Some of these thoughts come out of reflecting on the process of choosing small stones for our 2012 anthology. So many people (myself included) are struck by seeing similar things in the natural world: the moon, birds on telephone wires, sunrises and sunsets. When you have read pages of small stones about the moon, you start to look for those that stand out from the crowd.
I have called the quality of this standing out ‘freshness’ because the best small stones, like all the best art, encourage looking anew. In the best writing I am struck again by how beautiful the moon is. The moon, in the best small stones, becomes alive again – standing out from the cookie cutter moon found in staler writing.
The word cliche comes from the French word for a printing plate (also called a stereotype) used to reproduce the same set of words over and over again. If you were to read every copy of a single pamphlet produced by one of these movable type machines, you would read the same words, the same images and ideas, hundreds of times. You would come close to feeling how I feel upon seeing another small stone about the moon… (I’m exaggerating a little, to make the point.)
Staying with that imaginary pamphlet – the writer may have been inspired by something completely fresh. The thoughts fell into place and our hypothetical author jumped out of the bath and ran to her writing desk to record the ideas before they slipped away.
When do these thoughts become stale? It’s unlikely that we really would read the same pamphlet hundreds of times. But the ideas there trickle (by word of mouth) into other people’s thoughts and writings as well, and soon the whole town is repeating them without thinking.
When your neighbour slips some of these ideas into the conversation, if they register at all, it is as something you have heard too many times before.
A few towns away a second hypothetical writer is completely oblivious to all of this. Somehow the same great insight comes to him and he produces his own tract. Although the inspiration behind the writing was just as great, when it reaches the people of the first town it is met with derision. The second writer sees his pamphlet filling up waste paper bins.
So the thoughts sound cliched even though they were completely fresh to our second writer.
I think there are two routes to writing something deathly. The first comes from lazy thinking or observation – we repeat something we have heard hundreds of times before without thinking. As old as the hills. Fit as a fiddle. As white as snow… (have you ever looked at the snow? At the muddy slush, slicked with engine-oil, that piles up at the sides of the roads?)
In the second case we really do see something in a fresh way. But someone else has gotten there before us. In the world, our insight has become old before we even thought it. Maybe you saw that the clouds really do look like cotton candy – but it’s hard not to read that as cliched.
Of course this gets harder as the world gets smaller, and more and more writing is shared to more and more people.
How can we make our writing fresh?
Two pieces of advice. The first one is something we often say: look and look again. What is it you are really writing about? Look at what you have written and ask yourself, “Is this what’s really there?”
The second is to read lots of good stuff. What are other people writing? What do you like? What words and ideas get repeated? What did you used to see getting repeated but don’t any more (writing has fashions, like anything else).
Mindful writing exercise
- Write a small stone about something in the world you can re-visit. (A place nearby, an object you could find again etc.)
- Look at what you have written.
- Have you made any comparisons that you’ve seen elsewhere?
- Have you described something in the same way that others describe it?
- Go back to the object of your small stone.
- Look at what is really there – is there a fresher way of describing what you see? What shade of green is the grass….