My daughter and I are taking an online course on Post-Impressionism through the Museum of Modern Art. It’s wonderful. The first lecture began with a segment on the Parisian salon system, the Academic painters and the Impressionists. Why? Because in order to understand what the Post-Impressionists were trying to do, it was critical to understand what they were responding to—what they were taking from, and rejecting of, the artists whose work most influenced theirs.
It reminds me of a Barenaked Ladies song that I love called “It’s All Been Done Before.” Is it possible to be just plain original, without any reference to what predates you?
“And if I put my fingers here, and if I say
‘I love you, dear’
And if I play the same three chords,
Will you just yawn and say
It’s all been done
It’s all been done
It’s all been done before”
I’m thinking about this because as this semester draws to a close I have to confess I’ve never heard the word cliché used as frequently as I have this fall. I have a group of wildly talented students, many of them quite young, and I’ve been surprised at how definitively certain story elements have been dismissed as “clichéd” in critiques of both published and peer work. Avoiding cliché seems to be a particular part of their collegiate training, an aspect of writing they take very seriously, as seriously as they take character development and plotting and voice.
These are good students. Smart, engaged, talented. So I have to ask: Is it a teaching weakness that I’ve never thought about cliché in terms of story? This is an honest question. I am certainly aware of clichéd phrasing, of words and clauses so overused that they’ve lost their meaning. But ideas? Can ideas be clichéd? I’d never considered this before.
I guess I think that many things I found uninteresting or distasteful in my twenties—the way skin looks as it ages, the way compromise in marriage is both fear-based and courageous, the way people aren’t fully good or fully bad, the way sane people can do insane things—are now aspects of life I find deeply moving, even comforting. And certain kinds of missed connections in love or acts of rebellion no longer do much for me; I’ve watched so many people fall in and out of love, so many people reject or come to terms with “the Man,” that I’m not instinctively drawn to those stories any more. They’re no longer the stories I seek out in my free reading time. I am in the phase of life where endurance moves me most.
I’ve outgrown Salinger. I’ve probably outgrown Fitzgerald. But I love Dickens more than ever, can finally enjoy Melville. My interests are different. Still, on one level, I think I’ve been consistent.
I do think that I have always been drawn to TRUTH. To writing that creates realities on the page. I can be interested in absolutely anything, no matter the subject (a necessary strength for a teacher of fiction!), if the writing is good. If the voice is TRUE. (I think this is what we often call “heat,” as in “There’s heat in this story; you should keep working on it.”) And I wonder, very much, whether there are ideas we outgrow as we age, or if it’s just that different truths are apparent to us. I’d love to hear what others think.