Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Power of a Cliché

Beginner's writing classes are all the same. During the first lesson the teacher will at some point, inevitably, share this one-size-fits-all mantra: "Show, don't tell." The idea is that abstract nouns are not as powerful as sensory details. So instead of vaguely saying, "I feel sad," you should give details, such as, "I could feel the warm tear run down the side of my cheek."

Hmm, okay. But consider this situation: I'm walking into the nursing home to visit an elderly man from my congregation. He is dying and not happy about it. Not. At. All. My hope is to lift his spirits but I am unsure of how this conversation will go. Should I avoid clichés as I talk with him?

Photo Credit: Tom Newby Photography via Flickr

If I'm focused on details then walking into a nursing home is almost sensory overload. The smell is what hits me first; it fills my nostrils, that institutional mix of urine and bleach. My ears catch the faint beeping of machinery [beeping is good!], as well as distant groans. Most of the residents here are past the point of caring what socially inappropriate sounds leave their bodies. I see heads lift to check whether I am a family member who has come for a visit.

I tend to catch all these details if I'm focused on myself and my experiences.

But if I'm truly focused on the individual I'm visiting then the visit takes on a different story. I see a man in need of a lifeline, who is trapped in darkness and looking for light, who is at the end of his rope. He shares, "the walls are closing in! I've run out of steam. Time is up."

When people are dying they speak in clichés. Why is that? In the context of a writing class, clichés are less effective and usually the consequence of laziness or avoidance. But is that what's going on with a dying man? Or for that matter, the young couple who has recently had their first child, or the teenager who is discovering romance for the very first time? We resort to clichés in life's most meaningful moments.

I believe people speak in clichés because it's a shared and intimate language. After all, an experience doesn't become a cliché unless it repeats throughout time and is experienced by many people. Using a cliché is a way to connect with others and feel less alone. There's no guesswork, it ensures you're instantly heard and understood. So when it comes to writing poetry then by all means, avoid clichés. But all I know is that the last thing a dying man yearns for is sensory details; his pain takes the form of clichés, and that's good enough for me.

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