‘Story is an affirmation of our ties to one another.’
~Terry Tempest Williams
My spouse and I are listening to a not-so-great audiobook as our long drive’s entertainment. After an hour or so I turn it off for a much-needed break. Apparently Mark hasn’t heard my sighs and is surprised I don’t like it. I suggest the problem is not the plot but the clichéd writing. That’s when my marriage comes into question.
This man, with whom I have made children and to whom I have pledged lifelong fidelity, claims clichés are expected. He sees my expression but unwisely goes on to say he believe clichés are actually necessary.
It’s lazy writing, I tell him. As an editor I excise clichés with a fierce pen. (Although we editors no longer edit with pens.)
Because we’re stuck in the car, I give him a bit of the cliché talk I share with writing classes. I say thanks to imaging studies, we know what writers have long understood. Sensory-rich language, particularly when embedded in stories, makes writing come alive for the reader. When we take in straight-up information like a lecture or textbook, our brains show activity largely in the language-processing area. This indicates we are doing the basic work of decoding sounds or symbols into recognizable meaning. In contrast, a well-told story activates not only our language processing areas but also other areas of the brain – putting us inside the story. Say we read about walking into a much loved rib joint where smokers are finishing up bbq pork, greens and onions are frying, a milkshake is being poured from one of those chilled stainless steel malt cups. Our sensory cortex is activated as if we smell the smoker, hear the greens frying, see the thick milkshake slump into the glass. We may even salivate in anticipation.
Consider the way news comes to us. During a quick televised report we might hear brief facts about a suspected break-in on the west side of town, no one hurt, police investigating. We process the information along with the day’s avalanche of facts, unlikely to pay much attention unless we live on the west side or have our own troubling break-in memory. But if we’re told the story differently, we experience the story’s events. Say the homeowner is interviewed. She describes sitting on the couch late at night, snuggled up in her pajamas watching a movie. She thinks she hears something on the back porch. She mutes the volume, listens, gulping back her fears. When the doorknob rattles she grabs her phone. Suddenly broken glass is scattering across the kitchen floor. She leaps from the couch and runs to the front door, her fear-moistened hand scrabbling to turn the knob, and then she’s running barefoot across the snow to her neighbor’s house. She pounds on the door, almost collapsing in relief when she’s welcomed inside. As she tells the story, you react. Emotional areas of your brain for fear and relief light up. Your motor cortex lights up in the area controlling your hand as if you too are scrabbling at the doorknob, then lights up in your legs and feet as if you too are running down the steps and across the snow.
That’s why I expound on this with my writing students, I tell Mark. So they know to let the reader’s arms feel their strain as they try to lift Grandma out of bed, preserving her dignity though they feel like weeping. So they help readers feel enraged at their high school math teacher’s expression when he suggested they drop out of calculus. So the reader’s skin prickles when they write about an unfair workplace. Mark is nonplussed. This man, who tears up at animal reunion videos, says maybe people don’t feel things as intensely as I do.
These are fighting words, but I’m still in explain-mode.
I’m talking brain imaging, I say. Our brains mirror other brains; that’s how we understand one another. He’s still got his patient listener face on, so I continue. This explains how clichés impair writing. Because when we hear a cliché like put the cart before the horse our brains don’t evidence any interest. That saying was originally a clever use of language the first 1,000 or 100,000 times it was said but our brains react minimally to clichés. Brain imaging shows we take them in only at the most basic level. Phrases like ‘scared out of my wits’ or ‘made of money’ were original once, but now they deaden our responses. Besides, many clichés in common usage come to us from generations ago, when everyone knew how foolhardy it was to put the actual cart before the actual horse. Take the cliché ‘caught red-handed.’ This likely came from centuries back, when serfs worked the land of some lord or another. There were strict rules against poaching. Even if one’s family was starving on what little they could grow, it was illegal to hunt on the lord’s land. Caught red-handed meant you had blood on your hands and would be severely punished.
Mark alleges he still likes clichés and gleefully adds the cliché, ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’* It’s a game now. We continue to toss out ever more ridiculous clichés until we weary of them and put the audiobook back on. And listening to it, we finally we reach a cliché-related accord. I agree with him that a book’s character can and perhaps should use clichés if it’s in keeping with that character. In this pop mystery, I can see why a character or two would talk this way. Mark agrees with me that the book we’re listening to also uses clichés in description and plot development outside of character narration, and it’s off-putting. We listen a few more miles and he says. ‘Now I can’t help but hear all the clichés. Thanks.’ We give up on the book.
Yes, we’re still married. And yes, I still give that cliché talk but have learned to keep it in the classroom.
*The expression, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ first appeared in a book of husbandry back in 1523. It’s also not true. Studies show you can teach old dogs new tricks, in fact senior dogs do better than young dogs when learning tasks that require inference or reasoning.