One of my creative writing professors in college — Joyce Carol Oates — used to draw lines through words, sentences and entire paragraphs of our stories and write above the rejected pieces: “cliche”.
This was very painful.
We wanted nothing more than to please her — we admired her.
I admired her. I wanted her to like me and approve of me and say I was a good writer.
So when she wrote “cliche” on my stories, I found it upsetting.
She told us “a cliche is anything you’ve ever heard before.”
This definition seemed too harsh, too limiting to us. We protested. Wouldn’t there come a point where you were just writing stuff you hadn’t heard before, to avoid cliche?
Indeed, she told us a reviewer once wrote of her that she writes as if to avoid cliche. Still, we had no excuse to lapse into lazy habits.
Joyce was brisk, fresh, controlled, and she expected the same of us.
I often walked home from her class stirred up. I was either elated because she had praised my work, told me I was a good writer, or despondent because she had marked it all through, dismissed it.
But the power of seeing her strike through those words with her pen — that awful little word cliche that made me feel like I was lazy, average, common — that feeling stayed with me.
Now I’m on high alert for it. I wince when I find it in my own work. Other people have told me I’m too harsh in pointing it out everywhere. But that’s how we get better —
Because it’s an easy test. If I or you or anyone has ever heard or read or seen it before, it’s a cliche. And it doesn’t have to be painful — getting better is liberating. It might tweak your ego a little in the moment, but that’s good. Notching your ego and making your art better makes you bigger, not smaller.
Freshman year at Princeton, we were going to New York a lot because it was just an hour by train, and because the little shuttle train called the Dinky dropped off about a block through the Junior Slums from our dorm room, it was literally an hour and a half door-to-door, Witherspoon Hall to Penn Station.
I don’t remember who ‘we’ were.
Could have been a few different people on that trip — we were there for different reasons. I was probably doing something impossibly glamorous like visiting a real New York artist’s studio. Somehow we wound up catching different trains home.
Was I supposed to meet them under that sign with the spinning destinations? Was I late and that’s why I was alone in Penn Station in the middle of the night?
I think I had my book bag, like an anchor.
I was 18 and new to New York. I was afraid I would be robbed the minute I dropped my guard — maybe I was already being robbed, pickpocketed, or would, and not even know it. That is the bag I packed with me to New York that night.
All Princeton kids carry book-bags around at all times — jammed full to prove we were working or about to work or capable of working or at least thinking about working all the time. Our work was to think. We thought about big, important stuff. That was our jobs. Your book-bag was your guard against recriminations of the world — you’re not working hard enough. Not enough thoughts.
I didn’t want them to take it from me. I guarded it.
The next train to Princeton wasn’t for another hour.
I made my way into the urine-soaked, fluorescent bathroom. Metal ant-theft purse clasps. Signs warning you to watch your belongings. The scattered contents of a woman’s purse on the floor.
I tried the first stall. Blood all over the toilet steal and broken crack vials scattered on the floor. Pushed open the second door on a shrieking transexual clown. Ran for the handicapped stall — chased by the clown. Slammed the door on his hand as he tried to force it open. Locked the door and backed away from it, terrified. But I still had to pee like a racehorse. Dropped my stuff down, pulled down my pants and squatted over the filthy toilet seat —
A crack vial rolled from beneath the other stall and hit my foot —
The clown shrieked and stretched his hand after it, groping — touching my foot —
Then he squeezed his head and shoulders underneath the partition, going after the crack, smiling up at my naked cunt —
I kicked him and screamed —
I yanked up my pants and pressed myself against the wall. The clown stood on the toilet in the next stall and looked down over the partition, screaming at me to give him his medicine back —
I kicked his crack back over to his stall. I couldn’t hear what he was doing in there. I was afraid he was going to attack me the minute I opened my stall door. I didn’t know whether he had left or not. I waited an interminable amount of time, then I busted the door open and ran out of the bathroom all the way across the length of Penn Station to the retail safety of the magazine shop. Shaking, I flipped through magazines without seeing them. I looked over my shoulder — I thought the clown might still be chasing me. Maybe this was one of those movies where the end-game is destroying the clown by blowing up Penn Station. I flipped through magazines without seeing them for the hour till my train to Princeton. I felt guilty and dumb for being in Penn Station alone in the middle of the night. Was I brazen or a hayseed? I was new to New York. I probably didn’t tell my friends.
I shook all the way till I got on the train, maybe till my dorm room bed. I didn’t want to be robbed. I was 18.