Cliches, nuclear weapons, cattle, & memoirs

Luke’s notice of a comprehensive cliché site reminded me of a big shift in my thinking. As a writer, you struggle long and hard to stamp these things out. But they always creep in, you just can’t stop them. You can only ruthlessly edit them out.

My favorite definition of a cliché comes from Dr. Marc Arnold, one of my instructors at UALR: “A cliché is anything you’ve heard before.” Given the infinite adaptability and extensibility of language, why do we fall back on pattern? So we can remember. Reading Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy a few months back provided some surprising insight into this process.

Ong cites the work of Millman Parry in his doctoral dissertation from 1928 regarding the repetitive patterns of words in Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad. The aesthetic values of the oral poets were not based in originality of word choice, but instead by their integration of these boilerplate words into a fluent exciting narrative. This immediately made me think of the early works of Tom Waits, because he uses every tired cliché available and yet he makes them fun, just by the sequence and juxtaposition of them. Sometimes it feels forced, but choosing to use them at all is a fairly radical gesture cutting against the notion of originality in our writing based, chirographic culture. Is this quest for the new, in phrasing at least, a bit of a distraction from real creativity? Isn’t the specific effect a bit more important than the method used to achieve it?

Another way of looking at it might be to propose that oral discourse works by fusion of existing concepts into more interesting forms, forms developed through relationship rather than syntactic variety. Written discourse, with it’s emphasis on novel syntactic forms is fission, breaking down the clichés into discrete units that, though they serve the same function of generating interest, they rely less on relationship to known qualities or known experience and instead insist on the new as the ultimate quality of worth.

Now I’m going nuclear. Maybe it’s because I just read a well written accound of how nuclear weapons work. I drifted there because of some amazing pictures taken by a camera developed by Harold Edgerton. Rapatronic photographs present a slice of life that I hope to never see. For something completely different, there was also an interesting bit about the cow population in my old stomping grounds, the Great Central Valley:

At current growth rates — the cow population of the valley will more than double in the next 20 years, from 1.5 million to more than 3.8 million. By 2010, those cows will double the amount of fine dust particles and will significantly raise levels of ammonia, methane and other gases, the report notes.

My favorite part of the story was the typically journalistic snappy quote: “We’ll be rolling up our sleeves and digesting this,” she said. Uh, when was the last time you were at a dairy? I’d suggest rolling up your pants legs rather than your sleeves. Or better still, stick your nose in and take a wiff. That will cure any desire to digest the problem.

Returning back to problems in writing, Vivian Gornick’s piece Memoir: an Inward Journey Through Experience is a far more valuable read than the cliché site. I wish bloggers would get over the idea that they must adopt some dramatic personna distant from themselves in order to record their experiences. It’s not creative; it’s antithetical to the whole journaling enterprise.

Post your entries as fictions if you don’t care to be sincere about who you are. But label it that way, and don’t delude yourself into believing that you can become your own cartoon hero. The test for a cliché is simple: have you heard it before? By this definiton, the major constituent of weblogs is cliché because linking to things said before is the main order of business. This troubles me far less than the lack of the feeling that I’m dealing with original personalities. Cartoon heroes are the worst sort of clichés because they are everywhere. Accounts of life experiences are on the rise through blogging. I like it, but maybe I’ve just surfed into one too many teenager sites.