Clichés are much derided in writing circles, and rightly so: they are a lazy way to express the character of a situation, and usually they have been heard so often that they have lost any of their original poetry and connection to life. Advice to writers often includes the jocular phrase, “Avoid clichés like the plague.”
But…here we are, avoiding each other because of, in fact, a plague. The phrase is infested with a fear of death, a fear justified during its origins when the bubonic plague, far more dangerous than today’s threat from COVID-19 (or so we hope), killed off a third of Europe’s population. Sometimes clichés come to life.
But it can be comical as well as grim. Three times in my life before coronavirus I have seen clichés actualized in front of me, and only one of them was deadly.
The first time, I was eating lunch at an Armenian diner across Sunset Boulevard from where i used to work. As I sat, gnawing my felafel, I noticed three old ladies walking in line towards the door. Three very typical old ladies, with the blue-permed hair, the cardigans, the tennis shoes, but walking in line and in fact linked together, as it were: the second rested her hand on the first’s shoulder, and the third in line had rested her hand on the second’s. And they charted a rather erratic course through chaos of tables in the restaurant, often bumping into chairs or other diners. No one seemed bothered in the least, which puzzled as well as pleased me…and then I saw the white cane and understood: I was actually watching “the blind leading the blind.”
The next incident was considerably more sinister. I was visiting a friend at his house in a wooded Oregon suburb, where a constant mist keeps the world deeply green all year round. He had a wood-burning stove, and we took turns splitting logs to feed it. There was the requisite sawn-off stump in the front yard, and a stack of sawn logs about two feet long. I’d pick up a log, set it on end on the stump, swing the axe up, and then bring it swiftly down on the top of the log. The axe was sharp, and split each log neatly down the middle. I’d repeat the procedure with each fallen half, after which the pieces were small enough to fit into the stove. This was a soothing routine, with just enough variation to the rhythm to keep it interesting…until I swung the axe up for another blow, and felt it suddenly become lighter. Terror filled my soul as I realized what had happened: the axe head had “flown off the handle” and was spinning silently somehere n the gray calm sky above me–a sky the same color as the blade. Not knowing where it might fall meant not knowing where to go to avoid it, so I froze and waited till I heard a “thump” as it buried itself in the turf. I lived, and I came to understand another cliché in the most visceral way possible.
The third time had its charms, as it occurred on a sailboat I had rented with a group of friends for a jaunt to one of the islands off the California coast. On our way back, late at night, I noticed that the shallow swell driving into the harbor was breaking across the channel at one point. This always indicates a sandbar or other shallow, and indeed that particular harbor was notorious for forming sandbars… so I duly warned the skipper, a friend of mine who was perhaps more proud than judicious in his attitude towards the sea. Undaunted, he sailed straight on…and jammed the boat’s keel deep into the mud. We were stuck. Much grumbling ensued. The shoreline was only twenty yards off, though twenty very wet yards, and populated with several guffawing old-timers who were enjoying our predicament. Besides, we were sans bathing suits, and we could not in any case abandon the boat, which was not ours. It was definitely a case of “so near, yet so far,” though that’s not the cliché of which I speak. No, for soon a largish wave approached us from the open sea, washed over the boat (soaking us all), and lifted us over the sandbar to continue dockward. No, it wasn’t the tide, which would have had the same effect much more slowly (and drily) about two hours later, but it did illustrate the original meaning of how a small action could “tide you over” a difficulty or obstacle.
So it is that every cliché at one point was fresh, poetic, and alive. They aren’t really the drooling zombies they’re so often made out to be…they’re just tired. So don’t scorn them. But still: if you write, and whatever you write, from poetry to prospectuses, do avoid them…like the plague.