At the end of the day, clichés are as American as apple pie. My writing teachers used to tell me, “when stuck between a rock and a hard place, don’t beat around the bush, use clichés.” At the time I was wet behind the ears and waiting for the cows to come home when pigs fly, so I felt dumber than a box of rocks when I tried to get down to brass tacks. As they say, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
Once upon a time, I couldn’t tell my ass from a hole in the ground, so I was glad to learn every gray cloud has a silver lining. Writing is feast or famine, so it’s best to just go with the flow.
I felt like a fish out of water when I first put pen to paper, but from humble beginnings come great things. I said to myself “don’t put the cart before the horse, go at a snail’s pace.” Even if your nutty as a fruitcake, there’s nothing new under the sun to write, especially if you’re stone cold sober.
I learned if I just keep on truckin’, I’d soon have more writing than you can shake a stick at. If you just take it one day at a time, eventually you’ll hit paydirt and write something that will make others green with envy. If not, shit happens.
So don’t just sit there looking as useless as tits on a bull; there’s no time like the present to try your hand at writing. Then again, maybe clichés are not my cup of tea, and perhaps I’ve only opened a can of worms by giving clichés a place in the sun. Anyhoo, I’ve never been too good at seeing the forest for the trees. Perhaps it’s best to just wash my hands of the whole thing, but you can bet your bottom dollar that every bump in the night can turn an armchair quarterback into an old pro when it comes to writing.
Write a ten-line or ten-sentence text. The text must include a proverb, adage, cliche or familiar phrase. You must change this expression in some way. In other words, it can’t be used in the traditional way, transparent or played straight. It must also include at least five of the following words:
You have ten minutes to complete this text.
You’ll have our undying admiration if you are able to use all ten words or writing two ten-line/ten-sentence texts.
Using a cliché means using an automatic expression, turn of phrase, or idiom that has entered the general consciousness to the point where it is banal and hackneyed. They are usually extremely common expressions and are generally derided as uncreative in creative writing courses. When readers encounter a cliché or an automatic expression, they do not have to do any work to unpack the phrase or think about its place in the text, which means the text will have less resonance.
When you find yourself using a cliché, it usually means you’ve run up against a barrier in your writing. In other words, you’ve hit a place where language fails to present estranged, novel, or unique ways of creating.
This exercise gives us a fruitful way to use clichés to our advantage by not playing them straight. The time constraints combined with the list force us to act on them rather than get caught up in thinking and associations.
When you revise your writing, try to identify and replace all instances of cliches or automatic writing, including obvious physical and emotional descriptions as well as idioms, with more compelling choices that reflect your emerging style as a writer.
Beyond sentence-level cliches, character types and plots can also be clichés, so try to also be mindful of writing worn-out characters and plots.
Adapted from Rita Dove’s “Ten-Minute Spill” in The Practice of Poetry, Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, eds.