Andi Cumbo - Writer, Editor, Online Writing Courses, Classes & Lessons

Cliches Sound Like Charlie Brown’s Teacher: Write Fresh Instead

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This morning I was at homecoming at my granny’s church. It was a great time. People were so festive, the building was full, and nobody does a potluck dinner better than a Southern Baptist Church at homecoming – I could have eaten my weight in macaroni & cheese and eclair cake alone, and believe me I tried.

But despite the fun that it was to be there, I found myself frustrated by the teaching, not because I didn’t agree with it but because I found the way the ideas were presented to be so boring and cliche. In fact, I felt like I had heard what was said in almost exactly the way it was said at least ten times before. “Jesus asks us to go.” “Yield not to temptation.” “Wa waa, wa waa, wa waa.” (That third one represents what I heard after about 5 minutes in – think Charlie Brown’s teacher here.)

The trouble with cliched, unoriginal language is that people don’t even hear it anymore. I mean, really, when was the last time you actually thought about the idea behind the expression “The early bird gets the worm.”

This isn’t a problem with churches alone (although we do seem to have a particular penchant for the cliche and unoriginal). Cliches, unoriginal language, and trite story lines are easy – we know how to do those, so we choose them readily. Read most books of “chick lit,” pick up anything by James Patterson (with my apologies, dear sir), or check out primetime, network TV and you’ll know, almost from the outset, exactly what is going to happen. Honestly, how many ways can CSI: approach a crime scene (although last week’s octopus did prove mildly fresh, in more ways than one)?

When I challenge folks with this tendency to the predictable and the cliche, they often ask me about how to come up with new ideas if all the ideas have already been taken – how does one make something original? It’s a good question because, really, most of the ideas have been taken. There’s not much new to write about.

It’s not the lack of ideas that’s the problem, however. It’s what we do with those ideas that matters. There are reasons why churches still thrive despite the fact that many church-goers have heard the same stories over and over. Books about young men who come to the rescue of their best friends (a la the glorious Owen Meany) are written repeatedly. We like that. The age-old stories hold great meaning and truth for us. We – the writers, that is – just have to find ways to help people hear them again.

The great writers (and great preachers, I might add) make things new by HOW they write about these things. Take Diane Ackerman writing about chocolate:

Today, chocolate-zombies haunt the streets of every city dreaming all day of that small plunge of chocolate waiting for them on the way home from work.

What makes this one sentence so amazing? The newly-hyphenated term “chocolate-zombies,” or is it the expression “plunge of chocolate?” Her use of language and her craft make the common “chocolate craving” suddenly seem both horrible and luxuriant so much more than “I’m dying for a Hershey bar.”

So don’t be afraid to say what has already been said; just do be afraid of saying it the way someone else has said it. Write that story or that essay or that screenplay as only you can – with your honesty and your language. Be fresh. Be real. Be you.

What stories do you never tire of hearing? What makes you willing to hear them again? What “fresh” ways do you use to write the stories you want to tell?

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Author: Andi

I am a writer, editor, and writing teacher whose most recent book, The Slaves Have Names, tells the story of the people who were enslaved on the plantation where I was raised. When I'm not working, my husband and I are working to make our small farm - God's Whisper Farm - a retreat here at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

  • http://www.sethsworldview.com Seth

    Good thoughts above. It’s nice to hear the same stories sometimes, like in the Bible, because it’s so easy to forgot we’ve heard them before. We forget (meaning, I forget) that healing is an amazing supernatural phenomenon, and to once again borrow L’Engle, we forget how to walk on water. When I led a Bible study on Acts a few years ago, I kept realizing how easy it was to read over the stories and take them for granted, when in reality, they were supernatural. I agree unoriginal language makes it easy to pass over the same ideas. I enjoy stories that aren’t cliche, though I’m okay with a cliche storyline. People seem to find a certain comfort in it. I think cliche phrases are more problematic because they are short. If I were to give someone a trite answer of “Jesus asks us to go” to a question, and that phrase has lost it’s meaning for them, then that moment is lost. A cliche story can still be engrossing, in my opinion, but a string of cliche phrases isn’t very engaging. My thoughts anyway:)

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      I’m with you, Seth. I love the same plot lines – those archetypes of story, especially journey tales – but I do like them to be fresh and new. . .

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