I imagine it’s a common experience: Whether in Bible studies, or from the pulpit, or in one-on-one “discipling” relationships, Christian ministers often feel pressured to come up with something genius, something that will knock the spiritual socks off whoever it is they’re ministering to. If you say just the right thing, maybe you can save or convert or help this person.

And I have to admit, on this website, the quandary’s similar. When we begin writing, often our first (or ever-present) concern has to do with saying something new and brilliant. “But has someone already said this?” With eleven years under the belt, the answer is usually yes, someone has always already said that; they may not have said it in the same way, but it’s probably been done. And that’s okay. We write it anyway! Which is why it’s called Mockingbird.

I thought of all this when I heard an interview with Leslie Jamison, about her new book The Recovering, on KCRW’s Bookworm. Host Michael Silverblatt talks to Jamison about “the book!” and her life as a writer, and as an alcoholic in recovery. The most striking part of the conversation, for me, was when they dig into the importance of cliché as it relates to the pressure of producing content.

From the latter bit of their conversation:

Michael Silverblatt: …you discover that everything you’ve ever thought has already been thought, and everything that has already been thought has already been said, so when one day you happen to say, “I feel like a piece of dung that the universe revolves around,” everyone in the room says, “Oh I’ve heard that a million times!”

Leslie Jamison: Yeah. It was a deeply humbling thing for me, about recovery, that every brilliant insight that I had thought to grace the world with had been spoken before. But that’s the first chapter—the humbling. And then the next chapter is, say it anyway. Because it will still be useful for somebody else to hear.

MS: We’ve all said these things—“one day at a time,” “keep it simple”—a million times over. Even if we’ve never attended a meeting, it’s entered the culture. So what does a writer do, who’s afraid of cliché? Who’s been taught, educated?

LJ: Well, I think part of how I came around to cliché, or came to understand cliché in a very different way in recovery, had to do with rethinking my notions of why we speak in the first place. For so long I had thought that the reason I spoke was to express myself, that every act of speech was a statement of identity in some way, but there’s this other notion of why we speak in recovery that has to do with that you’re speaking not to express yourself but you’re speaking to maybe help somebody else, or to maybe say something that would be useful. And clichés have a much larger role to play in that second understanding of speech than the first one, the idea that maybe this thing you say, it’s not gonna be some grand eloquent act, but maybe it will resonate with somebody’s life, or maybe it will allow you to say something that can cross the differences between what the particulars of your life happen to be and what the particulars of this other person’s life happen to be. And so I guess when I think about, how do you take that wisdom and bring it back into literature, it’s not by filling your novel with a ton of clichés. I still absolutely believe that language becomes electric and exciting and spellcasting… But that idea of recognizing what’s been shared and trying not to shy away from that shared-ness is what I took back into the project of writing.

MS: I had a difficulty with life, a difficulty with living, and these things that I learned how to say were like a bannister on a very steep spiral staircase, and when I’d lose my footing, I’d be able to go back and say something comforting that had been said to me. And we all reach a point where our best notions are not going to help us, and we have to reach out for the bannister and be guided down the stairs by the things that the others have said before us.

LJ: It’s tremendously comforting, not just for me in recovery, not just the rituals of meetings, but certain kinds of utterings as rituals… Saying the thing that has been said before relieves that pressure of, “Is the thing that I’m saying good enough?” What you were talking about, of drinking in Buffalo when you were young, and that deep anxiety about “Am I good enough to join the club?” “Is this thing that I’m saying good enough to be heard?” That was all-encompassing for me when I was young. Am I good enough to be in this room? Am I good enough to be in this company? And to kind of come back to well-worn phrases as moments of relief, or things to grip onto, was powerful.

MS: Oh, Leslie, I identify so much. But I see in your book the same impulse I had in wanting to become close to all those brilliant writers. What does Leslie Jamison do? She is an undergraduate at Harvard. She goes onto the Iowa Writing Program, and then a graduate student at Yale. So the need to be in every elite is present. And it’s, let us say, a need that forces you to feel incomplete? To feel less than. To be constantly among people you compare yourself to—unfavorably, sometimes only out of fear. But it’s really the nightmare of being not enough. Yeah?

LJ: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s a certain witness who looks at these incredible institutions that I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of and says, “How does that work alongside the drinking?” But to me, as you’re saying, completely connected that the hunger… I didn’t always experience it as the hunger to be better-than so much as the hunger to be adequate. Or the hunger to be good enough. And in order to be good enough, I had to say smart things and write well and explain my feelings to the people around me and earn their interest. The idea that the attention of other people was something to be earned rather than a kind of grace was very powerful for me. And so the quest for gold stars and the quest for all kinds of affirmation, from men, from men I went to bed with, from institutions I was seeking degrees from, all of that feels like part of exactly the same constellation of impulses. And the thing that gave me the best relief from that was always booze.

Oh, Leslie. I identify so much! These impulses for approval run deep. Even in everyday conversations—political, religious, whatever—lies an appetite to say something smart and new and non-generic…

Much the same in church. In certain settings, you can pray winding prayers with all sorts of strange, brilliant words. When I went to a non-liturgical service, there was a certain way you could hold your hands in worship that denoted how authentic and unusual your relationship with God was. Mostly, now, I feel it in Bible studies, where there is always something shocking to be said about this-or-that verse, something somebody in the room hasn’t heard before.

The best insights, however, are the faithful ones, the bannisters we can cling to. Mainly: Jesus died for your sins, and mine. That’s all. The other insights are fine. They’re fun and make life more interesting. I fell in love with my wife because she has a way of speaking that always catches me by surprise. But as Jamison says, that’s a grace, and I’ll take it when it comes, but it’s not something hard earned or worked for.

Especially when it comes to sharing the gospel, we need not envision it as some great act. It’s a testament to the forgetfulness of humanity, and to the power of the truth, that at any given moment it may confront us in some fresh, powerful way. The news is good, but it’s been said before:

It is rare indeed for anyone to die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God proves His love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Paul! That’s a great insight.