Writing

The Cliche as an Opportunity

I was at a bad poetry reading—the kind of reading where the architectural details of the room are more interesting than the poems themselves. I focused on keeping the “politely interested” look fixed to my face. But my concentration was broken when one of the poets intoned, “the tulips were yellow as the sun.”

I don’t need to tell you, dear reader, that this is a cliché. The purpose of poetry is to see things in a new way, not to repeat childish clichés and tired imagery. But not only was the image uninteresting, it was incorrect. The Sun is a yellow dwarf star, but rarely appears to be the color of a tulip. In fact, most of us look at it directly only when it is shrouded in haze and has taken on a dark orange glow.

I don’t mean to shame this poet. We’ve all written boring lines and come to obvious conclusions. It’s part of the writing process! But this is where revision becomes important. Look for places where your writing relies on other people’s phrases. I don’t mean plagiarism, but rather descriptions that are encoded in our language. Some examples are a cozy village, a feisty heroine, sleeping like the dead, being cool as a cucumber, lost in the weeds, coming down the pipeline, time heals all wounds. Clichés have their place in the language, but not in literature.

I told an undergraduate intro to poetry class about my bad poetry reading, where the tulip was yellow as the sun.

“Tell me something about the sun,” I said.

“It’s a star,” one student said.

“What’s it made out of?”

“Helium?” a student ventured.

“What color is helium?” I asked.

“I think it’s odorless and colorless,” she responded.

“What color is the sun?”

“Orange?”

“How often do you look at that the sun?”

“Hopefully not very often.”

“Exactly. The sun is made up of colorless gases and we can’t look at it straight on. It is hot and dense enough that nuclear fusion occurs at its core. The Parker Solar Probe is heading there now, where it will come as close as anything can to ‘touch’ the gaseous sun. All of those things are more interesting than the fact that the tulip was yellow as the sun.” The class agreed. Sometimes it’s good for students to have something to superior about.

Don’t beat yourself up (cliche) for writing a cliche. Instead, think about how to make the image more specific. A cliche is an opportunity to make your writing more interesting. Do you need some inspiration? Here is a poem by Margaret Atwood (please ignore the crap line spacing):

You fit into me

like a hook into an eye

 

a fish hook

an open eye

 

(Photo credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben)

 

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “The Cliche as an Opportunity”

  1. After attending a class on “creative writing in academia” (surely a contradiction in terms–discuss), two fellow students happened to be passing a coffee shop window in Toronto. There, seated at the table in front of them and writing quietly in her notebook, was the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, and Alias Grace. The course had been “heavy on Atwood”, the prof’ was a big fan, and we were all pretty tired toward the end. One of the two threw herself at the shop window, “Somebody stop her!” she shouted, banging on the glass. “For God’s sake somebody take that pen away!”

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    1. That’s hilarious! (Even though I am an Atwood fan.)

      Ah, creative writing in academia. As you surmised, I have thoughts. I have found creative writing advice, techniques, and an essay assignment I called “creative inquiry” to be incredibly useful and effective for undergraduates. (Maybe they would be for graduate students too? I have no idea. I have not been allowed to teach them.)

      I have a friend who was working on an MFA in photography. She had to both create photo projects and write critically about her own work, and that left her unable to create art. And by critically I don’t mean critiquing her subject and craft (these are probably the wrong words, because I’m a writer and not a photographer). She had to write a critical/theoretical response to her own work.

      My own MFA thesis reader, after I was unable to answer a question about a poem I had written, said (and, for the record, I love that man), “I think it was Jim Harrison who once was asked about a poem he had written, and he said, ‘I am the bird, not the ornithologist.'” A person can neither simultaneous theorize about her own art and produce her art.

      I can’t do a Lacanian (*name plucked out of the foggy memory of my English major days) analysis of my own poems. However, since I write about science, I can read texts about science and poetry in order to enrich my own work. It’s late in the day, and I don’t know if I’m making sense. But I think the short answer is creative writing is useful in academia in one direction, but maybe less so in the other.

      Coloring my response is the fact that there can be incredible disdain in literature/lit theory circles for the contemporary writer. (Although I suppose the reverse is true too.)

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  2. >> I have not been allowed to teach them.

    That is such a shame. I actually have fond memories of my creative writing class, it pushed us as it should, and the fact that we were all tired toward the end was a testament to its rigor. Keep pushing for your course! Or come to Canada and teach, we can help you track down Margaret Atwood’s coffee shop.

    I think there are certain branches of academia, maybe even just certain faculties, that positively encourage creativity in any written work; whilst others require what I think of as the old-school science approach of my undergraduate degree–straight facts, third-person perspective, highly-constrained, empirical evidence-based interpretations only–in an attempt at a veneer of objectivity. Meanwhile, dotted about the academic landscape, occasional ivory towers radiate their disdain of “other work” like the Eye of Sauron impaling a luckless hobbit.

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  3. I love that the veneer of objectivity is being smashed. That said, and bear in mind I copyedit scientific and mathematics journals as one of my day jobs, I’m curious how scientists are encouraged to write creatively within their formal papers. (I have long been a fan of scientists writing more creatively for the general public [cf., Lab Girl and Braiding Sweetgrass].) It’s not that science itself is not inherently creative.

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  4. I think hydrogen (the other gas in the sun) is actually red in sufficient quantities to see — also fatal to inhale. And I understand our sun is white to the human eye, outside of our atmosphere. So maybe the cliche was about the falseness of perception. Just sayin’.

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