Tag Archives: cliche

Personal Cliché

It is interesting tendency I notice that when I come to some profound change in life, I often resort to cliché in talking about it. Even when I make it up, finding the right way to say something, it has the force and compact quality of cliché.

“You can do a lot of things in life, but you can only do them one at a time.” This was a lesson I needed to learn, as I flitted from one thing to another and had grown frustrated with having so little sense of accomplishment. This single sentence boils it down to the essential point, though the story’s colors are lost along the way.

I have an impatient need to just move onto the next thing. But this also reflects the nature of our minds, showing the structure we necessarily impose on our thinking and memory.

After we’ve learned, the whole story is compacted, filed away. But, there’s a short liminal period when for a time we can see what has happened, how the changes took place.

This is why, incidentally, in business research it’s been found that it is better for someone who just learned something to teach others, than someone who mastered it long ago. Because you forget how you got there.

After the change is complete, in other words, we no longer have access to the mind that solved the problem. We may not even have much insight into the change, really. (It’s not necessary to understand change in order to progress.)

I’m reminded not only of Einstein’s inspiring quote, “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.” But also of a corollary, this time from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size.”

After that window is closed, explaining it to someone else can be an exercise in futility. We usually end up with a lifeless cliché, like that most despised by young people—Be yourself. I remember thinking, when well-meaning adults would say this to me, it seemed almost perversely naive. As if it’s so easy.

But at a certain point in life you just become more yourself, mostly because you can no longer put the energy into being something else. It’s pretty simple. Your self is actually an aggregate of all your choices, habits, and opinions, that reaches a sort of density that has more momentum than any of your projects to be something different, better, more enlightened, more glamorous, or whatever. This is why history seems inexorable in hindsight.

So, “be yourself” is just a conceptual marker of accomplishment, an acknowledgement rather than an injunction. Having found the circuitous path to it in our lives, we’ve earned that shorthand. But, each person must earn it themselves. This is why it is so hard to talk about this stuff with other people. You use tedious abstractions, trying to get at whatever it is. Conversation is a way of reaching for something, finding the words for something is like summoning it to you. And once you’ve reached it, it seems almost beside the point to talk about it with others who understand you. You just look at each other and say, “Yeah.” “Yeah.” And move on.

A goal of writing is to to preserve a moment in time, so that by some magic we can convey the richness of life to those reading it. It becomes an experience in and of itself. This is way beyond cliche, it is communication. It can help forge connections and lead you on the right path.

This makes me think of an old story. One night years ago I was hanging out with my friend Sarah. We were sitting right next to the stereo speakers, in our very first apartment, in Portland, Maine, listening to Pink Floyd’s Wish U Were Here.

How I wish you were here.
We’re just two lost souls
swimming in a fish bowl
year after year.
Running over the same old ground
What have we found
The same old fears?
Wish u were here

We looked at each other, stoned, all of nineteen, and said, “So true.”

Cliché Romance & Exorcism

As a writer, I have fought long and hard to remove cliche’d words and phrases from my writing. It’s an uphill battle, as you will see if you ever take up the challenge. One of my first writing teachers handed out a mimeographed, crooked old piece of paper with a list of a daunting number of phrases and word combinations considered cliché. Besides the tried and true, old stand-bys, the subtler examples (rock hard, steely-eyed, slippery slope) showed me how such ready-made phraseology is a hallmark of lazy thinking.

Writing is hard. There are so many cheats and short cuts, but they all add up to hackneyed writing. Readers can tell. Readers eyes glaze over, and that response is never the reader’s fault.

Today I found these in an essay draft:

silver lining

grass is greener

expand my horizons

pretty theory


and the ones included in this blog post I have purposely left in to show you the depths of my cliché problem.

Fearing that perhaps my thinking is hackeyed, I cut most of them. But I confess I love clichés. They are slightly ridiculous and strangely apt. Today I told a friend, “You made your bed, now lie in it.” We both laughed, as it was literally relevant to her situation. This somehow elevated the usage to the meta-comical, provoking a self-satisfied giddiness, like any well-placed pun or other low-brow verbal effect. Sure, I’m a word nerd.

The sociological interest, however, goes deeper. I’m fascinated by these turns of phrase, and what they may reveal about our culture and way of thinking, making connections, and categorizing.

I often deconstruct common concepts in my writing. The cliché is similar to stereotype in that it exists as a kind of shorthand. There is a kernel of truth to it. It’s a good jumping-off place. It takes on the air of symbol, that we know at a glance, and ignore, but that which can show us the contours of our beliefs, our interests and motivations.

Cliché is like found meaning. It has existed in culture long enough to be understood implicitly. It’s part of the human condition. The human condition—another curious concept that is more like a rhetorical tag than a defined thing.

Knowing that clichés help us work as little as possible to understand each other, I suppose that’s why they exist. But taking all the little events, how do they add up to a life? How do our words add up to meaning, or alter it, as a pebble plunked into a pond? How do they affect us? and how can we make our expression of ourselves more original?