• Aarik Danielsen

Living the Cliché

Writers go well out of their way to avoid cliche—wriggling around plain speech, curving sentence structure. I’m no different.


Prizing originality, and writing for sound as much as substance, I long to traffic in words often left unsaid; to arrange unspoiled ink, offering readers clarifying light and cold water.


 
Along my way, someone explained that unlike stereotypes—often forged by falsehood, with prejudice—cliches persist because they house some scrap of truth. Recent experience bears this out.
 

Along my way, someone explained that unlike stereotypes—often forged by falsehood, with prejudice—cliches persist because they house some scrap of truth. Recent experience bears this out.


“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” This quotation sounds in the popular consciousness enough to lose meaning and volume. Yet more than two years of pandemic heaviness reveals its worth. Shuffling slowly, unsteadily from day to day, I think dark thoughts and pray hard prayers. Won’t someone come along and bear my burdens?


As I start to count up the slights, all the ways I’ve been let down, quiet testimonies from friends and neighbors arrive. They speak in groans, trade sighs for punctuation marks. They stagger too. Nearly everyone I love is doing the best they can.


Writers embrace the axiom “Show, don’t tell,” which applies to novelists and journalists the same. Like any creed, it risks growing threadbare. Lord knows how I have stood over the shoulders of 18- and 19-year-old students, repeating the phrase until it sinks.


But the truth works its way out. Young writers often waste precious time and others’ attention on complicated set-ups and sagging exposition. They repeat information, afraid readers won’t recognize truth in its first appearance. They declare a person is one thing or another, rather than place them within a moment of revelation.


Exceptions exist for every rule, every cliche. Sometimes a short, straightforward sentence makes its point. But a reader needs to absorb who a person is, meet the angels and devils they live with, watch the stakes rise, before their story breaks the surface to anchor within the soul. Showing this, rather than forever spelling it out, invites them into the text as collaborators.


 
I cherish my word-made-flesh faith and I’m not here to parse the message of St. Francis. But considering the common life of Christians, it seems the scales tip, our telling far outweighing our showing.
 

This is no less true when writing about the intimacy and practice of belief. When we talk craft, my friend Lore and I contrast spiritual writing that describes with writing that prescribes. I cherish my word-made-flesh faith and I’m not here to parse the message of St. Francis. But considering the common life of Christians, it seems the scales tip, our telling far outweighing our showing.


Christians often wring their hands over an inability to evangelize, then use their words in manifold ways. Pastors and public theologians log on to social media, dissecting gender roles, sifting other people’s theology, sounding hard opinions. All while making the subtext clear: Where else shall we go? These are the words of life.


I know the impulse. I spent my twenties talking people out of the music they liked, rarely unveiling the beauty of an Adam Duritz couplet or the magic in one of Michael Stipe’s vocal spells. In my thirties, I rehearsed CliffsNotes versions of Reformed doctrines until I ran out of time to exhibit patient mercies radiating from the God to which they referred.


What I tell you matters. But I have no claim on anyone’s trust until my God-words are set on fire by a life facing Godward. The last half-decade sapped so much of my own trust, as I started minding gaps between showing and telling.


Writers tell each other about their impressive reading lists yet show little evidence of story-softened souls. Spiritual pilgrims tell of ecstatic worship experiences yet fail to show how the Spirit directed their steps, out the sanctuary doors to love their neighbors as themselves. Believers go online, telling anyone who’ll listen about what their denomination gives to this or that cause, yet show no seriousness in connecting the dots between acts of kindness and the broken systems making them necessary.


 
Stop telling me who you are and how you believe. Show me until I can tell myself—by heart—what you love.
 

Stop telling me who you are and how you believe. Show me until I can tell myself—by heart—what you love.


Flip the pages of an anthology to read me poems that changed your life. Pause the song somewhere in the middle, then play it back till I hear how the vocal falls just beyond the beat, in the most human way. And I’ll tell you something about the creativity of your God.


Show me a life resembling the shapes of certain clouds, bisected by certain waters—the way my new friend Paul does when he identifies a theology distilled to “rivers trees birds and stars.” Let your finger trace the horizon of an Ansel Adams image, revealing the lack of seam between canopy and ground. And it will tell me everything about your picture of heaven on Earth.


Show me how you not only stoop to serve the least of these, but listen to and lend your “amen” to their prayers. And I’ll be able to tell what your vision of Jesus looks like.


 
As long as virtue is seen rather than shouted, touches the marrow before reaching the lips, signal it until the light burns out.
 

One sort of person, the kind who typically majors in telling, worries about virtue signaling. Another kind of person—whatever kind I am—believes we signal toward what we find virtuous in everything we say and do. As long as virtue is seen rather than shouted, touches the marrow before reaching the lips, signal it until the light burns out.


I am tired of speaking in tongues only the holy can hear, of appeasing the right brothers with my good theology, of dictating the shape of someone’s life rather than listening to their story. I’m in my forties now, and really only have time for one task—recognizing the great wonder which animates the universe, then chasing it into a million holy places.


Along the way, I hope to describe these reverent surprises with whatever words I have left, rather than diagram the sentence for you.


I suppose we’re all clanging cymbals, living squalls of guitar noise. And I’m bound to talk too much. But I want to push past mere telling to more lasting impressions. I may not want to write cliches, but I hope to live them out in the light of God.




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