writing tip #1: cliche bait

My last assignment was to write as if I had confidence, in order to work to develop my range of words and phrases and expressions to describe states other than my go-to space of depression and self-deprecation. I tried, but it was hard, and the feedback I got was that when I tried to write in that voice, I quickly fell into cliches, which, it seems may not be much better than not writing at all.

The promise of this exercise was to generate a bit more self awareness through writing, to be better able to access experience through being better able to express it in words. That is, one supposedly uncovers a secret when digging at the X that marks where language meets experience. But what happens, after all that digging, when you unearth a trite cliche, a turn of phrase that at once reveals the laziness of the writer and the shallowness of their experience (or at least their grasp of the experience). The cliche denotes a moral failing, either as a writer or as a human, and often both, a sign of weak writing, of a small life.

Of course, cliches serve purposes, and not just to identify the weak writers and small livers. It is an attempt to make sense. An incomplete attempt, generally, but it is, generally, better than remaining silent when you don’t yet have the words. At least you can take someone else’s in the meantime. Cliches as a symptom of a problem, but what’s the cause? What’s the cure? We could banish cliches entirely, which wouldn’t be the worst advice, but, at least in the drafty house of this forum, these cliches present a teachable moment (appropriately enough, it’s own cliche), where future drafts and reflections can start from that point, and either go beyond or go deeper, taking the cliche as literally and as detailed as possible.

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to use a cliche, resist. But the value of a cliche is that it’s ready made, and often provides the best of both worlds (words?): it is longer than a single word, so it provides some free bulk to you text, and it is a compression of a series of rich and varied associations that will be evoked in the readers’ heads, through no effort or thought on your part. However, as noted above, some will label you a hack or a fraud, or at least a bad writer, a reputation that may prove increasingly difficult to shake as they keep reading.

What to do? Consider this little trick, which will let you to tap into the rhetorical richness summoned by cliches, while still be able to make honest claims to originality. This technique, the cliche shift (or, perhaps, the “clishe chift”) is simple — just substitute the first letter of the main words of the phrase with another, to create a brand new phrase, but one that still resonates with some of the punch of the old. This works best when combined with another crutch of lazy writers, alliteration.

Here we will take one common cliche — feast or famine — and run it through its paces, showing the many ways it can be adapted through this technique, as well as some examples of the contexts to which it might be applied, noting how this shift also applies to a much narrower range of comparisons (for now, at least, until these catch on and become their own cliches).

Feast or Famine: A perfectly nice phrase, one that succinctly evokes the dramatic swing between all or nothing, which is particularly challenging when one would just like a steady stream of “some.” Yet the very usefulness of the phrase has created a situation where it is overused, losing some of its power. Let’s see if we can experiment with the “clishe chift” to create some useful alternatives.

A: Angst or Anglican: Use this whenever speaking of the stark choice between an existential fear of the unknown and the comforting stability of membership in the Church of England. This may be of particular usefulness in historical writing, but could also be used to discuss general spiritual questions. (note: a more US-English version, Exasperated or Episcopalian, has yet to achieve mass acceptance, for obvious reasons.)

B: Beast or Bromide: Use this when you want to talk about the strength of an argument, which could either be a one-punch knockout or a limp banality. This may have limited applicability to more general discussion of power.

C: Coast or Coalmine: Use when discussing the stark distinctions that came out of current US political discourse, where one is either a coastal elite or a hardworking member of a coal mining community. This phrase can also be used to point to class and cultural distinctions more generally.

D: Deist or Divine: This is another example for discussing religion, this one playing off questions about the US founding fathers, and whether they’re work was divinely inspired, and thus the basis for our current creeping Christian authoritarian state, or if they were instead weak agnostics, who gave lip service just because it was the thing to do. Can also be used to describe questions of authentic belief on any topic.

E: Exist or Examine: Use this when you want to conjure up the dilemma over whether an unexamined life is really living, or merely existence. Can also be used in less weighty situations, such as whenever one must choose between acting in the moment or stopping to reflect on those actions, like when facing the prospect of eating gummy bears for lunch.

F: (skipping due to the starting point, although if you were really looking to mix things up, you could bypass the alliteration and go for something like Fleece or Ermine, which can be applied to distinctions between levels of coldness and the necessary clothing to combat it, or to mark class distinctions) (you can also take another alternative, which is to stick with the opening letter, and fiddle with the subsequent ones, providing such examples as “freeze or family,” “feet or famous,” etc.)

G: Guest or German: This is another phrase with historical roots, which you can use whenever you to reference the possibility that the person in your home is either a long-time family friend or a secret Nazi spy. Be careful with use, since recently Germans have taken over the position as the “good guys” defending democracy, and you don’t want to create confusion.

H: Heat or Heaven: This one is also self explanatory, with hotness standing in for the usual opposing concept of hell. While the religious overtones are significant, it can also be applied to more political circumstances, such as current debates over climate change, with religious conservatives arguing against making any significant efforts to combat it, comfortable in their certainty that they’ll end up in heaven anyway, while the rest of us can use the increasing heat as a trial run for our future burning for eternity.

I: Idealist or Inhuman: In capturing the tension underlying most ideological thinking, this one can be used in almost any context, especially as our discourse becomes increasingly polarized and politicized.

J: Jealous or Jasmine: Taking a break from the current streak of political phrases, this one is applicable to all kinds of romantic references, highlighting the swirl of emotions for many, as we move between the sweet smell of desire and the sharp edges of envy and control. Can also be used to describe cycle of violence in abusive relationships.

