But first, I have a personal favor to ask of everyone who plans to vote in this publication's up-coming "Best of Boise" event. I beg of you, don't vote for me as best writer. I repeat: do not vote for Bill Cope in the "Best Writer in Boise" category. I'm not trying to tell you whom to vote for instead. All I ask is that it not be me. Seriously, I can't have what happened last year happen again. Remember? I was voted best writer in Boise and I ... uh ... I didn't take it very graciously, let us say. I made a giant butt of myself, in fact, going on and on about how I was voted best writer in Boise. I am still embarrassed about the way I behaved. My momma raised me better than that. She used to say, "William, I don't care if you're voted best writer in Boise some day, you should be humble and gracious about it." And I wasn't.
So for my sake, please forget you ever considered me the best writer in Boise. And if you don't vote for me like I ask, make sure you don't do it by this coming Friday, because that's the cut-off day.
Now, about that free writing tip I promised.
But first, I should explain how I got the idea for this column. A number of weeks back, BW threw an afternoon social for the paper's gallery of freelance writers. They laid out a table of simple but enticing fare—beer in bottles that required openers, wine with real corks in the top and some kind of food that comes wrapped in some other kind of food. The real attraction, though, was the opportunity for us freelancers to get to know one another better and discuss what we do. Writing, especially for freelancers, is a solitary pursuit, and it is a pleasure to chat with others in the same line of work, particularly in the presence of complimentary beer and wine. (I stayed away from the hors d'oeuvres tray since I've never mastered the art of chatting and chewing at the same time.)
Like everyone else, I was given a name tag. I am always uncomfortable at affairs where people wear name tags, in no small part because I spend an inordinate amount of time staring at them. And since name tags are almost always stuck on the chest, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that I've made a great many women even more uncomfortable than I was at those affairs. It's not my fault. It takes me a while to absorb someone's name. I'm slow that way.
A young woman saw my name tag and introduced herself. As I was staring at her tag—slowly, slowly absorbing her name—she asked me how I come up with novel ideas for my columns. It's possible, now that I think about it, that she couldn't have cared less about how I come up with novel ideas, and that she was simply trying to get my eyes off her name tag. But I answered. Reflexively, I gave her my standardized line about how as long as I pay attention to the news every day, I will never lack for ideas. I regretted my answer immediately. After all, this was a comrade writer asking a comraderly question, and out of respect for both her and our profession, I was obliged to give her a thoughtful answer.
So I thought about it, and then told her that one thing I do is avoid cliches. Like, were I to tell you about the stock market on a volatile day, I would never use "roller-coaster ride" in my description. Or I would never say "hard-wired," since so many others have used it to death. I told her that I make up all my own similes and metaphors because that's our job, isn't it? As writers? To create our own images and impressions, not just sneeze out clots of over-worked cultural phlegm like "raining cats and dogs," or "Barack Rocks!"
And besides, I told her, by forcing yourself to write without using cliches, to search for fresh wordage, to shun the standard symbols and avoid the average allegory, it pushes your brain down mysterious paths. And if your brain isn't exactly sure what to expect around the next bend, somehow ... like magic ... novel ideas come easier. I believe it's like those specialized exercises pregnant ladies do, and when the time arrives, the idea just slides out, slick as a whistle and starts squalling to be fed.
At least, that's what I tried to tell the young woman. She may not remember it that way, but that's what I meant.
Not that I don't believe what I told her was true. I am adamant that writers should strive to avoid the easy and obvious, and that the general message of a piece of writing often isn't as important to the piece as a unique presentation. (It's a very rococo-ish approach I take to the craft: If you dress something up prettily enough, it doesn't matter what you're dressing up.)
But as I went about my writing in the weeks following the party, I came to realize the answer I'd given her was full of crap—that I was sneezing out clots of over-worked cultural phlegm all the time and didn't even know it. For instance, "full of crap" ... I didn't mean to write that. I wasn't even aware I wrote it until it was there on the screen before me. Or "slick as a whistle." I didn't make that up, either. I don't even know what it means. I've heard the phrase all my life, yet I have no notion as to how slick a whistle can be.
The point being, it may be impossible to avoid cliches. They may well be hard-wired into our brains like little metaphoric peas in an allegorical pod. It may be that without cliches, we would all be reduced to stammering, insecure, child-like creatures, having to sputter out, "Golly, the stock market sure went up and down a bunch!" instead of, "The Dow was on a wild roller-coaster ride today!" Understand? I am beginning to suspect that cliches are what gives us the confidence to believe we are saying something worth saying.
But ... and this is the writer's tip I want you to have, free, just because I appreciate you so darn much ... there are ways to use cliches and not sound like you're using cliches. For instance, use foreign cliches whenever possible. Joie de vivre? That means "happy as a lark," sort of.
Even better: substitute quotes from Shakespeare for your clichés: e.g., if you can't resist the urge to write about somebody fooling you with "smoke and mirrors," put in " ... a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." See? Don't you feel like a better writer already?
Pretty good tip, don't you think? And don't forget where you got it, agreed? And please, don't forget it by Friday.