower and every person defies the confines of a single idea.
If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.