crashing cliches

Journal THAT

a guide to writing

Cynthia Gregory

Like photographs, clichés are the shorthand of communication. If a picture truly is ‘worth a thousand words’ (a pretty cliché) it’s because its cash value rests on the fact that the ancient part of the brain, the primitive lizard brain, the dreaming brain, communicates with pictures. I mean seriously, think about it. Before written language, our ancestors drew pictures of actual horses to represent “animal” or “the hunt” or “wild and free” before there were actually spoken or written words to convey the ideas. Now, however, we are wildly sophisticated and have a language (or two) that we can manipulate to communicate otherwise free form ideas floating inside our cabezas.

Storytelling served as a history lesson before written language, and storytelling today is as popular around the campfire, board room table, or cafe four-top as ever. Stories are innately wired into us and as humans, we crave and respond to the story. The stories of our lives, our novels, movies, television and cable news, are a series of pictures – both visual and virtual. Actual photographs and pictures  illustrate a narrative we may tell, as in “see? I was in Paris – here’s the Eiffel Tower,” or “here’s a photo of little Sophie Soo, ten years old.” In each case you may be telling a story, constructing a narrative and sharing information about your travels and your dog, backing your verbal story up with photographic evidence. So yes, pictures are worth thousands and thousands of words.

And if all those wonderful words at our fingertips were colors, original ideas are bright, clear fountains of rich hues, and clichés are dull as dirt.

The trouble with clichés is that they are so infused into our daily language, we hardly recognize them for their trite, frayed selves. Advertisers know this. They know that people are put off by formal language, fancy words, words that stand up straight and march with a snap in their step, so they dumb down marketing messages, intentionally inserting clichés so that their uber-sophisticated messages sound “down to earth” (cliché!) and “right as rain” (cliché!). Television programmer know this too, and make sure our televised stories don’t get too smarty pants, else run the risk of losing viewers –although because of the trance-like fog I fall into when I tune into a program I happen to enjoy, “viewing” isn’t exactly what I’d say I was doing. I’d bet a nickel that not one filter remains intact with all that bad, cliché loaded language comes washing over me. While some programs are brilliantly written, most programming I’ve observed seems to be no more than 30 minutes of tired ideas strung together. So when you think about all the hours of programming and bad language we’re exposed to, it’s no wonder we’re up to our eyeballs in clichés.

So, if everybody is guilty of crimes of language abuse, then it must be okay, right? In the words of mothers everywhere, “just because all the kids are doing something doesn’t’ make it right.” Clichés have their place, which is definitely not between the covers of your journal. You want your journal to be clear, concise, absolutely fecund with the rich details of your life, so absolutely pitch-perfect that with even a quick glance, you inspire yourself to write. Even. More.

So, once in a while work your language muscle a little harder. Avoid the flabby turns of phrase. Jettison the flaccid prose that comes so easily. Instead, read an amazingly genius writer and then journal. Turn the TV off, and journal. Instead of taking the easy way out and dropping in an over-worked and sad sad sad cliché and reach for something original. You may just surprise yourself with your own genius.

4 thoughts on “crashing cliches

  1. A friend asked me at dinner last night “what does ‘organic’ really mean?”, and we went through all the cliches – “organic business venture”, “an organic relationship”, and “organic thinking”, laughing as we acted out all the crappy new “meaning” that has been added to a simple word, coming to the conclusion that the corporate world is often more creative with words than we give it credit for! No excuse, then, for writers!

    • M, I am convinced that once the corporate world adopts a word/phrase, it’s curtains. . .and a sure sign that whatever that word/phrase might have once meant, it’s headed for the bone pile. Thankfully for those who pay attention, this can also signal that it’s time to fine a newer, fresher bot mots. Cheers to a living language!

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