Kill Your Darlings
Clichés get a bad rap. Especially in writing, though not without due cause. You can only deal with so much wind howling on dark and stormy nights (he said, through clenched teeth). When it comes to the human element, stereotypes face an additional obstacle to overcome, since we tend to compartmentalize for conveniency's sake. It's not that everyone who lives in a trailer park is necessarily banging his sister; in fact, I've had several friends who have lived in trailer parks, some of which were quite upscale and better than many of the houses I have lived in, and as far as I know not a one was involved in carnal relations with a sibling (then again, it's not like I asked, either). These "types" are just how we classify: the Asian student who is good at math; the buxom blonde who can't add. In writing these are kisses of death, because more often than not they highlight a certain laziness on the part of the author. Your first instinct is usually wrong, because writers, like most people, are inherently lazy. You have to chew past the outside tough and bland layers to get to the really tasty, flavorful stuff. Kinda like a dragonfruit. I guess that applies to most fruits. Except, you know, the ones with thin skins.
I am not averse to hard work. OK. That is a lie. I am an extremely lazy mutherfucker in many regards. I'd rob a bank before I'd spend another day digging ditches for the Man (and, no, that is not a cliché; I actually had a job digging ditches. It was in Minnesota, working for Labor Ready, which is day labor, back when I was a hobo hitching it town to town. Literally, I'd dig a seven-foot ditch, drop in cable, fill; repeat. I also, technically, robbed a bank. I mean, if you steal money from a bank, even if you are doing it with bad checks (or rather, lots and lots of bad checks), you still robbed it, no?). Back when I was an ice cream man with my buddy, Rich, when we were kids, I remember the boss once saying to the new guy, "You work like Rich; you no work like Joe." I guessing eating your salary and weight in Strawberry Shortcake bars makes one a bad worker. But when it comes to my art, I work as hard as anyone. In the words of Phil Marlowe, Get it through your lovely head. I work at it, lady, I don't play at it.
"Kill your darlings" is a writing expression that refers to rewriting. When you finish a draft, your inner editor must cast a cold, critical eye on the working product, slashing and cutting those selections and pretty phrases you love most, as a means to establish the requisite disconnect, employing the impersonal judgment that is necessary to get the job done right. It's an essential component, since this writing shit is not done in a vacuum; there is audience to consider. We're not writing a chapbook here about pumpkin cookie recipes. We want truth. We want heart and soul. We want mass appeal and multi-book deals. We want it all.
Goddamn, I love a good cliché. Always have. A well-timed cliché can resonate. Because sometimes a situation itself is so powerful, the best thing we can do is get out of our own way, and trying to add flair on top of that is overkill. This happens a lot in rock 'n' roll, where frequently bad lyrics ruin a good song. A cliché is a defense around this. It is possible to write an entire song composed of nothing but.
I'm not saying a writer should litter his or her works with tired, oft-heard phrases. Obviously, you want your writing to be as fresh and original as possible. Still, what makes it tougher for me is the fact that I am, myself, a cliché.
Let's take a look at the work that has influenced me most.
Catcher in the Rye. If you've read this blog for more than a day, you know this is my favorite book. I read it for the first time in front of Syd Barrett's house at 19, and I've read it every year since. I named my son Holden. The book has turned into a cliché for every troubled young man and would-be psychopath. I carried this book in my right hand across America, riding in Greyhounds, with bags full of my laundry http://tinyurl.com/79qwqx4, as I searched the subways and alleyways and empty local bars looking for...the ghost of Dean Moriarty.
No, it's not Salinger. It's Jack Kerouac. If we have another boy, I will not be naming him Jack, though, since Jack (or Jackson) is, like, the 2nd most popular name in this country, and we all know popular equates to stupid (i.e., fat tarts in New Jersey); I will be naming him Billy Pilgrim (pretty fucking cool, eh?). And there are lots of other books that have helped define me and that I think are brilliant. If I made a Top Ten List, and I just might, I don't think a single Kerouac book would make the list (Subterraneans might sneak in). The fact is, Kerouac is an author you have to read in your 20s, and then never again. Not sure why that is. I mean, you can go back and re-read On the Road, just like you can go back and re-watch The Breakfast Club, and they still might be good, but they'll never move you like they did when you were young.
Bruce Fucking Springsteen. Which I believe gives me the trifecta of the All-American cliché. I sat on the hood of a Dodge and drank beer by the lake (Swede's Pond), and fell in love with a girl (KatieAmySherriDarling), whose house, yes, I drove by the other day, as the sweet summer light began to fade. How many broken heroes can you cram into one 8-minute long song? About as many times as you can sing "Backstreets" (approx. 30). The man is Americana. Blue jeans, T-shirts, and broken hearts.
No, that's not the Boss. That's Gaslight Anthem. Meet the new Boss. Same as the old Boss.
I wear blue jeans and white T-shirts. I have a reformed criminal, addict past (and I write about it!). I have my ex-wives names tattooed on my body, which as I sit now is naked from the waist up (yes, biceps bulging), with my new chain I got from my latest wife for Christmas, and when I look in the mirror, it reminds me of when I went back to live with my mother after my last stint in rehab, when I'd said goodbye to my 20s.
"I'm glad to have you back, Joey," my mom said.
"Don't call me 'Joey.' Makes me feel like a big fat 30-year-old Italian guy who still lives with his mother."
My mother paused. "Well, you have put on a little weight."
I like motorcycles. Can't ride them anymore since "the accident." I like curvy blondes (can still ride them, but we have to be careful because of the hardware the doc put in). And I like a good fight.
Rocky. Like my friend Jimmy says, that theme song could wake a corpse. There is only 7 minutes worth of actual fighting in that entire film. It's not really a movie about boxing. But it is all about the fight. On the surface, it's a film about a punch-drunk thuggo, in love with a dopey girl at a turtle shop, who gets one last chance to prove he's not a bum. But the key is when Rocky realizes right before he steps in the ring with Apollo Creed (what a great fucking character name) that he cannot win. Nothing he does in that ring will produce a victory; he is outmatched. In terms of punching power, speed, skill. But by losing he can still win if he can only will himself to stay on his feet until the final bell. Take the beating, keep moving forward. An American aesthetic. More like a religion.
This is who I am, this is what I do, and it has been shaped by the very art you'd expect from a man still angry at his father. You don't get rich playing another man's game. (I should've been around in the '50s. Like Fonzie.) You find what you do, and you try and do it well. And you take inspiration wherever you can find it. No one said it was going to be easy.