Did you ever wonder: “What is the longest English word?” “Are there any English words containing the same letter three times in a row?” “Are there any words that rhyme with orange?” “How many words are there in the English language?” “What is the longest one-syllable English word?” The answers to these questions and more can be found at the Oxford Dictionary FAQ.
It is a cliché of the creative writing workshop to discourage a writer’s use of cliché; and
It is a cliché of the creative writing workshop to say that clichés are too familiar and therefore ineffective; and
The first time we heard this cliché against clichés it was a revelation, but with each successive repetition the cliché against clichés became increasingly faded and opaque, i.e., clichéd:
a comforting logical fabric (“I’ll say the thing about clichés!”) to throw over a gap where uncertainty lay;
a stand-in for new and difficult thinking
because you’d have to remember all the way back to the first time you heard this cliché against clichés to actually see, once again, that clichés are ineffective because they prevent you from seeing;
but also an efficient shorthand,
one soothing for its familiarity,
and in its familiarity suggestive of rightness,
and in its rightness suggestive of belonging: to the community of those who’ve been through writing workshops and so have been inducted into the Army Against Clichés,
which is also an Army Against Genre Fiction and Commercial Fiction and Popular Nonfiction, all of which are what they are (beloved, commercially viable, popular) because they return dependably to clichés of storytelling invented and real; and
which may itself be an Army Against the Teeming Masses, who buy mass-produced books for the soothingly familiar stories inside; and
which is therefore an Army of Elitism, reproducing clichés of class; but
which may also be an Army Against Itself; and
Every word of our language is a cliché, so familiar as to be efficiently, effortlessly understood; and
We cling to these clichés (of language, of description, of workshop) for their ease and also for their familiarity, which suggests rightness, which suggests belonging; and
Cliché, here, may refer to a bevy of workshop clichés, including:
clichés of praise (this is effective, is working, is strong, great, fantastic, amazing, well done), which stand in for consideration of what these terms mean;
clichés of condescension (this isn’t working, is ineffective, weak, less well-done), which cover over uncertainty about what these terms mean;
clichés of response and suggestion (too heavy-handed, sentimental, familiar; more subtle, restrained, fresh), which assume there is a single aesthetic community to which we all belong; and
other such meaningless pandering and avoidance of considerate thought, tics that are contagious because we reach for agreement because we reach for belonging because the truth that there is no rightness is so damn maddening;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED…
That we will use the cliché against clichés against itself, at once ratifying and refusing its meaning:
abstaining, in our conversations about new writing, from using workshop shorthand, i.e., from not thinking;
abstaining from agreeing with each other too much, i.e., from group-think;
granting that, in the process, we will create new clichés; and
trusting that we will question and thereby destabilize these clichés along the way.
Image Credit: Flickr/Tom Newby Photography.
I was at the last Cubs home game of the year at Wrigley this afternoon. I took the train down into the city from Evanston after class. Almost everyone on the train at mid-day was on their way to the game, easily identifiable in Cubs gear and sipping discretely on cans of Old Style. There were a couple of readers on the train (Seven Plays by Sam Shepard and Until I Find You by John Irving), but none of them seemed Wrigley-bound. The sky was grey and everyone seemed to know that rain was on the way.With the Cubs long ago out of contention, people showed up at Wrigley either out of habit or for the novelty of it. For example, I was there with my cousin because he hasn’t yet been to Wrigley, and we figured today would be an easy day to get a ticket. Indeed it was. In front of us sat a group from Scotland, bearing a Scottish flag. They were there to shout and eat, but not to see the Cubs. Others, the ones there out of habit, had pulled on their same Cubs jerseys, and, clutching scorecards, thought about April, just six short months away. The action on the field wasn’t totally forgotten, though. A few die hards were able to muster the energy to loudly boo Corey Patterson every time he came up to bat, but that was about the extent of it. The grounds crew, in recognition of their hard work all year, had the honor of singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch. Soon after, the long anticipated rain began falling. The Cubs, who had played sloppily all day against the Pirates, saw the game, and the season, wash away – down 3-2 with two innings to play, the fans had lost their energy to watch, and the players their energy to play. They played it out anyway, despite the rain, though the score remained the same. My cousin and I walked many blocks west from Wrigley as the rain got steadily heavier. After a long, rainless summer, the rain and the cooler air that accompanied it seemed to signal that summer was finally over. Even on my bus ride home, water leaked in through the roof, and everyone aboard seemed to feel a chill.
