Saturday, February 2, 2013

All Greek

February 2nd 2013

Two popular conventions in writing have to do with the use of adverbs and cliches. Basically, you're not supposed to use either (a quick google search came up with the title, "500 cliches to avoid in writing." I didn't know there were five hundred cliches!) Elmore Leonard famously said, "Never use an adverb to modify the verb 'said,'.....To use an adverb in this way is a mortal sin." You hear these two maxims in writer's groups, at writer's conferences or from anyone who is supposed to know about writing. Stephen King in his admirable book on writing says that the road to hell is paved with adverbs.
I have a writer friend who has to throw up into her hankie every time she hears a cliche, but I am not of that school. I kind of like cliches, because it's no accident they caught on. They are usually wise pithy observations, and why shouldn't we honour them just because they have been used too much? Overused verbage is much more annoying when it has no content, like LOL (which I hate) or 24/7.
"Don't sweat the small stuff," is a cliche, but a mantra for me. I don't care how many times I hear it. Or, "What goes around comes around," is close to a religious tenet, so why spit on it? People use cliches all the time, of course, so why should dialogue in literature not reflect this? I suppose in the actual text, a writer is always having to convince the reader that she/he is in control of the writing, and the use of cliche might undermine this. But, anyway, I think cliches have had a bad rap.
On the subject of dialogue, there is the issue of that road to hell, the adverb. Again, I have my reservations. I suppose it is always better to let the content of the speech dictate to the reader how the spoken word should be taken.
"What do yout think I am, a potted plant?" naturally carries with it exasperation. So it would be superfluous and a waste of reader time to add, "she said exasperatedly."
But sometimes, the dialogue can't reflect the attitude of the speaker. For instance, "'I love you,' he said bitterly." That kind of sentence is more like heaven than hell, because it has that satifying little twist to it.
The point is, all these rules, perhaps especially the ones that get shouted from the mountain tops, are only current opinion. Things will change and the adverb will come back into favour. The cliche will be venerated again. I wonder if cliches are like old literature, and at some point you have permission to like and use them again. I wonder if there is such a thing as the public domain of cliches where they go for R&R, ready to come back into common parlance.
Perhaps Shakespeare used cliches, and we are just out of touch with the Elizabethan cliche du jour. I know he certainly started a few in his time: I refuse to "budge an inch," on this issue, or be "tongue tied," even if it means "knitting my brows," or giving my detractors "short shrift." I may be living in a "fool's paradise," and "the more fool me," but I find a "tower of strength," in such sayings. I hear what the opposition says back, but "It is all Greek to me."

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