A Literacy Narrative on Cliché
Throughout the day, I mutter different clichés to myself. They serve as exhortations and pick-me-ups, private consolations when I’m at wit’s end; I hang on to them as hardened little bits—a secreted language. The habit makes me feel ambivalent. Resorting so readily to cliché is uninspired and, moreover, dangerous. But then again they get me going. They work! Bear down, bear down, I tell myself, my grad school university’s motto, and I actually do. I put one foot in front of the other. Somewhere within them, these expressions harbor a bit of luster and value. They serve as a way to start an investigation into the language I speak and how I came to speak it. A pearl, I tell myself, is also an oyster’s shit.
For a long time, one thing I muttered to myself is that I know nothing. The phrase became my de facto logical stance, a patchwork of a bunch of watered down, high-school Socrates, back jacket blurbs quoting Montaigne’s Que sais-je?, and Shakespeare’s fools studied in a college semester. If I know nothing, if I learn how to present myself without the vanity or conceit of someone who knows something, I’m then able to point out that you—that someone—also know nothing. It’s the way, I figure, you take down a king: subvert power through your own lack of it. Wield sharply your ignorance. This is the privileged position of the fool.
I know nothing because life seems at once very simple and very complicated. Indeed, the statement itself that things are both simple and complicated is a simple and complicated thing to say. The contradiction often feels overwhelming and language unequal to the task of expressing it. The more I examine a subject and seek to understand it, the easier it becomes to find myself paralyzed by paradox, unable to say anything at all.
“It’s as if the books in the library,” Lucy Corin writes, “are just books with nothing in them except more books.”
How do you express the ineffable that resides in what you want to say? Language either stuns us or helps us fetch back a piece of the world. That’s its allure and its trap.
And so here cliché rears its ugly head. It exists as a parcel of language that’s been groundshipped and air-freighted so many times you know what you’re getting before you exacto knife your way through the packing tape. It’s the Amazon of utterances—the most direct, convenient way of deliverance over great distance, and at seemingly little cost.
The literacy narratives with which I’m familiar I encountered while teaching composition. I imagine this a common sentiment. These narratives inevitably moved upward, as if literacy meant a mountain to climb and conquer or, in some cases, to be deposited directly on top via helicopter. One student of mine submitted a Prezi that showed a literal alpine ascent (his narrative was about learning to ski in Colorado), the final slide a picture of him, heroic and beaming, standing with his family amid a background of powdered white snow, no mention made of who might have helped him carry those bags upwards. This was probably a failing of mine as a teacher.
I’m interested instead in tracing a literacy narrative that moves downwards. A narrative that argues the more one knows, the less one knows, and the more things seem simple, the more complicated they are. How do we hold these paradoxes and contradictions in hand while still finding a way to transform the world into language? Literacy is how to function when one knows one knows nothing. It’s learning that once you know what you want to say, you then have to figure out how to say it.
I used to think each writer held a ball made out of twigs. The twigs were woven in such a way that you could slip your hand inside and wriggle your wrist a bit. The inside of the ball was hollow except for the very center, where an unknown object rested. You could run your hand over the outline of that object, you could even grasp it for a second or two before it slipped free, but you couldn’t see it. And you couldn’t remove it from that center without destroying the ball and the object in the process. How then do you trace that outline so that another may know what’s at the heart of where you’re stuck?
Yet cliché stereotypes; that’s the flipside. The secondary meaning lurks in the root of the word: an easy dictionary search tells me clicher arose in the mid-19th century as the past participle of the French verb for stereotype. That alternate meaning carries subtle danger. I tell myself to be wary of the universal. This isn’t the Three Musketeers, after all: one is not for all and all are not for one. I must not confuse speaking to another with speaking for another. Learning how to say what you want to say is one thing; another is to learn how to let another say what he, she, or they want to say. That is, to make room in your language for its challenges towards your sense of complacency.
I moved to Rio de Janeiro for a few years after college with my friend Mike. My father’s side of the family is Brazilian and I wanted to learn the language. Shortly after we arrived there, another friend flew down to visit us for a week along with two of her friends from high school. Mike and I lived in a very small apartment and, though we all had a good time, cabin fever set in. One day, when my friend and her friends went out somewhere, Mike and I stayed in. One of the grad school friends, a tall girl, had left her yellow high heels out on the floor. They were very large. Mike and I harbored a little resentment towards this girl—she had accidentally clogged the toilet by flushing toilet paper down it, a no-no in Brazilian plumbing, and Mike had had to snake the toilet twice while I watched, his arm extending into the water up to his elbow, his head gently resting on the seat. So we took turns stepping into this girl’s very large yellow high heels and strutting around the room. We laughed. We strutted around again. Needless to say this was immature of us, but it put us in a good mood. We, of course, never told our friend. When I write now, I try to keep in mind that it was a fine idea to try on the heels, a less fine idea to use them for a laugh, and not my place at all to try and tell you how those shoes felt.
Every cloud has its silver lining. I mutter this, too. Knowing nothing can feel painfully limited sometimes. A short while ago, I attended a writing conference and listened to a morning lecture by a writer I admire. As all writing conferences feel the need to be in idyllic locations, where one may go for a walk and find ready-made (see clichéd) inspiration, I went into the woods afterwards. The lecture had moved me, as it hit on a topic close to home, and I found myself crying. This was unexpected; I’m not someone who usually cries. The previous day there were reports of a bear spotted in the woods and so as I meandered about, my shoes soggy from the wet grass, I imagined what would happen if one lumbered out from behind a tree and ate me. I know; it’s ridiculous. I imagined how upset the few people who love me would be and I imagined my memorial service. One’s own funeral, of course, remains the event one most wants to attend. But then I worried that before the bear ate me, it might ask me what I had to say for myself. What would my message be? I thought at once of “I know nothing.” I took a breath to voice it aloud before I realized just how paltry and small and unsatisfying it would sound. A pearl made of shit indeed. It wasn’t that I know nothing. It was that I don’t know anything. Is that all, when put on the spot, a lifetime of language could get me? Could I not stave off death with words? Was this language’s or my own thinking’s insufficiency? Did it matter? What a disappointment. I didn’t know anything.
Either way, bears don’t exactly materialize out of the woods to maul you whenever you conjure them and so, a few minutes later, I found myself walking on paved road again, telling myself that if I just bore down, just bore down, I would come up with something better further down the line.
Thomas Mira y Lopez is from New York. He holds an MFA from the University of Arizona. He’s an assistant fiction editor for DIAGRAM and an editor for Territory, a literary project about maps and other strange objects. He lives in Hamilton, NY, where he’s an Olive B. O’Connor Fellow at Colgate University.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative, the coming-into-language story. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.