“When Clichs Go Wrong”
by Marvin Payne
“My dear brothers and sisters, when the bishop called Thursday night asking me to write this column, I went straight to the dictionary and it said this. ‘kah’-lum: a large pillar, most often of stone, the part of the portico which supports the frieze.’ So I thought that instead I would write by the Spirit. Let me begin by quoting the entire current Ensign, and these few pages of funny jokes I found in my e-mail…”
Don’t stop reading. The foregoing is a clich. Just like the observation that springs to mind right now that “if all the people who had ever fallen asleep during a high council member’s talk were laid out end to end, they’d probably be a lot more comfortable.” If I had truly for real begun a Backstage Graffiti column like I pretend-began this one, it would be charitable of you not to condemn me, because most clichs (wow I wish I knew how to type those little accent marks that make words like “clich” look so much more impressive) are only clichs because they’ve been said overly often, over oftenly, on account of they’re quite often true, and often quite true. “Raining cats and dogs” is not of that sort. Anything affirming that the Pope is Catholic or that bears behave with a certain abandon in the woods is of that sort.
(Another reason not to condemn is that sometimes very nice people are caught in webs of clich. I once wrote a song for a musical play in which the entire lyric was constructed of clichs my mother used.)
But writers avoid clichs like, well, the plague. I remember that the most distressing thing about my midlife crisis was that it was such a clich. I mean, would anybody accept it as mere coincidence that in that period I acquired a red pickup with mag wheels? Honest, my nephew needed to get rid of it. It was a favor to him. But who will believe that? And one of the reasons I am obsessively careful when driving on Labor Day is that to get in a crash would be so embarrassingly clich. Any other day, it’s tragic–but even the most moving and dramatic tragedy can be depreciated by any taint of clich.
Writers are more afraid of clich than is good for them. But still I think it’s worth dedicating a column to the warning that clichs can go terribly wrong.
Once I sat in the temple chapel and had some serious worries in my life because, well, where else would you have them? I remembered the story (often a clich) about someone letting the scriptures fall open in their lap and closing their eyes and letting their finger fall on a verse, then doing whatever that verse said to do. So I tried it. I was astounded. My finger fell on the one verse in the whole Book of Mormon that went like an arrow to the heart of my concern. I thought, “Wow,
this is great! I’ll try it again!” So I did, and my finger fell on a verse about Nephite measuring vessels or cureloms or something, and I could almost hear the Lord chuckling. A clich gone wrong. (I suddenly suspect that I told this story in a column about a year ago. If I did, it’s not a clich until I tell it in a couple more columns, and then Richard and Linda Eyre tell it in theirs. But don’t look for it in Anne Perry’s column, she’ll avoid it sure as the Pope is Catholic.) I’m just glad the verse didn’t say “Go, and take of the uncircumscribed of the Canaanites, and…” well, need I press the point that a clich of this sort is endowed with a measure of danger?
My experience in the temple was actually quite pleasant, helped me to know the Lord better. But a little disconcerting anyway, because we all tend to rely emotionally on our clichs a bit.
For example, doesn’t some part of us feel suddenly hollow when the bride and groom are standing at the wedding cake and she doesn’t smush it all over his face? Wouldn’t we feel a little lost if suddenly the answer to BYU’s defeat was not that “we didn’t execute well”? And I’m confident that we would all feel confused to the point of losing faith in the economy if we were to walk into Wal-Mart and see price tags that read “$4” instead of “$3.99.” Imagine how disorienting it would be to find any retail concern selling nothing at all that ended in “.99” or “.95.” Really, imagine it right now. Hard, isn’t it? Sort of makes you shudder.
Sometimes our lives are driven by clich. I had the great pleasure of acting in the filmed version of the play “Saturday’s Warrior” (which, incidentally, turned our clichs into several million bucks and a gold record) with the lovely Cori Jacobsen, who played my daughter Julie. This is the character who we find at the airport, saying a tearful farewell to her missionary and morphing it into a lollapalooza production number. We had a great time together. The next time I saw her after our work on the soundstage was maybe a year later, at six in the morning at Salt Lake International saying goodbye to a missionary. The next time I saw her was maybe a year later than that, at six in the morning at Salt Lake International saying goodbye to a missionary. I stopped going to the airport. It was just too painful for a writer’s sensitive feelings.
Here’s the journal entry that precipitated this outpouring about clich. I’d been in Chile for several weeks as part of a cultural exchange of professionals in various fields.