The Loggernaut Reading Series has a truly exceptional interview up with Daniel Alarcon author of the acclaimed collection, War by Candlelight. He touches on many topics: the Iowa Writers Workshop, Peruvian literature, falling out of love with the New York Yankees. There’s also this bit about being on book tour:I like readings. I like meeting people, and generally it works this way: folks that don’t like your book or don’t like you as a person stay at home. The folks who are likely to enjoy it are the ones who show up. So of course it’s very gratifying to have ten or fifteen or however many people buy your book and tell you they think you’re very smart, write well, smell good, etc. Still, I can’t say that I really enjoy traveling, though these days I seem to do a lot of it. When I started the tour I’d been traveling already for three months in Latin America, didn’t really have a place to live in the US, and still had books and clothes scattered in the apartments of various friends, my parents’ place in Oakland, my sister’s house, and elsewhere. I felt incredibly un-tethered to anything, which is exactly the wrong time to be spending nights in hotels, airports, and shopping malls: the trifecta of sad American non-destinations. They bring out the very bleakest in people who are prone to be depressed from time to time.The best readings were in places I’ve lived before – New York, Iowa City, the Bay Area, Birmingham – where friends showed up and brought their friends, or where peruanos showed up just to say they were proud of me and whatnot. Chicago was also excellent, lots of fun. In Boulder I started my reading with two people in the audience. I introduced myself to both of them and shook their hands. The reading was fine, I think they both enjoyed it, and actually a few more people showed up by the time the story had ended. They asked me to read another story and I did. Then afterwards some dude wanted me to sign a galley, an advance reader copy, the one that says very clearly “not for sale, uncorrected proof” on the cover. He told me with an innocent smile that he’d bought it used on Amazon. I was like, Are you fucking kidding me? I think he expected me to congratulate him on having found such a bargain. But he was so earnest and excited to meet me that he even had his two daughters pose for a picture with me. Maybe he’ll buy my next book. Or not. I don’t even know why I was mad; it’s not like I don’t buy used books.
I used part of my day off to sit around my house and listlessly attempt to get things done. I used the other, smaller, part of my day off to run some errands, and when I spotted a goodwill store in Glendale, I just had to run in and check out their book selection. I’m really glad I did.Find #1: A hardcover edition of J. F. Powers’ cult classic Wheat That Springeth Green. As you can see from the link, New York Review of Books Press has recently reissued this one, and it has been a favorite among my coworkers.Find #2: A hardcover edition of a book called Shah of Shahs by one of my all time favorite writers, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. Kapuscinski has spent the last 50 years writing for the Polish equivalent of the Associated Press. During this time he has been on the scene for nearly every international conflict from front page news to the one paragraph comment buried in the International section. He wrote under the auspices of a state run news agency controlled by a Communist country and yet he spent nearly all of this time abroad, witnessing the wider world as few Communist citizens were able to. His writing betrays this interesting perspective in that he takes nothing for granted and never resorts to cliche to describe cultures that are utterly foreign. In this way, his journalism bears little resemblence to his Western counterparts, and instead he is just a man describing other men, exploring the universal nature of conflict, and occasionally pining for the cold winters of his homeland. Shah of Shahs is about the fall of the Shah of Iran and the rise of the Ayatollah as told by Kapuscinski who was, of course, in Tehran at the time. I already own this in paperback, but I couldn’t help buying the hardcover.Find #3: The two books about Russia that I read recently made frequent mention of two interesting points. First, that for a long time the West had no idea what sort of horrors went on in Stalin’s Russia, and for a long time after many downplayed these horrors. Second, that there was a large officially sanctioned community of writers, known as the “Writers’ Union,” that spewed out official literature, hailed as a great achievement but often little more than thinly disguised propaganda. At the store today I found a book called Short Stories of Russia Today, edited by Yvonne Kapp and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1959. This corresponds with the height of Khrushchev’s “thaw,” three years after he had denouced Stalin in his “Secret Speech” to a closed session of the General Assembly, which must somehow account for how this collection came to be. There is also inherent in this book the sort of thinly disguised awe and fear that Americans felt towards Russia at the time. The dust jacket copy can be read almost as a warning that there is no endeavor that Russians can not apply their might towards. Here’s one little snippet “Like Sputnik, this collection shows that there is more going on in Russia than is revealed by the facade of Communist propaganda.” Whatever the point of this collection, it certainly is a relic of a different time.Finds #4 & 5: When I go bookfinding, I like to pick up books that I’ve never heard of. This can be tricky because most books that end up where I’m scavenging are pretty bad. Usually I solve this problem by getting short story anthologies or literary journals when I see them. There’s usually a hidden gem or two contained within. Today, I snagged O. Henry Awards Prize Stories of 1992 featuring stories by Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates, and Ann Packer among many others. I also came across an interesting-looking old hardcover (Knopf, 1969) of a book called The Coming of Rain by Richard Marius. I’d never heard of him, but after getting home and doing a little research I discovered that he’s fairly well-known Southern writer and that this book is the first of a series of four novels that, between the four of them, take place over the course of the last century in the South.