Essays > Published on September 16th, 2011

Learning from Clichés… then Leaving them Behind

This week, a trainer I’ve hired gave me a length of white, cotton string and said to suck in my stomach and tie the string, tight, around my waist.  All day, the string’s under my shirt, cutting into my skin unless I stand straight and hold my abdominal and lower back muscles tight.  Every night, a deep red scar runs around my middle.  The string is the kind you’d tie to a helium balloon.  It’s like the strings that Catholic boys wear under their clothes in high school, “St. Joseph’s Strings,” to remind them not to masturbate.  Or the string that “lay” Franciscan’s wear inside their clothes, knotted three times to remind them of chastity, poverty and obedience – the vows of St. Francis.  The scar it leaves is like the red mark left by the elastic top of your socks.

Someday, if I make it a habit to hold my stomach in, my back straight, there will be no scar at the end of the day.  That’s what the trainer says.  The string is the reminder.  Every time I slouch, it cuts into me.  I hate this string.

Walking home from the gym, I shake.  My clothes hang, heavy with sweat, and the wind blows off the river.  My teeth rattle as I stand, waiting for a traffic light to change.  The string cutting into the wet skin under my t-shirt, my hands twist together, the fingers thin and red with cold.  When I look down, I see it:  I’m “wringing my hands…” 

Here was a phrase I’d read in stories my whole life, but I’d never “wrung my hands.”  Always, I’d just accepted the cliché and moved on, hoping my payoff would be something bigger and better – later in the story. 

In the cold wind, the traffic light turned green and then, red, and I just stood there, still looking at my hands, my fingers twisted together:  This was “wringing my hands”… 

Until that moment, that phrase, the shorthand shortcut for something real and physical, it had just been a symbol I only pretended to understand.  In Tom Spanbauer’s workshop, I could never use the phrase.  To Tom, “wringing your hands” would be called “Received Text.”  Like a cliché, but more subtle.  The phrase might not be as bad as “warm as a summer’s day” or “pretty as a picture,”  but the phrase was still a short-cut, or pathway well-worn by a lot of writers and easy to feed into a story.   It’s easy, but it creates no sympathetic physical reaction in the reader.  It doesn’t re-invent the world in a way unique to your character.  The action, and the entire physical moment still needs to be unpacked and inventoried, translated into a series of sensory details that will create a reaction in the reader.

If you’ve heard something depicted one way, it’s your job to depict it a new way.  Based on your character’s history and education and family… what is the unique way he or she would describe “wringing your hands”?

Beyond that, my personal taboo is hyphenated phrases such as “he gave me an I-told-you-so look” or “she did a maybe-next-time shrug.”   Yes, true, this type of phrase is everywhere, it looks clever, but it still seems like a cheat.  Not just to the reader – but to the writer, who gets to keep slouching and never builds the habit and ability to invent every moment according to a character.

Even worse are the moments and details that writers describe as “beyond description.”  Lazy, lazy writers.

Of course, writing your first draft, sometimes you need to slide for the moment, to put a “placeholder” adjective or phrase in place and keep going until the end of the draft.  At those times, consider using the most-bland placeholder possible.  I use “??????” to remind myself that I still need a beat of description or time – maybe a gesture to remind the reader that the character has hands and feet --  but I’ll insert that later.  Rather than fill the blank at that instant with a cliché, or “received text,” I’ll mark the beat I still need with something that’s impossible to miss during my rewrite.  At some point, I’ll find the perfect way to describe someone’s nose, or a good physical gesture, then the question marks come out.

