I learned the backbone of American language from my mother, aka the Queen of Cliché. While other parents charged their kids with, “Be home by eleven o’clock sharp,” my mother said, “If you’re not early you’re late.”
Language was always a painting to Mama. Words and phrases, the catchier the better, were the brush strokes of finished sentences. While other families played Tiddly Winks and Monopoly, we played word games like Scrabble and Perquacky. Mama invented the Cliché Game, however, and it was our favorite. She always started it off with a well-worn phrase.
On Mondays, it might be something like, “Well, if the sun is shining and the creek don’t rise, we might go shopping today.”
Then she would look at one of us, eyebrows raised in expectation.
My brother, who would eventually grow up to be an engineer, would quit trying to figure out why Rice Krispies went Snap! Crackle! Pop! Long enough to say, “With any kind of luck, Mama, you just might find those new curtains you’ve been looking for.”
Two pairs of eyes would then look in my direction. My turn to come up with something equally clever like, “Don’t y’all take any wooden nickels.”
Daddy’s mind was never too far away from the family budget. As soon as he heard the word nickels, he would invariably pipe up with, “My pocket is not a bottomless pit, you know.” More often, he would quip, “Don’t y’all forget that money does not grow on trees.”
“Hurry up kids and clean your plates!” Mama would say as she scraped her chair back from the table. “We have to make hay while the sun shines.”
Nothing I have ever learned in an English class allows me to write a blank check by using clichés when I write. Just the opposite, in fact. Yet, just the other day, I read that those same tried and true expressions, the ones that rolled off my family’s tongues back in the day, are being seriously considered with regard to their significance in the preservation of our culture. Some researchers think the cliché may be the backbone of our communication system.
Mama would be thrilled.
As a creator, a very small architect of prose, I have the privilege of typing a distinctive breath of life into one-dimensional men, women, children and animals. It is always my hope that the characters I create leave a lasting impression on a reader. I’m pretty sure my characters (and their creator) will be forever grateful.
In any event, by writing in what is known as Southern Voice, means (at least to me) that I write about things and people I can see, hear and touch. I don’t necessarily need to dig deep into my unconscious to find characters with delightful dialogue. I can easily discover them right here at home, the place where dog-eared expressions are as natural as eating grits for breakfast.
My made-up characters are not always credible, nor are they always believable. Most often I take a little from one character and something else from another. What (or who) I end up with then becomes an amalgam of people with all sorts of characteristics. After that, I sit back and let them go wild, insisting that they do whatever they want to do.
Mama taught me that creativity can be a bottomless pit and that clichés are diamonds in the rough, always blessings in disguise. With that in mind, I will try to keep up the good work and not let it drive me stark raving crazy. I will turn off my computer before I become blind as a bat or worn to a frazzle. I will grab that bright idea before it vanishes into thin air and leaves me sadder, but wiser.