The Agony and the Ecstasy of Feeling Cliche

This evening, on a rush hour 4 train, I used the opposite of subtlety as I returned the Arts section of today’s New York Times to my canvas tote and replaced it with the new issue of the New Yorker. And then I looked up–first into the middle distance of the crowd, then in the more focused direction of a nearby finance type with a quiet resemblance to Josh Hartnett, seeking validation: how worldly, how sophisticated, I–briefly–hoped they (mostly he) would judge.

And then I remembered that I now live In New York. I turned to my left and took note of a striking blond with the kind of tousled French braid and daintily upturned nose to which I will never more than aspire, imagined her 9-6 life at some glamorous publisher or glossy, and confronted, yet again, the distinct un-specialness that this city so often makes one feel.

Here’s a thing you may know about me: I’m pretty into other people’s approval. (Read: thinking I’m special.) My parents, my peers, random strangers on the subway. I’ll take it–no, I’ll actively, kinda aggressively, seek it–wherever I can.

And it turns out, living in the desert was kinda good for that. Hell, living in various smaller cities was good for that. You know, places where girls who casually follow current events and present softish Semitic features atop scruffed ankle boots don’t pack the walls of every Brooklyn-bound subway car.

(I will leave to your intuitive faculties whether this feeling did or did not worsen when I arrived at my destination: an NPR event in Gowanus featuring sincere discussion of artisanal pencils. Not joking.)

“We are so cliche.”

This has become a running joke between Alison and Douglas and me: how one of the persistent frustrations of living here is feeling, constantly, like everybody else.

The joke began when D and I were having drinks one recent Thursday night (Manhattans, naturally), and engaging a classic, painfully unoriginal conversation about the ups and downs of living in New York. (So much fun! But so expensive. So many options! But such competition. So exciting! But so bloody exhausting, all the time. Bored yet?)

The next night, out at a different bar with A (don’t judge), she told me about the ickiness of something her hairdresser had said when she’d confided about her latest romance–one that may or may not hew to a familiar pattern. (Girl falls for boy; boy is flakey. Stop me if you’ve heard.).

The hairdresser had said: “I hear that exact same story all the time.”

It made her feel, of course, shitty. The same way I feel shitty when I take a moment to fathom the approximate number of other, probably more talented and certainly more ambitious (though, likely, just as insecure) writers there are within two zip codes trying also trying to write blogs and publish books. Or, the number of kinda cute, semi-bookish single brunettes.

There are few things more painful than feeling like a cliche.

The paradox, though, as that there are few things more comforting than being reminded that we all feel the same things. To me, that’s the whole point of art.

And as an artist, one must constantly reconcile the pursuit of originality with the awareness that it’s all been thought and said before. (See: this brilliant essay.)

In art, cliche is taboo because it’s so vague. And life isn’t much different: my pals’ specific stories about dating and job searching resonate the way a good, descriptive essay or story or painting does, too. But the hazy idea of a strange gal on the 4 train wearing more awesome glasses? Not pleasant.

Sometimes (besides Nets games) its important to remember Jay-Z: as he put it, this is a city of eight million stories. They may or may not be more compelling than mine. But either way, the anxiety is pretty dull.