[First published in Voiceworks No. 90, ‘Copy/Paste’, Spring 2012]
If I were to stretch this issue’s theme to the nth degree of breaking point of no return, etc., I’d have one mixed metaphor on my hands but also a tidy example of how clichés are like copying and pasting. In case that sentence did your head in, let me elaborate. Through reusing and abusing familiar imagery and sentence constructions, writing can become less of a creative exercise and more of a cobbled-together Command+C+V Word doc. That is to say, clichéd. And when you’re starting out as a writer, it’s natural for your imagination to default to that setting without realising.
I confess that my own teenage literary efforts were (unintentionally) programmed this way. An extract from my teenage diaries would illustrate this perfectly, but they’re also deeply embarrassing time capsules, riddled with lovehearts dotting my i’s and errant capitalisation when I WAS REALLY ENRAGED ABOUT SOMETHING. Instead, here’s an excerpt from a short story I wrote when I was fifteen:
It was a crisp autumn day. The sky was a slate grey colour and it looked as if it was going to burst forth with rain any second. There was a definite chill in the air, the sort that made you feel uneasy and sent a shiver down your spine. The park stood empty and eerily silent. It was almost as if you could sense the heartache and anguish drifting carelessly in the breeze.
‘An Autumn Day’ centred on an estranged father and daughter meeting after many years, and in doing so, ‘the glass began to crack…It was the calm after the storm, the beginning of a new day’. Do you see what I did there? The weather, it was story because their relationship too was…stormy. And they finally reunited, which made the weather symbolically…less stormy? Hmm. I could bleed my pen dry, madly crossing out the thematic clichés and tried phrases that dragged this story down. The really scary thing is that, ten years later, I still want to make the same mistakes. I can’t help it: years of analysing literature have shaped how I see the world, and the persistent search for narrative logic in my own life sometimes spurs me to produce somewhat clichéd, archetypal works of fiction. At least I’m now aware of this and have the foresight to rein it in before it becomes another ‘Autumn Day’.
My point here isn’t to be all Ha ha, young people write funny, nor is it to arrogantly assume every young writer makes the same mistakes I did. Rather, I’m suggesting that young writers are, well, young. It’s hardly teenagers’ fault for not having the years of writing experience that adults do. But soon they will. And then they can either look back and cringe (like I certainly do) or realise we’re all still learning and shouldn’t be too harsh on our earlier efforts.
The notion that older writers are more capable of producing publishable work is one I strongly disagree with. However, when turning a critical eye to Voiceworks’ pages, they don’t exactly back me up. During my three years on EdComm, only three members were teenagers at the time of joining; most were like me, in their early twenties or nudging towards twenty-five. Furthermore, in tallying up the Voiceworks stats for 2011, former editor Johannes Jakob found that writers under eighteen were represented significantly less than writers aged twenty-two to twenty-four.
It’s hard to know what this means exactly, but one thing it definitely doesn’t is that younger writers are somewhat inferior. It’s not that writers wake up on, say, their twenty-third birthday and suddenly write with greater clarity or imagination than those five years their junior. If older writers write better, it’s usually because they’ve spent years honing their craft—which, for the most part, involves making mistake after mistake while being willing and mature enough to listen to constructive advice from peers and teachers. That you learn from your mistakes is hardly anything new, but it bears repeating. And repeating.
I will never throw away those journals or short stories I wrote as a teenager. Embarrassing as they may be, there’s still a lot I can learn from them. And while clichés are bad for your writing, they are good maxims to live your life by. To mangle a famous saying: hindsight is a wonderful, never shameful, thing.