Leslie Jamison on the usefulness of cliché

“When experiences are common—universal, even—you can still find language for them that illuminates them in a new way”

FASSLER: In [The Recovering] you talk about the usefulness of clichés, especially how AA members tend to traffic in these wonderful, pithy bits of advice and wisdom. Phrases like Take it one day at a time are shopworn in AA circles and may not be exciting on a language level—and yet, you write, they can have demonstrable, immediate value for a person struggling with addiction. This is so antithetical to the way we’re taught to think as writers: we’re trained to reach for the original detail, the thing no one’s said before. I’m curious if your experience of going through AA—and seeing the value in truisms—changed your relationship to writing.

JAMISON: As I was writing the book, and as I was considering the emotional dynamics of my own life in recovery, I found that clichés had these very specific uses. They help provide a bridge between people when their external circumstances are really different. Even when a cliché resonates for people in totally different ways, it’s still this point of connection—a kind of touchstone that both people can grasp onto from very separate life situations. I came to appreciate that, even if it didn’t change the way I approach my work.

It’s funny—when I was working on this book, my editor felt the need to offer a disclaimer every time he called me out on a cliché in the manuscript. He’d always hedge a little, wondering if I was intentionally using familiar language to make a point. But though clichés are a subject of the book, I still wanted to avoid them in my own writing. This comes back to thinking about the difference between what stories are asked to do in recovery and what stories are asked to do in literature.

Everything I love about how clichés operate as conversational currency between people in recovery, or just between people in general in the world, didn’t radically alter my ideas about what literary writing should be. I didn’t suddenly believe in writing that had tons of clichés. In a way, I wanted to write a book that had not a single cliché in it—except for the ones I was quoting, which were part of the story. But I didn’t want them to be part of my own telling. I still very much love and believe in and want to participate in the quest for a richer language.

FASSLER: One thing you seem to acknowledge is that, even if we strive for a new vocabulary as writers, our feelings themselves—the emotional reality we inhabit—is often not that original. Our feelings and experiences are often not unique, even when the language that we use to express them is.

JAMISON: Definitely. I think that’s part of what people resist in clichés— if one feels useful to you, there’s the implication that your life is somehow not original or your problems are somehow common. I wanted very much to come to an understanding of literary storytelling that could somehow embrace unoriginality—though that itself is not an original stance. There’s a famous James Baldwin quote to that effect, for instance: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” And you see others have felt the same way, too.

It’s paradoxical, but I think I believe that when experiences are common—universal, even—you can still find language for them that illuminates them in a new way.

ABOUT Leslie Jamison

Leslie Jamison is the author of a novel, The Gin Closet, two collections of essays, The Empathy Exams and Make It Scream, Make It Burn, and a critical memoir, The Recovering. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Oxford American, A Public Space, Virginia Quarterly Review, and the Believer. She teaches at Columbia University’s MFA program, where she directs the nonfiction concentration.

About the Author

Joe Fassler

Joe Fassler is author of Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process and the forthcoming novel The Sky Was Ours (Penguin, 2022). He lives in Denver.

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