Sunday, May 24, 2009

Oh that’s SO Cliché!

One thing I noticed a fair amount of when I was teaching Creative Writing last semester was the tendency students had to refer to each others work as “cliché” or “stereotypical” or “unoriginal.” It’s something I remember experiencing for the first time when I took my first graduate level workshop – being cliché wasn’t something I had ever been accused of as an undergrad, for some reason, but my first semester in grad school I grew to loath the word cliché. Oh they tried to say it nicely, mind you. Things like, “This is funny in a totally clichéd way – I assume that’s what you’re going for, right?” or, “Your narrator seems like sort of an idiot because he speaks and behaves in a totally clichéd manner – is that intentional?”

I’m not going to bitch and moan about how much it hurts to be told that your writing is clichéd (a lot) or how it hurts even more to realize that (GASP!) the things your peers are telling you are true. I look back on my first graduate level workshop as one of the most painful but also most useful experiences I have ever had in my life, and while some of those comments still sting a little bit (they remind me, you know, how little actual talent I have because any ability that I do have has come from a whole lot of hard work) I feel I have improved drastically because of them.

But what I want to talk about here is my experience looking at it from the other side this past semester, as a teacher. I did have one incident during the semester where one student’s feedback was so over-the-top cruel (saying that the entire story was just one giant cliché and that it could not possibly be revised and should be thrown away altogether) but overall most of the students were trying to be constructive when they repeatedly accused each other of being cliché, and in fact, most of them were essentially right (of course, I still encouraged students to come up with more constructive feedback than “this is so cliché”).

Though a majority of the writing coming from that class showed promise (and some of it I believe will be publishable if the student keeps working on it), I would also say, if looking at it from an objective manner, most of the stories that were written for that class contained elements that were not particularly original. While some of the stories were certainly less original than others, it did seem to be true that most of the students were inadvertently falling back on ideas that most of us (who are perhaps more well read than a class full of undergraduate Intro to Creative Writing students) would say we’ve seen a thousand times before.

But here’s the trick. In general, the reason why things become cliché is because they’re effective. This is true on the sentence level (how many cliché metaphors and similes can you think of that would just shock you with their beauty and truth if it wasn’t for the fact that it was a cliché?) and it’s true on the larger scale, too. Characters often have this or that personality trait because it successfully tells you something important about them. We’ve seen this or that plot twist so many times because it works. See? Most clichés becomes cliché because, in truth, they’re excellent examples of writing.

What’s that you say? But a good writer comes up with his or her own good writing? Here’s the thing: I’ve come to realize that, at the early stage of writing, many excellent writers use clichés not because they’re not good enough to come up with something for themselves, but because they haven’t read widely enough yet to know that this is a cliché. It may well be (and I think often is) an idea that the writer came up with on his or her own, it just happens to also be an idea that tons of other people came up with too.

This is part of the reason why I think reading A LOT is essential to success as a writer. You have got to develop a broad knowledge base of what’s been done already and what hasn’t. Of course, there are a number of other good reasons why you should read a lot, but this is one that I think gets forgotten sometimes. And the other important thing I’ve taken away from this is the belief that writing really clichéd stuff early on – when you’re still learning how to write – does not necessarily preclude you from developing into a very good writer. It may well even be a sign of developing ability – you’ve figured out this thing that works, you just don’t have enough knowledge in your field yet to know that somebody else figured it out before you.

So write your clichés if you must. Eventually you’ll have to move past them if you want to be considered good by anyone but your mom, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that all writers who write in clichés are inherently bad. Maybe all it really means is that they still have a lot left to learn, and really, don’t we all?


Justus said...

I once had a professor who said that he was a defender of clichés because they work. I agree, basically, with the idea of defending clichés. Not clichéd language, but ideas and situations and character types that seem perhaps clichéd. And the reason is that when you get completely away from what's already been done, you wind up in territory that people have avoided for a reason. I once heard Aimee Mann talking about her young punk days where her band decided to do away with all the standards of music. They were going to throw it all out and do something completely new. And the result? They sounded TERRIBLE. Of course they did. I think the same thing is true of a lot of experimental writing. Sure, they avoid all the clichés, but they are also pretentious and worst of all boring. If a character doesn't have some clichéd aspect to them, then they probably aren't recognizably human. And if they aren't, then why would I want to invest my time reading a story about them? I'd rather read something that may be familiar but is interesting and engaging and perhaps told in new language. I guess I kind of buy into the old cliché that every story has already been told. You can talk about being original until you're blue in the face or until the cows come home, but there's nothing new under the sun.

Ashley Cowger said...

It's like when literary types are so against the sort of writing that is actually popular. If you've studied writing extensively than you recognize these things as cliches, but the fact is, it works and that's why the writers who are writing the cliched stuff are selling millions of copies and the ones who sit around and complain about how horrible those writers are usually aren't.