Don Reilly/The New Yorker published on with permission from Condé Nast Collection


An astute beta-reader recently cautioned me to watch out for clichés.

As with all feedback, I mulled over this for a bit and then went back to my manuscript. At that point, I was in that murky state of mind where I had reread the words so much that it seemed like every word needed to be changed. I became paranoid. Is this scene a cliché? How about this line? This phrase, this dialogue? What isn’t cliché?

I had the unsettling realization that my cliché alarm was not as calibrated as it probably should be. As I was trying to suss out why this was the case, I did what all mature people do, I blamed my parents.

Being a child of immigrants in a household where English was the less frequently used of two languages, it was a struggle to learn metaphors and colloquial expressions to authentically understand English and feel thoroughly American. The expressions, the pop cultural references, the quick and clever jokes that juxtapose two obscure references to make a brilliant jab, these were the elusive language nuances. They were the things that made you feel like you were not a foreign student or a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant, not the hyphen between two cultures. You were inside.

The filmmaker Matthew Vaughn was once quoted as saying, “Clichés are what make you understand something.” I would say this is true, generally — and especially if you are an immigrant.

I got expressions wrong all the time. Metaphors had to be beaten to death for me to move from a place of complete ignorance to unblinking understanding. (I use the past tense as if this is something I have mastered. In truth, I am still that person who double-blinks and wonders whether to acknowledge that the reference was lost on me.) As with mutilated metaphors, clichés were a necessary and important tool for comprehension.

Like a stubborn batter, I kept swinging, attempting to use elusive bits of language even if I missed and missed and missed. Once while trying out colloquial phrases, I once described someone as a “meatcake” rather than a “beefcake” or “meathead.” When I forced some things to work together that don’t normally work together, I found out (after I said it) that you don’t “Jeremy-rig it” together, but you “Jerry-rig” it together.

Who cares if it’s Jerry or Jeremy? Turns out, kids do. Getting caught in these gaffs as an adult often sparks friendly laughter. As a kid though, it was a spotlight on someone who was weird. For kids, the differences that make you strange are so much more plentiful than the ones that make you alternative-cool. The last thing you want to be noticed for is how you speak. Not knowing how to use clichés, metaphors, and colloquial expressions correctly guaranteed betrayal and embarrassment. So I learned to adapt and blend in. Mostly.

Now as a writer, I find myself on strange footing as I try to tell a story with distinction: distinctive voice, imagery, characters, plot. Look at every facet. Refrain from clichés. Minimize metaphors. Critique colloquial phrases.

It’s ironic that now I have to consciously catch and reject clichés — the very style of speech that I credit with helping me understand, assimilate, and adapt to this culture. I have had to learn the vernacular to identify it, to reject it, and then to create one that is uniquely my own for my story.