I am a writer by trade and disposition yet my experience with jewelry is surprisingly vast. Prior to my birth, my grandfather was a gem-cutter in New York. When I first landed in Chicago, I had a quick stint working for a ring-maker. But mostly: I was brought up by parents who, in the eighties and early nineties, ran a wholesale jewelry business. They often brought me to trade shows, where I delighted the neighboring vendors (I’m sure). On the way home I’d sleep in the back of the van, nestled beside the black rolling cases of inventory, gold chains shimmying inside as we moved along the highways.
What I am saying is: jewelry is in my blood. Of course that’s not true, cliché detectives; what’s in my blood is the usual things, like, what, platelets and plasma and whatever. But yes, jewelry has perhaps served as a consistent if non-intuitive presence in my life.
Along with the gold chains and ceramic broccoli-shaped brooches and rhinestone earrings in the shapes of stars, we sold a non-jewelry thing, too: small, clear, colorless crystal pyramids that came with pamphlets about their healing properties. It was the late eighties. People were desperate, exhausted maybe. Hippie culture had been nearly drained from the popular conversation. At the time perhaps crystal pyramids seemed like a throwback charm of much-needed optimism. I could not tell you about whether or not those clear crystal pyramids healed anything. (I am not really interested in evaluating that, here on the StoryStudio blog, or elsewhere, really.) Though I can tell you that the pyramids did not come from the earth that way, see-through and shaped like the Luxor. For crystal is anything but clear!
Let’s give my folks’ old suppliers the benefit, and say the pyramids were quartz, and not glass. Glass would be gauche. At least quartz is made by the earth via natural processes. But: quartz is more common than almost anything, after, sayeth Wikipedia, feldspar. Feldspar is used to make glass. Whereas quartz structures itself, deep within the guts of the earth, and is discovered covered in dirt and attached to any other convenient mineral. From there it is cut, washed, cut again, tumbled, polished. Some of it remains cloudy. Some of it emerges clear.
Please allow me to make this relevant to the venue. Just because quartz is common doesn’t mean it’s the cliché of the mineral world. Commonness isn’t the issue with clichés. It’s the logic! The intrusive received language!
Clichés are not organic. They don’t have anything to do with the subjective experience of life. They come from out there in the feldspar glass-making ether, easy and cheap to make, with no healing properties. In their convenience, clichés derail the making of original thought and sound. As Lyn Hejinian wrote: “…where once one sought a vocabulary for ideas, now ones seeks ideas for vocabularies.”* It is a writer’s task to invert this once more. Writers are not receptacles. Writers are not feldspar. Writers are quartz!
As a writer, you are a self-structuring entity. You are growing outward into crystals, or inward, into geodes. You are taking your minerals, your elements, and, through the pressure and energy of your own life-and-brain, you are making beautiful, yet-undiscovered structures. You are putting language into new shapes. You are uniquely qualified to discover those unique shapes. You are honoring the specificity of the human experience in syllables!
I don’t know about crystals. I don’t know about healing. I know a little about the jewelry business. I know a large amount about language. I know the most about my own perspective, my own interior, my own body-moving-through-space-and-time. This is my expertise. You have that expertise too!
To use a cliché is to ignore that expertise. I am not interested in anything being “crystal clear,” for what it’s worth. I am interested in the monolithic opacity of beauty, the cloudiness of lived life. I want to be rushed upon by your words, overwhelmed. I do not just want to see through from one side to the other. And please, writers, if you want to talk about clarity, tell me about the way you experience clarity. Don’t talk to me about crystals. Offer figuration only you can make. Otherwise, what’s the point of you being the one who is writing? Remember: A human is no longer directly necessary to make language. A computer can write well enough, I hear. In subjectivity, in originality of voice, there is justification to keep writing. In it there is an offering: a new experience for the reader, and new ways to experience life. Fresh, unique language is its own potent charm.
As you have likely already discovered, this essay is also an object lesson in the generative potential of the cliché. You too can try this strategy; find the significance in a tired phrase. Children of stylists, tell me about flowing hair. Preacher’s kids: I want to hear about how the devil got in those details. Tell me, dear writer, who silenced the church mouse? And, please, answer at last, how did the poor cat get in that bag?
Of course I am not interested in literal answers. The lineages of many clichés are available on the internet. What I am interested in is the answer only you can give, you writers, you dear, sweet crystals.
* From Lyn Hejinian’s 1978 essay, “If Written Is Writing,” first published in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and collected in the highly recommended The Language of Inquiry, published by University of California Press.
Amanda Goldblatt is a StoryStudio instructor, fiction writer and essayist whose work has appeared most recently in The Southern Review, Hobart, FENCE, and American Short Fiction. Her eight-week class Creative Writing II: Finish the Story starts Wednesday, January 17th.