The opening line from W. C. Handy's “St. Louis Blues” grabbed me last week as a watched an installment of the Ken Burns film Jazz. Whether those words are sung by Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday, or Ella Fitzgerald, they grab me every time. I'm not quite sure what they mean, but they carry an emotional punch.
Last week I was editing a lengthy nonfiction book by a writer who never met a cliché he didn't like. Page after page I encountered worn-out figures of speech.
Not having the assignment to rewrite the book, I could only apply Sol Stein's advice that “one plus one equals one-half.” So when the cliché pared two terms (above and beyond) I picked one. While the resulting expression wasn't fresh, at least it was no longer stale.
Listening to W. C. Handy's lyrics reminded me how much more effectively we can communicate when we make the effort to craft an original word picture.
A later line in “St. Louis Blues” says, “I love that man like a schoolboy loves his pie.” Nothing exotic, but certainly evocative. Perhaps even on the same wavelength with Jesus' parables, drawing on a distinctive but common experience.
Would that more writers craft phrases that make daisies seem stale.