“The reason clichés become clichés is
that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in
the toolbox of communication.” —Terry Pratchett
I learned the backbone of American language from my mother, aka the Queen of Cliché. While most parents charge their offspring to “Be home by eleven o’clock sharp,” my mother quipped, “If you’re not early you’re late.”
Language was a painting to her. Words and phrases, the catchier the better, were the brush strokes of finished sentences.
Other families played Monopoly; we played Scrabble. In time, Mama invented the Cliché Game, and it was fun.
It began with a well-worn phrase. On Mondays, for instance: “If the sun is shining and the creek don’t rise, we’ll go shopping.” She would then look at one of us and my brother would stop trying to figure out why Rice Krispies went snap, crackle and pop.
His response: “With any kind of luck, you might l find the new dishes you want.”
Two pairs of eyes then looked at me. I might say, “Don’t take any wooden nickels.”
Daddy’s thoughts were always on the budget. When he heard the word nickels, he piped up with, “My pocket is not a bottomless pit,” or, “Money doesn’t grow on trees.”
“Clean your plates!” Mama would say scraping her chair back from the table. “Let’s make hay while the sun shines.”
Any writer worth her ink is taught early on that clichés are a no-no.
Boring. Lacking creativity. But recently an article I read had a different viewpoint: “Clichés, having earned a significant place in the preservation of our culture, are considered the backbone of our communication system.”
Mama would be thrilled.
As a writer, an architect of prose, I type a distinctive breath of life into one-dimensional men, women or children. I hope the characters I create will leave a lasting impression on the reader and that the characters themselves might even be a little grateful.
In any event, I write about things and people I can see, hear, touch and especially those things I can still remember. Digging deep into my unconscious, I often find characters with delightful dialogue, words and phrases discovered while growing up with a mother who loved language and where dog-eared expressions were as natural to her as cooking grits.
My characters may not always be credible, and they may not even be realistic. I take a little something from one and a little more from another in order to make a whole new and distinctive entity. What (or who) I end up with becomes an amalgam of many people. Only then am I able to sit back and watch as they do whatever their created personalities dictate.
Mama’s Cliché Game taught me that creativity is a bottomless pit, and that the lowly cliché can be a diamond in the rough, or even a blessing in disguise.
With those thoughts in mind, I’ll try to keep up the good work while hoping it doesn’t drive me stark raving crazy. I’ll strive to turn off my computer before I’ve become blind as a bat, or worn to a frazzle. I pray that I will always be able to grab a new idea before it vanishes into thin air, leaving me sadder, but wiser.
Long live the Cliché!
– a conversation with our Opal writers about their articles
More by Cappy
Some of my friends are fighting a hard battle with depression.
“We’re tired of sheltering in place,” they say, “sick of the isolation. There’s nothing to look forward to except another day just like the day before.”
When it comes to food, Babe doesn’t dare complain about my cooking. Why? Because he doesn’t do kitchens, he does football and golf.
Humor writing in general is not easy and for the most part, it is not spontaneous. It takes practice and it takes knowing your audience. Because it is subjective, humor writing takes sensitivity. You might decide to do a piece about your Aunt Gertrude suffering with dementia.
Read the Feature Story this month: