Finding new ways to spin old cliches

In my after-school class, I'm attempting to teach a middle-schooler about clichès, and why they should not be used in good writing. This is because clichès are phrases that have been overused, which means the writer is not thinking deeply or clearly, and the reader gets short-changed. But beyond that definition (oh no, it's the tip of the iceberg!) the topic is murky and difficult, especially within a short classtime and within the short lifespan of children who haven't yet soaked up all their vocabulary. Clichès are crutches for a writer who is too protective of his tender feet, but sometimes they are useful shorthand too: Such is the road of life.

Phrases, the genus to which the clichè species belongs, can be colorful and evocative. That's why the words stick together so well. A fun phrase I heard in a local school is "He's got airplane feet!" There are some 747s out there.

Guy Davis' latest album is an audio play called, "The Adventures of Fishy Waters: In Bed with the Blues." Davis is a storyteller, bluesman, actor, the son of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, and he will be in Beaufort this month, in a residency at Beaufort Academy arranged by ARTworks and supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. His concert is Saturday, and his choice of a colorful and long title demonstrates that he knows one of the best tricks of wordsmithing: Twist the clichè. "The adventures of" is a phrase that has been used by many since Mark Twain. "Fishy Waters" is, Davis acknowledges, a reference to Muddy Waters, and I like his positive use of "in bed with the blues." It sounds like it's more about keeping warm than a noir line: The cops were in bed with the mob.

"Fishy Waters is a goofy name for a hobo who is a teller of tales," Davis explained. "For storytellers, it's good for their name to have an angle and get attention. 'In bed with the blues' is a new way of saying the same old thing -- it's a slant, a way of saying this is who Fishy Waters is, what he does. Sometimes I like to use old country expressions. I use regular English creatively, in such a way that it paints a picture in your mind."

Daniel H. Daniels, who lives in Beaufort, is another writer-twister. After he retired, he decided to study French, which he had "missed" in his career in the foreign service. Spending the summer in France, he saw the play "Les Femmes Savantes," by Moliere. "I had the printed text with me while watching," Daniels reminisced, "and I decided on the train home to see what it would look like in English verse. Before you knew it, I translated nine plays."

Not just any plays -- Moliere wrote in the 17th century, in rhyming verse, about social climbers, gold diggers, hypocrites, scoundrels and quack-doctors. Stereotypes, like these characters, are cousin to the clichè. Daniels' translation of "The Misanthrope" will be in ARTworks' black box theater in November.

"I kept the formality of the rhyming couplets. Rhymes add to the humor; you can sense the word before the sentence is completed," Daniels explained. He had to update some of the jokes, but only to elicit the same reaction from the audience.

"Moliere smacks of school and erudition," Daniels said, "but he wrote for all, the common people and the kings, all levels saw humor, and that's what proves his genius. His mastery of social situations is still pertinent today, and that's what makes it fun."

I asked him about his favorite line, and it suits all readers who want thoughtful, original, clichè-free prose from their writers:

"...To make it clear,

I wish to be preferred, you see

the friend of all mankind

is not a friend to me..."

So declares Alceste, a self-proclaimed "honest man" about his love-interest, the confounding and coquettish Cèlimène -- opposites do attract.