As it turns out, the best teacher I’ve had on the topic of avoiding cliché was my high school art teacher – Mr. Miller. He used to talk about the difference between symbols and art. A symbol, he said, is something like a stick figure. It conveys a basic idea, and keeps us from walking into the wrong bathroom at the movie theater, but that’s about all it does.
To create art, you have to work past the stick figure. Art shows you a unique person – the scar on his hand, the wrinkles around his eyes, the hunch of his shoulders. The details, and how you depict them as the artist, are what make it art.
In writing, that stick figure is what we call a cliché. It gets the idea across, but lacks any artistic inflection.
I have been thinking a lot about Mr. Miller lately, and not because he was super dreamy (though he was). The fact is, setting my story in the desert gives me a specific and sometimes limited pallet. It is hot, dry and dusty. Browns and yellows dominate. The sky is usually clear. So telling my story in this fairly monochromatic setting is a challenge. How to describe this specific place, not just a symbolic place?
As inspiration I decided to reread “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, because it too sets down in an environment without a lot of variation. Opening in the dust bowl, Steinbeck had to dig deep to paint a picture of the place, to find the words to make it real. Check this out:
“A large red drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone, and a torn cloud, like a bloody rag, hung over the spot of its going. And dusk crept over the sky from the eastern horizon, and darkness crept over the dusk.”
“Ahead of him, beside the road, a scrawny, dusty willow tree cast a speckled shade. Joad could see it ahead of him, its poor branches curving over the way, its load of leaves tattered and scraggly as a molting chicken.”
That is some juicy description. No linguistic stick figures here.
What I’m learning is that it’s not easy. Writing descriptions like that is like painting a picture. You can’t just drag a dark line for the horizon and blob a yellow circle for the sun. You have to really look at it, and then chose your words carefully so as to tell exactly what it looks like. It takes attention and dedication. No dark stormy nights, no girls as thin as soda straws.
More recently my teacher Janet Fitch (amazing writer of “White Oleander” and “Paint It Black”) told our class that anything you’ve ever heard anyone say before is cliché. It’s the way you tell it that makes your story unique. The more I pay attention, the more I notice stick figures in my writing and have to erase them, stop, and ask myself, “what does it really look like?”
So, this is what I’m shooting for. Nothing short of Steinbeck. A girl’s gotta have goals, right?
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