K: Kissed or Kantian: Continuing with the romantic theme, this phrase captures the divide between physical expressions of desire and love and those that remain in the realm of the ideal. One can also play with the lifelong bachelorhood of Kant himself to emphasize the material effects of this split. This can be used whenever one wants to avoid falling into the tired expression of Platonic relationships, since it’s high time to update that with a more modern philosopher.

L: Lease or Landmine: This phrase illuminates some of the trickier issues around property rights: are claims based on contracts and the rule of law or are they only protected through the threat of violence? Given the foundational role property plays in both our material and conceptual structures, this can be used in diverse situations, capturing the stark choices facing both those staking claims to property or ideas, as well as those who tread upon them, unaware of how they will be defended.

M: Memories or Mammon: Use this whenever you want to evoke the pains and pangs of nostalgia, especially in a world so intent on commodifying and commercializing our shared and individual pasts. This can be particularly useful in such examples as when someone is confronted with either keeping their childhood Star Wars toy collection or selling it on eBay for a tidy profit.

N: Noose or Necktie: This has numerous potential uses. Certainly it nicely captures the two sides of corporate life , as you swing between the stifling conformity of office culture and the chance to display one’s individuality through a bold choice with your daily cravat. Again, given how fundamental this tension is in modern life, the cases you can apply this to are nearly endless.

O: Overseas or Online: Who among us has not been forced to choose between the pleasures of going on a trip abroad or the safer, and less expensive, option of taking a more virtual vacation. This phrase will come in handy more and more in a world with increasing border restrictions, not to mention growing fears of the other and risks of being away from home.

P: Peace or Poutine: Not surprisingly, this phrase was most popular during the heady days of Quebecois separatism, where Canadians faced the choice of peace or submitting to French-Canadian culture. While it’s relevance has dropped in recent years, it still can be seen in references to nationalist movements worldwide. On a more prosaic level, it has also seen use describing situations involving meal planning and healthy food choices.

Q: Quest or Quagmire: This is another all-purpose phrase, one that can be used in any number of situations where there is movement between seeing action as heroic and just and seeing it as a hopeless folly. Again, this is becoming increasingly useful in a polarizing society, where there are fewer and fewer “third way” compromises available.

R: Roofies or Redemption: This phrase is intended to denote the wide chasm between date rape and moral redemption. Alas, this does not currently capture society’s dominant normative framework, leaving the phrase itself little used. Sadly, some have attempted employ a variation, substituting the “or” with an “and.”

S: Sliced or Surgeon: Use this phrase to describe variations in quality of medical services offered, where it signifies the break between having a well-honed skill and being, more or less, a butcher. Obviously, it can be generalized to any discussions where training and work quality is important, distinguishing between those with a knack and those that are hacks.

T: Tease or Theramin: While this comes out of a very specific musical context, its usage is potentially quite broad. It can be employed whenever you want to illustrate the dynamics facing so-called nerds and their culture. That is, is it going to be the subject of teasing and bullying, where those that are weaker and poorly understood suffer at the hands of the stronger, or will it, like the the Theramin itself, turn its weirdness into a positive attribute, gaining some cool points along the way. Please note that even though this phrase sets up a clear distinction between the two, in real life, many Theramin players continue to be teased, so use phrase with care.

U: Ulysses or Urine: Use this whenever you need to explore the fraught issue of taste, where works of art can only fall into one of two categories, high art (as the works of Homor or Joyce) or trash. This phrase can be used strategically in order to highlight the complex dynamics of “good taste,” showing how fickle art worlds and taste communities can be, as they cycle through art, turning it into trash, and trash being turned into art.

V: Veal or Vegan: Another way to comment on the clear political distinctions, ones offered produced and performed through lifestyle choices. On the one side you have someone, not content to simply eat meat, but to select the most morally charged, and on the other, you have the person choosing to reject not just meat, but all animal-based food. At the same time, it can be used to highlight how, from the mushy middle, all extremes are viewed with suspicion.

W: West or Wonton: This is another phrase that can be used to denote dietary differences and the way they are used to mark cultural distinction, although this time it is operating at a larger scale than the previous one. Moreover it shows the dangers in comparing entire cultures and histories (the West) to individual examples from other cultures (the wonton). Like all phrases of this structure, this can be used in an inverted form, such as “Neither fully west nor exclusively wonton, we discovered a compelling fusion…”

X: Xmas or Xenon: This phrase contrasts the liveliness of holiday celebrations with the relative inertness of this noble gas. Usage patterns, as of yet, remain unclear due to relatively small numbers of instances. We’re keeping an eye on future progress.

Y: Yeast or Yeoman: Use this phrase when differentiating between types of jobs, with yeast describing innovative work with that will create a “rise,” as opposed to more menial and mundane, albeit necessary, tasks that make up the bulk of the workday. Is likely to become more and more popular to match the growing divide between good and bad jobs in the current economy, particularly the ones taken by robots in the future.

Z: Zombies or Zion: We end with a blunt choice, perhaps the bluntest. In the end, what side do you want to be on? This can be used to describe any number of situations, from the most spiritual and sublime all the way down to more everyday and common examples, such as sports fandom.

And so ends this effort to expand your writing repertoire by tweaking tired cliches. Some might say this was simply an extended effort to avoid more serious and necessary writing, and those some would not necessarily be wrong. But when I have to write and I don’t have anything to say, we end up with a feast of words with the nutritional equivalent of a famine.