I have a love-hate relationship with clichés. They are a confusing topic, and the writing advice I have come across that deals with them is so varied and strange that I struggle to nail down any kind of conclusion as to their correct use.
The popular opinion of clichés seems so unfocused that it's almost paradoxical. On this topic, you'll often hear these two idea ideas in almost the same sentence: 'people want original material' and 'people want familiarity'. You can't empathise with something alien – but, in the same breath, you can't be compelled by something completely predictable. Or can you?
Here's a quote from Aleksander Solzhenitsyn's paper, The Relentless Cult of Novelty And How It Wrecked the Century:
"For several decades now, world literature, music, painting and sculpture have exhibited a stubborn tendency to grow not higher but to the side, not toward the highest achievements of craftsmanship and of the human spirit but toward their disintegration into a frantic and insidious novelty."
If the purpose of art is to reach for truth and beauty – fundamentally, the only compelling modes of transcendence we value – then shouldn't all good literature point in the same direction (assuming that the postmodern idea of truth is rubbish)? Doesn't this mean that works of art should grow more and more similar; not more and more original?
Are clichés then indications of the archetypes of storytelling that have lasted because of their transcendence? Even if this is true, it does not dispel the irritation we often feel when encountering a story that follows a cliché to the letter – and is therefore too predictable. But in a culture that has lost its appreciation of good storytelling – where novelty and propaganda have usurped the throne of beauty and truth – disintegration reveals itself festering at the centre of society in the form of popular art that religiously upends authentic clichés ... and no matter how irritated I may be at tedious predictability, this distaste for archetypal stories is far less palatable or satiating.
Now, I have no qualms about paradoxes. In fact, most important aspects of life seem to be fraught with them. That something as deeply human as storytelling should be composed of paradoxes seems quite fitting to me. That a cliché should be simultaneously cursed and compelling certainly irritates me, though – as it poses a significant challenge in finding beauty or truth that does not seem so familiar as to be boring.
On this conundrum of finding worthwhile originality, C S Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory:
"No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work’s sake, and what men call originality will come unsought."
I have found this advice extremely comforting in my struggles with ideas of originality and authenticity – and in my love-hate relationship with clichés. Indeed, it ties in quite nicely with Solzhenitsyn's words of growing towards the "highest achievements of craftsmanship". If aiming for truth really produces originality in art, then (paradoxically) arriving at a cliché in this authentic fashion may indeed be a mark of the most compelling beauty – at once fresh and proven.
Roving clouds may bring nuance to a sunset, but no matter how many times I see such a spectacle, it will never frustrate me that it follows a pattern – in fact, I would be disappointed if it didn't. Indeed, if it lacked the cliché, I might not even call it a sunset.