Now that I’ve ranted about not using clichés…

Now, I’ll say it’s okay to copy other storytellers.  One of the best self-teaching methods is to “ape” or mimic the style of writers you enjoy.  When I started writing as an adult, I wrote for months, imitating Dorothy Parker’s short story style.  Then John Steinbeck’s.  Then, Stephen King.  It was kind-of a joke, how everyone in Tom Spanbauer’s workshop sooner or later sounded like a cheap copy of Tom.  All our stories had the same pace and “voice” as Tom’s work.  We made the same intentional “burnt tongue” mistakes and used similar choruses.  We learned to write the way so many apprentice painters learn to copy masterpieces in museums.  This is a fun, effective way to learn another writer’s techniques from the inside, duplicating them until they come naturally in your own work.  Then, you can create variations on the techniques, breaking the rules and combining them with the techniques you’ve learned by copying other writers.  That way, by mixing and sampling and copying – not just writers but people you hear speaking, telling stories next to you at Starbucks --  that’s how you develop a personal, signature “voice” for your own work.

Don’t worry, even if you become a parrot, echoing the voice of another writer in everything you write – you’ll get past that.  You’ll get bored and evolve.  Another voice will arrive to teach you something new.  Most of us seem to create ourselves from the behavior modeled by our peers.  We pick and choose speech patterns and gestures and mimic them.  The ones that work, we incorporate into our daily presentation.  It’s the same with writing styles.

Just always be aware – keep some kind of string tied around your writing waist to remind you:  Mimic to learn.  But reject clichés.  Always find a new way to present your character’s world and make it fresh and unique for your reader.


For homework, swear off using clichés or hyphenated phrases for the next six months.  This is where a workshop helps.  Other writers can help you recognize phrases and shortcuts you’ve picked up from reading.

At the same time, read a short story by a writer you enjoy and write a different story, a new story, but in the same style.  Write as if you were Hemmingway or Hunter S. Thompson.  Get inside their style, and “borrow” what works for you.  In a way, this allows you to think in the same patterns as the author you’re aping.  According to friends of mine, who work with addictions, the more you follow the same thought patterns to express or resolve something, the more those patterns or routes become “burned” in your mind.  Thus, the more likely it is you’ll follow that same path in the future.  My addict friends call this “kindling,” like the small wood that starts a larger fire.  The more you drink a beer to solve your stress, the more likely you’ll be to always drink a beer – or many beers – to deal with your problems.

With this in mind, “kindle” a path in your brain that follows the writing patterns of Hemmingway.  Burn a Dorothy Parker route in your head.  You might get stuck in a “Charles Dickens rut” but you’ll get out.  Someday, you’ll take off your shirt and find no ugly red scar around your waist, but your stomach and back will be stronger.  After that, you’ll have one more method or tool or approach to use in creating your own voice.

If it helps to remind you, tie a string around your waist, under your clothes.  We’ll all have the same red scar.  In honor of my trainer, you can call this the “Derrick rut.”


Starting this spring, I’ll be meeting with the writers I admire most -- at least the ones who agree to meet.  My plan is to listen as they talk about an aspect of their writing that works especially well.  Each interview will break down a technique or belief of theirs and present it as a tool to consider for your writing.  With Douglas Coupland, I want to talk about his use of elaborate, surreal “visions.”  Amy Hempel wants to talk about the purpose of the narrator.  Their contributions will provide writing advice beyond my own style – and maybe I’ll learn something new, myself.   I’ll post these profiles as future writing essays.

In May and June, I’ll be touring with “Haunted.” 

All of August, I’ll be on-line – like I was this past November – yakking with people, world wide, on the Barnes and Noble Book Club message boards.   My goal is to be online several hours every day in August.  In September, I’ll be in Italy.

My thanks to everyone (especially Barbara and Timo) who came to say “hello” while I was in Germany.  It was one of the best book trips I’ve taken, and I won’t hesitate to go back. 

And again, thank you for reading my work.

About the author

Chuck Palahniuk is author of the novels Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, Snuff,  Pygmy, Tell-All, DamnedDoomed, and the upcoming Beautiful You. He also has two non-fiction books, the Portland travel memoir Fugitives & Refugees and the collection of true stories, essays, and interviews, Stranger Than Fiction.

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