Nathaniel Tower, Bartleby Snopes and Avoiding Cliche the Bill Watterson Way


One of the greatest joys of being part of the writing community is how giving most people are.  Stephen King has written multiple books about writing craft and has given countless lectures, all because he loves the community so much.  James Patterson gives millions of dollars to independent bookstores to ensure they can continue to support writers who don’t sell as many books as, well, James Patterson.  I noticed an interesting and pleasant enough debate that took place and I wanted to share my own thoughts.  (Many people have already done so, but I’m guessing you haven’t read what I’m about to say…)

Bartleby Snopes managing editor Nathaniel Tower wrote a guest post for freeze frame fiction in which he described the cliches that he’s sick of seeing in submissions.  Mr. Tower’s suggestions are fairly conventional and understandable.  Stories that begin or end with a character waking from a dream.  Yawn.  Stories that begin with “light streaming through the window.”  (I was not aware that was a thing.)  Mr. Tower is not being rude; his bio even points out that many of his own published works violate the rules he just laid out.

Laryssa Wirstiuk wrote a response in which she affirmed Mr. Tower’s cheeky caveat.  There are plenty of exceptions to the rule.  For example, Ms. Wirstiuk cites stories such as:

“In September, the Light Changes” by Andrew Holleran (story that begins with streaming light); “Bullet to the Brain” by Tobias Wolff (story with a “death ending”); “People Like That Are The Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” by Lorrie Moore (sentimental cancer story based on true cancer story)…

What’s the difference between a great story like “Bullet to the Brain” and a terrible, overdone story that confronts the same subject matter?  Say it with me: Storytelling skill.  An understanding of how to break the rules.  World-class facility with language.

Most of us don’t have those qualities, so we should be aware of the dangers about writing a story based on a cliched premise or with cliched characters.  The best way I can think of to illustrate the principle is to take a step back and to return to childhood for a moment.

Ohioan Bill Watterson is the genius behind Calvin and Hobbes, one of the funniest and most touching comic strips ever.  The premise is deceptively simple; Calvin is a precocious little boy who explores the world and its people with Hobbes, his pet tiger.  (A companion who, of course, only comes to life for Calvin.)  Mr. Watterson put a decade’s work into this magnum opus, alternately touching the funny bone and the heart.  He ended the strip in 1995, loathe to allow the quality of his work to flag and secure in the feeling that he had said everything he wanted to say.

After his retirement, Mr. Watterson retreated (even further) into the anonymity that he loves.  I’ve always remembered this well-written story that James Renner placed in the Cleveland Scene.  Mr. Watterson did not abandon creative pursuit in the years after he sent Calvin and Hobbes off on their eternal journey.  Instead, Mr. Watterson experimented in another artistic form:

An industry source who wishes to remain anonymous says Watterson paints oil-on-canvas landscapes, but sets fire to each as soon as it’s finished. Supposedly, he was told that the first 500 paintings an artist creates are just practice.

Isn’t that beautiful and sad at the same time?  If the anonymous source is to be believed-and why not in this case?-then the world has lost many works of art.  Works that would be worth thousands of dollars.  The story is also touching; what matters most?  The creative journey, the putting of brush to canvas.  (Or pen to paper.)

I also tend to think that Mr. Watterson’s impulse is correct.  The first million words you write are just practice.  The first stories, poems and novels are preparatory drudgework that teach you so much of what you need to create work of value.  Writing and painting are exceptional in that they are pursuits from which you need never retire.  Right now, my close, personal friend Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter on the planet.  In thirty years, he’ll be unable to turn on a minor league fastball.  How many people have a realistic hope of constant improvement?  Eternal excellence?

Look at Whitney Houston sing live in 1985.  She’s the best.  The vocal just pours out of her.

Now listen to Whitney Houston sing in 2010.

Granted, there were some additional…issues that were getting in the way of Ms. Houston’s voice, but the world-class talent devolved into a barely competent speak-singer.

Fellow writers?  You and I have a chance of writing some decent lines or sentences the day we die.

I’ve been writing far longer than I should admit, and I think that the cliche stories that Mr. Tower referenced are a rite of passage, particularly for writers who start young.  I wrote my awful version of the “Adam and Eve” science fiction story.  My first novel wasn’t THAT bad, but it was heavily influenced by my love of The X-Files and the partner dynamic between Mulder and Scully.  I’ve definitely written a “death story” or two.

We all learn a lot through mimicry.  Children acquire language skills by emulating what their parents say.  Ballplayers start out in the sandlot pretending they are Justin Verlander staring down a batter in the seventh game of the World Series.  Writers, I suspect, engage in a lot of mimicry as they begin to find their own voices.

I suppose what I am urging is that we think of our cliche stories as practice in the same way Bill Watterson thought of his first few hundred paintings.  We can have a great time creating our cliche stories, just as it’s a lot of fun learning to throw a curveball by whipping the horsehide at imaginary batters.  And perhaps we should think twice before throwing that curveball to a real hitter before it’s ready.





  • I like that you basically give writers permission to write cliched stories. I think the biggest obstacle that stands in the way of a writer’s growth is self censorship and the worry that he or she is not good enough. I say, let your cliches fly! Write all the bad writing! Unleashing the bad writing may be the only way to grow and finally find a genuine voice. Thanks for your thoughts!

    • Oh, absolutely. If nothing else, we should feel licensed to write terrible sentences because they get us flowing and we can always fix them later. (Not to mention the fact that there is…usually…great pleasure in any act of creative writing.)

  • After all, if the heart doesn’t strike first, how will we know later where (and to what extent) to plug in the mind?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *