I saw a job posting recently that asked the applicant writer to pick out all the clunky usages in the posting itself. It got me thinking.

We cherish clichés.

We all do, to one degree or another. We don’t mean to. We don’t want to. We do it anyway.

We do it and deny that we do. Or we say, I’ll excuse it just this once. Or we use the cliché as a placeholder until some better idea comes along…we’ll let it go, for now, and fix it in the rewrite. Sure.

Welcome to the writer’s infinite capacity for self-deception.

The trite phrase, emotion, reaction, combination of words: We excuse it as a harmless indulgence. We love the sound of it in our ears and on our lips. We forgive it as a sentimental, self-indulgent guilty pleasure. Sometimes, we convince ourselves that it just works there…so what’s the problem?

For the reader in me who is also a writer, nothing flicks the Off switch of my tolerance faster than a cliché. Looks that burn. Lumps in throats. On and on anon. I get a severe case of the icks. Even if the work is my own.

Do I use these too-easy devices? Yes. Do I let them live? God, I hope not for long.

I’m facing exactly this issue in the current reworking of a chapter. A character, in her POV, reacts to shocking but not-unexpected news. How do we express this? Even artfully expressed, the caught breath, the lump in the throat…they’re inexcusable. Coming up with some better way at this small moment is a chafing time-eater. It’s going to take patience and a step back and, most of all, time. There will be no moving forward while this stone remains in my shoe.

To leave a cliché on the page is laziness. It is evidence the writer’s boredom; of the failure of Idea. It is self-coddling of the worst kind. Away with them.

Is there a place on the shelf for these wicked little dolls? Maybe. A cultural cliché might, in passing, define a character’s contemporariness to the reader who doesn’t share it. Another example: A cliché exploited self-consciously, one that refers to its origin and plays upon its meaning , can be an interesting device for a close third-person voice. “I am using a cliché,” the device says, “but I am better and stronger than it is.”

It takes a skilled writer to turn a cliché on its head…perhaps a writer more skilled than I am. For now, I’ll just swallow around the lump in my throat, put my shoulder to the wheel, and struggle through. And before you’re tempted to wonder…yes, I knew that those were clichés.

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