For many years I taught courses in imaginative writing to college students, and when it came time to read their work, I kept three tools of the trade close at hand.
One was a fine-point pen, with which I corrected errors of grammar and usage. Another was a mechanical pencil, with which I made marginal comments. And the third was a small rubber stamp, which fit neatly into its circular ink pad. A relic of my son’s childhood, the stamp produced a miniature image of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, complete with oversized head, upraised tail, and greedy-looking paws. At once fierce and benign in aspect, this creature was known as the Cliché Monster, and whenever a cliché appeared in a student’s essay, poem, or story, he too would appear, poised to devour the offending phrase. “Don’t feed him,” I warned the students, “or he’ll come back for more.”
As might be expected, a few students ignored that warning or took it as a dare, teasing or testing the Monster with intentional clichés. But most understood that this silly little figure had a serious role to play in their education. Broadly speaking, the Cliché Monster engendered awareness of the tendency, common to us all, to write, think, and even feel in clichés. More subtly, his presence made novice writers aware of the difference between a common English idiom, which might add a conversational flavor to a sentence, and an outright verbal cliché, which is to language and thought what dead cells are to the skin. To say, for example, that you’re at your wit’s end is to enlist an admissible, if rather tired, idiom. But to say that you’re “at the end of [your] tether” is to emit the scent of cliché and invite a visit from the Monster. And to write (or say) that someone should “step up to the plate,” or worse, that one or another political party is “kicking the can down the road,” is to offer the Cliché Monster a meal of prime red meat, a verbal feast of clichéd perception.
As has often been noted, the practices of writing and Zen have much in common, and nowhere is their common ground more evident than in this issue of freshness. Many years ago, in a public interview, an unsuccessful candidate for the presidency of Alfred University observed that “we have to have a cushion in case there’s a ripple in the admissions picture.” I took note of that remark, not only because it was a masterpiece of mixed metaphor but also because it entirely befogged the candidate’s meaning. What he meant to say, I eventually discerned, was that the university needed to have funds in reserve in the event that enrollment dropped. But his conceptual language, being a tissue of clichéd metaphors, stood between the listener and the import of the speaker’s words.
As proponents of clarity and vivacity in the use of language, teachers of composition disdain clichés chiefly because they dull the student’s work and tend to obscure its meaning. From the vantage point of Zen teachings, however, clichés are to be avoided because they exemplify, in extreme form, the propensity of conceptual language to mask the reality it purports to illuminate. Readers of this column may remember that its title refers to the Japanese motto ichigo ichie, which is closely associated with the tea ceremony and is usually translated as “one time, one meeting.” As this motto asserts, each meeting of host and guests in the tea hut is unprecedented and unrepeatable. However governed by custom and tradition, each is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And what is true of the tea ceremony, Zen teachings tell us, is also true of our experience generally. By relying upon clichéd language, we deny the “suchness” of each new experience. To call a landscape “breathtaking” is not only to be less than fresh in one’s thought and expression. It is also to overlook the particulars of that particular landscape—or ignore its uniqueness altogether. Having placed the mountain or glacier or fjord in the category of Breathtaking Landscapes, we may cease to see it afresh.
At the same time, we may also cease to recognize its impermanence, its ever-changing nature. “Practitioners have always understood impermanence as the cornerstone of Buddhist teachings and practice,” notes the Zen priest Zoketsu Norman Fischer. “[N]othing lasts. Therefore nothing can be grasped or held onto.”* At their most banal, clichés are the by-products of laziness or haste: we can’t be bothered or don’t have the time to see things as they are or describe them accordingly. But at their most pernicious, clichés are also gestures toward an illusory sense of permanence: efforts to grasp and make solid what is actually fluid and dynamic. Originally, the word cliché referred to a printer’s stereotype: an oft-used phrase cast on a metal plate. A practical convenience, the cliché spared the printer time and energy. That was good for the printer—but not so good for those who might wish, in the words of the poet Patrick Kavanagh, to “snatch out of time the passionate transitory.”**
Nowadays most printing is done by computer, and the printer’s cliché is no longer in service. But clichés themselves are alive and well, as a glance at a newspaper or an hour spent watching Meet the Press will readily verify. And though I have long since retired the Cliché Monster, I have thought it advisable to keep his mental counterpart in close proximity, especially when writing prose or verse. Like Hemingway’s famous “BS detector,” that little dinosaur has a job to do.
* Zoketsu Norman Fischer, “Impermanence is Buddha Nature,” Shambhala Sun (May 2012), 50.
** Patrick Kavanagh, “The Hospital.”
I am indebted to Stephen Dunn for introducing me to his Cliché Monster, who became the model for my own. As I recall, however, Stephen’s monster was not a dinosaur, much less a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and he was probably no match for mine.