Saturday, February 18, 2017

Writing the Same Story

Do you ever get the feeling that you're writing the same story, over and over again, like some kind of dystopian version of a Greek tragedy? You begin to wonder why you do it, whether other people notice. The self-awareness then becomes paralyzing for a while, and at last you try to write something new. Eventually you reach the point of some level of self-satisfaction for this new narrative and begin to imagine again that you might write many stories instead of the one.

Then you look back, and the story that seemed new while you were writing it is the same old story you've always written. What's strange about this moment in which you'd thought you'd escaped is coming back to the story again, as if for the first time. You begin to realize that each version of it is a revision of the one before, even if the characters or genre have changed.

Eventually you realize that the final perfect version might be a myth. You realize that no one really has more than one story to tell, and so you wear the knowledge of your single tale like you wear your human nature, with the humility of the finitely-dimensioned.

Eventually you find the story you've been trying to tell; you found it in the margins, in the revisions, the spaces where you worked but forgot to read.

Monday, February 6, 2017

On Cliche

Last month I was thinking about writing dialogue and cliches. I was astonished to realize that the few lines of direct conversation from my life that came to mind first were cliches, so I made a list. I can tell you the gist of a thousand conversations I've had, but DIRECT QUOTES were hard. I came up with nine, but that's only because I allowed myself to include things from last week.

Before you read on, try it. What lines stand out in your life? For me, it was almost all times that someone was angry, although there were a couple of single lines of encouragement like, "Just breathe."

What I realized is that all of these (with two exceptions) were cliches. We speak, I was astounded to realize, in cliche. I don't know what percentage of our daily communication rests on these overused phrases, but it's most if not all. We exchange dialogue like we exchange Hallmark greeting cards--sincerely perhaps, but these words are not our own.

When I reached to try to find words I could remember or use that were NOT cliche, the first things that came to mind were things my kids have said. Most recently: "If you get sick, I will take care of you. I will bring you water and give you kisses." Most memorably: after a big hug, my little boy stood back from me wide-eyed and exclaimed: "You hugged me so tight, you touched JESUS in my heart!"

How does a writer handle the fact that people speak in cliche but good writers don't use tired phrases? We are supposed to look at life and write what we see, but what do we do when what we see is cliche?

I don't have an answer for writing, but for life--I want to learn to speak more like a child, full of sincerity and wonder, using exactly the words I mean to say, even when the linguistics don't work: "I didn't get an INCH of sleep last night!" And "I love you" because sometimes the cliche still holds lots of meaning. Sometimes it gains meaning with tone or delivery. Sometimes we get a glimpse of the strangeness and wonder even in a cliche.