is what we all say
when we’re too lazy
to find another way
and so we say
warm as toast,
quiet as a mouse,
slow as molasses,
quick as a wink.
Is toast the warmest thing you know?
Think again, it might not be so.
Think again: it might even be snow!
Soft as lamb’s wool, fleecy snow,
a lacy shawl of new-fallen snow.
Listen to that mouse go
scuttling and clawing,
nibbling and pawing.
A mouse can speak
if only a squeak.
Is a mouse the quietest thing you know?
Think again, it might not be so.
Think again: it might be a shadow.
Quiet as a shadow,
quiet as growing grass,
quiet as a pillow,
or a looking glass.
Slow as molasses,
quick as a wink.
Before you say so,
take time to think.
Slow as time passes
when you’re sad and alone;
quick as an hour can go
happily on your own.
-A Cliché by Eve Merriam
Today, I’m sitting firmly astride the fence (oops, a cliché). It’s an uncomfortable position I generally don’t like and one I attempt to avoid whenever possible, because, as I’m always exhorting students, people need to have the strength of their convictions. (I’m also quick to add they need to have the honesty and courage to examine those convictions periodically and see whether, in the light of new evidence and new life experience, those convictions still withstand scrutiny as true. And when I say ‘convictions,’ I’m not speaking of absolute truths, by the way. Although that’s a completely separate topic we can talk about another time, because yet again, I digress.) Sitting on the fence also goes against everything I teach about writing essays. Take a stand, I sternly tell students. You can’t argue both sides of an issue, I tell them. So yes, kids, I’m violating my own rule today. Classic case of do as I say, not do as I do. Oops. Was that another cliché?
As you may have surmised from the poem at the beginning, I’m discussing clichés. And as you may have also surmised, I’m of mixed feelings about them. Merriam evidently laboured under no such problem, because her poem comes out firmly --- although gently --- against. And... she’s right in everything she says about them.
We most often associate a cliché with a tired, overused expression, verbal or written, but it can apply equally to characters or situations, fictional or real life. A big part of the reason why we employ clichés is because, I think, for whatever cause, many people frequently just don’t feel particularly creative, and clichés are a way of inserting at least something into the conversational or literary void. Merriam makes this point really well: replacing clichés with something creative requires... well, creativity. It’s easier to simply put our brains on autopilot --- even though when that happens, the results are often not pretty. Case in point: as a university student --- back in the Dark Ages, as my students like to say in their clichéd way --- one of my summer jobs was at a historical park that came with a village of real and replica buildings. As an exhibit interpreter at the police barracks, I was required to don the uniform of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police (yes, the famed Mounties), and my gosh, if you think for one minute people don’t engage in clichés, you have never worked a job interacting with the general public. Allow me to share a few thoughts from that job that remain with me, 35 years later: people are not nearly as original as they think; not nearly as creative as they think; and not nearly as humorous as they think. We could devolve these depressing truths into a diatribe about humanity’s collective intelligence/creativity in general, but again, I digress, and besides, I’m not feeling particularly misanthropic today. (Actually, it was mostly a pretty good job, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic, too.)
So anyway, clichés are tired. Overused. Creatively bankrupt. Frequently make us roll our eyes (especially for literary types generally, English teachers specifically).
Here’s the rub, as Will might say: clichés work. We can all identify with them, can all relate to them, and there’s one primary reason why: many times, our lives are just one long damned string of clichés. They’ve been done endlessly before --- that’s why they’ve become clichés. I know, I know: that’s one horrifying truth, isn’t it? We all want to think our lives are startlingly original, full of unique adventure, romance and Searching For The Truth (except, evidently, those tourists at my job all those summers ago, who seared me day in, day out with their clichéd inanities). We all want to think our thoughts are full of original insight and intelligence and wit. Unfortunately, the truth is, for most people most of the time, they’re not. That’s why we want to read about Frodo setting off for Mount Doom. Because, even if it would be insanely dangerous in real life --- even if, in all likelihood, we would hate every single minute while we attempted it --- it sure doesn’t sound dull. And it’s definitely unique. (Well, unique in one sense. Just about the oldest plot line in human history is the struggle of good against evil, and much of everything literary since Adam, Eve and the snake has mostly just been a rehash of that, with details changed. But never forget that details are important.)
Now, let’s be clear: this is not meant as an indictment of our lives (well, not absolutely, at any rate). I don’t have my grump on about life --- at least, not today. In defence of people, I want to acknowledge that the slings and arrows of outrageous daily fortune do tend to wallop the creative mickey right out of us (including me). So okay, use clichés if necessary. Just do it sparingly. And if you can possibly summon the creative energy to be a little more original, then absolutely, do so. As Merriam says: “Before you say so (use a cliché), take time to think.”
Because even if it really is a dark and stormy night... there’s better ways of saying so.