23 September 1984
“On a warm day in Chile we sat on the bank of the Bio-Bio [please, how do you type those accents?] River with our gracious hosts. In a nearby bowery, a family of poor peasants labored over a hot fire preparing our dinner. As we waited, our hosts asked me for a song. I was well-dressed for a country excursion, the visiting dignitary, trained and experienced as a performer. I took my fine instrument from its tweed case and performed. Then they served us, and called an old woman out of the smoky bowery. She wiped her rough hands on her skirt and picked up a battered old guitar that I’m sure never saw the inside of a case. She shook back her greying hair, smiled gently, showing that many teeth were gone, strummed a few chords and, standing there in simple elegance, began to sing. I’ve never heard singing like that. It sounded like a chicken being mechanically de-boned while still alive.”
Well, what’s wrong with THAT picture?
It’s not always tragic when clichs go wrong. I remember the first time the little Long boy in our ward (that’s not a play on words–we also have a long Little boy in our ward) got up to bear his testimony in church. I was so expecting the warm, familiar, numbing words, “I want to bear my testimony and I know this church is true I know President Gordon B. Kimball is a prophet and I’m thank you for my parents and my dog and my primary teacher.” Instead he said something startling about how much the Savior loves him and how he hears the Savior’s voice in the scriptures.
I recklessly asserted earlier that clichs are quite often true. But now I have to add the ammendment “but way not the heck always.” In my life the only truth that doesn’t feel as slippery as if I were running in my socks on a freshly waxed floor ’round and ’round the kitchen table with a hungry wolf right behind me (clinically, “luposlipophobia,” according to Gary Larson) is truth that’s spoken in the Spirit’s voice. And news from the Spirit is almost always a surprise. And clichs are, by definition, short on surprise.
“And so in closing, brothers and sisters, I’d like to go on for another thirty minutes.” Nope. Leaving clich, now. But really, in closing, one more journal example of a clich gone horribly wrong.
14 October 1982
During my first year at BYU (fifteen years ago) I fell in love with Ann. It began by being taken in by a couple of her roommates. They asked me to a football game, and over for popcorn. Lots of evenings like that followed, and I started taking my guitar over. It was a really social bunch, and the place was always full of boyfriends. One by one, they would tire of listening to me sing and watching me eat popcorn, and leave. Then the girls began to file off to bed. Ann was always last, and we had a sweet friendship going long before the momentous night when a certain arm-wrestling match ended in a kiss.
This lady was funny, faithful, and fair to the core. Any list of “celestial wifely qualities” drawn up by any returned missionary in any institute class would comprehend only a portion of her virtues…
At the end of that school year I went to California and she went to Colorado. Many nights found me on my knees in the woods. My logical self told me I might never find a finer wife, and I hadn’t the slightest hope of finding her single after my mission, unless I had her promise first. So I prayed and prayed, and in the spirit of “no news is good news,” I flew her out over the Fourth of July weekend and proposed. It was on my parents’ front porch, and I had to leave her periodically to put the needle back at the beginning of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio For Strings.” Her response will remain one of the brightest spots in my life. She laughed and jumped up and down and her mouth and her whole body said, “Oh, yes!”
We’d talked often about the beauty of marriage and children. It was one of our main delights, but they were faceless dreams. Now we dreamed out loud and saw each other’s smiles and eyes and rejoiced. Three very rich days.
On Monday evening, on the way to the airport, I thought a perfect conclusion to our time together would be to stop at the Temple and walk some… I expected lots of sweet feelings and a sense of approval. We had taken care to be worthy of it.
We stood before the Fairbanks bronze, “Eternal Family,” and tried to see our faces in it. We couldn’t. Can there be an “intense” numbness? Whatever it was, it became darkness as we turned the corner of the building–colder and darker in such sharp contrast with our expectations…
We walked around to the better-lit back of the building. Ann knew something was dreadfully wrong. I had to say something, anything to ease the pain. The only thing to occur to me seemed the least likely to help. Grasping for courage, I said, “Ann, it’s not right.” She knew what I meant, and burst into tears. I reached out to comfort her, but something only figuratively like electric shock prevented me… We stood in darkness millions of miles apart…
[These ellipses are not dramatic pauses. They’re censorship.]
Quite suddenly (the image I have remembered is “a blanket of light descending on us”), it all turned utterly around, and bitter tears gave place to gratitude, and then wet laughter. We loved each other better that we ever had… To hear the Lord say anything at all joyfully eclipsed the sorrow in whatever He may have said.
I wrote her I think two or three letters after that, had a brief confusing visit with her on the eve of my mission, and have never seen her again.
End of journal entry. End of clich.
In the spring of 1820, the notion of religious truth emitting from only highly educated sober men with stiff collars and thinning hair was nearly prevalent enough to qualify as a clich. Aren’t we glad that sometimes clichs go horribly, happily wrong?
“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)
2003Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.