Clearing out the Cliches

You’ll notice that the world is full of cliches, but your writing shouldn’t be.

So why do these cliches persist and how can we stop them?

Here’s a basic idea.

When given a writing prompt, my students often scribble a sentence or two and drop their pens in exasperation or boredom or victory.

That’s one of my greatest pet peeves as a teacher. I want students to keep writing, to keep digging and exploring, to keep revising their thoughts and their articulation.

Chapter 3 of the latest featured book is titled, “first thought, worst thought.” The book is Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio. It’s a book about the craft of poetry specifically, but many of its truths apply to all writing.

One such truth is that what we initially think of or first put on paper is, “invariably banal, clichéd, or boring.”

Addonizio explains that our minds are filled with “received thoughts,” other people’s words and ideas, clichés, slogans, jingles, commercials, knock-knock jokes, sitcoms, school rules, famous lines from popular movies, automated telephone prompts, banners, theme songs, the ABC’s, and you know the rest.

These are the things we usually think and write first. They’re like reflexes. Our minds have been conditioned to these “universal” cues of communication.

BUT… if we do the work of clearing our minds of the clutter, of not settling for those initial thoughts or scribbles, we can push our way into some pretty creative stuff.

I go back to my students. One reason so much writing is uninteresting and unoriginal is because we fail to keep writing. We under-write. One of my earliest creative writing teachers said we should write several pages more than what we actually planned on keeping. That way we’d be able to find worthy material amid all crap.

Addonizio gives several ideas for pushing past those initial drafts filled with trite thoughts. One that speaks to the idea of overwriting is “sufficient thought.” You should actually think rigorously about what you write to “achieve a poem that really explores and develops your subject.”

If writing is thinking on paper, you should write more. That’s what I’d tell my students.

By cluttering up pages and pages with words and phrases, we actually unclutter our minds of all those clichés. Hopefully… if we’re putting sufficient thought on paper.

To end with the words of the poet and author whose book inspired this post:

“It’s about letting go of the conditioned mind–all of those received thoughts–and tuning in to some level of thinking that’s deeper than our usual concerns.”