Friday, October 15, 2010

Professional Opinion: The Case For Cliches

I just spent the last hour and 15 minutes of my life trying not to storm out of a room while listening to a man. It was harder than I thought it would be.

Periodically, for my Internship class, we have guest speakers come in and present to us what it is they do and how they have made their livings in the writing world. While I have thoroughly enjoyed some of these speakers and gotten new and innovative ideas on where I could potentially go with my career, some of them, like today's, signify to me all that is wrong with the writing industry and world.

I've been learning lately that the "Lemon Law" that applies to dating-- the idea that within your first few encounters with a new man, he will tell you exactly, but maybe not in so many words, what it is that is wrong with him-- applies to the professional world as well. Within the first 5 minutes of meeting someone in a professional setting, you can usually get an idea as to their bend rather quickly. Sometimes it's in their lack of interest, or in their blatant disclaimer that they hate hiring new people to do what it is they think they can do best themselves. Today, the head editor of a local newspaper that shall remain unnamed, along with the speaker, pronounced within the first 5 minutes of sitting down that "99% of what is on the internet is swill."

This may have understandably got my hackles up, but what ironies and flip-flopping proceeded to come forth from his mouth really cemented him as, in my mind, probably one of the least-favorite individuals I've ever met. And this is why.

"Get rid of your mannerisms," he told us. "The hackneyed phrases; the cliches. You won't unearth your personal style until you strip away this junk." You know, I've heard this enough from my professors and other professionals that I get the point. A lot of budding writers stick to the cliches and what they know is widely known an accepted because they don't have the tools to formulate those phrases or thoughts yet themselves. But just like some of the rules of traditional style have to be sacrificed for the sake of excellent poetry (e.e cummings, anyone?), and you have to know the rules of grammar in able to stylistically have the license to break them, I think that some of those cliches are so wide-spread because when used sparingly and properly, they can speak to people and be understood instantly and better than anything new possibly could. I use cliches. I actually really love the nostalgia of certain cliches. The turns of phrase are more elegant and sophisticated than what I'm capable of coming up with on my own sometimes, and they read more consistently across the board. "Misery loves company." "Footloose and fancy-free." "Free as a bird." "As subtle as a bull in a china shop." They're beautiful. Why shouldn't we be able to use them, when the right moment arrives?

Furthermore, your mannerisms, I believe, are what make your voice. My mannerism are what makes my writing unique and stamps it as my own like a thumb print. You cannot write with the same spin that I do. I can't mimic your writing, because I don't think the way you do. My vocabulary is not your vocabulary. We don't use those same phrases and cliches-- we have our own favorites. Strip that away, and you're left with what? Associated Press-sounding content. Yes. Because AP style is totally going to make my page impression count go up.

This came from the same man who handed out a packet of what he considered "excellent writing" in which the following lines were included in "Warrior's Requiem", which, first of all, is an incredibly pompous name for a news article. Ever since "Requiem of a Dream," I've been weaned off of liking that word. Anyway, here are a few samples of sentences: "convalescing from the storms and stresses," "like a sudden liberated vacationist," "the outpouring of the national heart," "under the wide and starry skies of his own homeland America's unknown dead from France sleeps tonight, a soldier home from the wars," and "Alone, he lies in the narrow cell of stone that guards his body; but his soul has entered into the spirit of America. Wherever liberty is held close in men's hearts, the honor and glory and the pledge of high endeavor poured out over this nameless one of fame will be told and sung by Americans for all time." Gag me. Gag me, now. I'm sorry. Was that clear? Concise? Direct? Not cliche? Was that good news coverage for the everyman? No across the board.

He then encouraged us to keep our writing to one thought per sentence, shying away from using commas to tack on another compound thought, and forgo using "and," "because," "therefore," "however," and "although." "Don't force readers to think [back in the text] by using words like 'latter' and 'respectively'," he then told us; personally, I think he could have stopped at "Don't force readers to think," and summed up his whole outlook on his writing profession succinctly and successfully. Scary, then, that this man is in charge of the content of local news, and champions charging fees for accessing archived information and moving some forms of electronic news over as apps for iPad and smart phone users alone. Maybe I'm just from East Bumfuck, Nowhere, and maybe it's just my radical, nearly Communist, liberal way of thinking, but I'm sorry-- is local news a right, or a privilege? When I hear about a shooting in the town I grew up in, try to access my hometown newspaper's website, and can't get any information from it because I refuse to pay a fee for what will be a once-in-a-blue-moon-or-disaster frequency, do you know what I have to do? Call my family and friends and ask if everyone is ok. Chances that they know exactly what happened to whom? Slim. This helps me, and communities, how? Turning it into a money-making venture from something that used to be so typically First Amendment American turns my stomach. I believe that that's one hell of a way to alienate your audience, as well as your community. Very few disillusioned souls ever went into the newspaper business to get rich. You pick your lot in life-- now deal with it. Not all of us will end up being wildly successful. If you're in the writing gambit, chances are, you should be more comfortable with the idea of living in a cardboard box than in a mansion. Or, at least, anywhere far above the poverty line, unless you have an incredible talent and natural proclivity.

I guess what got me the most up on my soapbox about this dude was the fact that he seems to be instilled in the fact that you must condescend to your readers, and maybe more so, finds this appropriate. This flies in the face of all that I believe and hope to achieve. Reading Cosmo isn't fun anymore. I've moved to Glamour for my monthly glossy reading, with supplements like The Atlantic, The New Yorker, ELLE, and Vogue. Reading Cosmo, in fact, makes me feel stupid-- like I can literally feel my brain cells screaming out for a compound sentence and shriveling up. What I'm trying to offer here, at its best, is an alternative to the recycled dumbed-down content for the thinking woman, and honest intelligent insight into women's thinking for the everyman. Is this achieved in every post I write? Certainly not. But I do my best. The wait between posts is a real-time example of the amount of time it takes for me to find, research, mull over, and develop a new idea, or a new spin on an old idea. It's not easy. It's not to be taken lightly. What it is, I hope, is fun, sometimes innovative, and thought- or opinion-provoking.

Unlike our speaker today, I think that it is a writer's obligation to expand their reader's minds. To not cater to the intelligence slums of the masses, but challenge their readers to think. Challenge them by doing what other writers are too afraid, or too traditional, to do. Trust that your readers are people as intelligent as you are, if not more. Trust that they have interests. Trust in their powers to infer, or gather more information if they don't think they have all of it. And if absolutely nothing else, trust that your readers can always find somewhere else to read if they're not giving them what they desire. We're not sheep. You're not sheep. I hope I give you enough to stay interested. Please let me know if I'm ever not, and, unlike our speaker, I'll do my best to make sure to provide something eclectic and invigorating for you to read.


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