Shakespeare Came to me in a Dream (short story)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

“I’ve heard thine concerns about English,” he said. “I’m here to show thee the extent of English-speakers’ depravity.”

Level 1- Limbo

He led me to the first layer of perdition. There, I saw the grammar-purists.

“These people aren’t so bad,” I said. “They actually care for the language. What are they here for?”

“Don’t end a sentence with a preposition!” one of the poor souls sneered.

“I see,” I said, as Shakespeare lowered his head solemnly.

Level 2- Heresy

On the second level of the Inferno, I encountered the inverse of Level 1: those with atrocious grammar.

“Well, well, well,” a lost-soul sneered. “I seen you brung us another soul, William.”

I shuddered in horror, and we excused ourselves to Level 3.

Level 3: Greed

In the third circle stood business professionals, spouting off corporate jargon.

“Just so we’re on the same page,” one entrepreneur told another, “this paradigm-shift gives us a win-win, moving forward. That way, we aren’t reinventing the wheel.”

Level 4: Fraud

“The souls in Level 4 use real words, but never correctly,” Shakespeare explained.

“I literally could care less that I’m in hell,” a man exclaimed.

Level 5: Treachery

“What’s so bad about the people in Level 5?” I asked. “They’re happy, at least.”

“They’re smiling because ignorance is bliss,” Shakespeare said. “They use words like ‘awesome sauce’ and pronunciations like ‘skissors.’

“Squeeze me,” a man said as he passed, the listless bovine-look of self-satisfaction in his eyes.

At this point, my ears began to bleed.

Level 6: Gluttony

They say “expresso.”

Enough said.

Level 7- Lust

At this level of hell, we found fad-talkers.

“I’m riding the struggle-bus,” a soul remarked.

“I know, right?” said another. “This level of hell is a hot-mess.”

“THIS,” a third soul said. “Hell used to be lit. Now it’s an epic-fail.”

“This layer is insidious.” the playwright said, turning toward me. “People start saying ‘totes’ and ‘whatevs’ to be funny, but after using these terms so long, they become a part of their lexicon. Before you know it, they’re using ‘cray-cray’ without irony.”

Level 8 -Wrath

Level 8 was filled with souls suffering from the Dunning-Kruger Effect. They have access to a thesaurus, but don’t know how to use it.

They’re also members of the Flat-Earth Society.

Level 9- Violence

“What could be worse than what we’ve seen?” I asked Shakespeare.

Just then, a lost-soul stumbled toward us.

“Supposably, we’re the worst souls in hell, for all intensive purposes,” he said. “But I want to know pacifically what we’ve done wrong. I always went to the libarry when I was alive. I never took books for granite.”

I dropped to my knees and wept. I could smell sulfur in the air as I ground my teeth in indignation.

“It isn’t fair!” I shouted. “Take me from this repulsive place. I swear that I’ll make it my life’s goal to eradicate such senselessness!”

I woke in a cold sweat, reborn in purpose; destined to be an English teacher.

How Niche Should we Write?

Recently, I took up sketching comic-book style illustrations.

I don’t have an iota of talent in terms of drawing, but I picked up Jason Brubaker’s “Cognitive Drawing” and have been plodding through it ever since. I enjoy the challenge of taking on a new artistic medium. Perhaps by expanding my horizons a little bit, my primary creative outlet (writing) will somehow improve by osmosis.

Besides, engaging in creative pursuits is never fully wasted, right?

This artistic diversion has led me to wonder: how beneficial is it to specialize in the arts? Does pursuing a multitude of styles of writing, for instance, make you better at your primary discipline? Or is there a law of diminishing returns, because you’re not focusing your talents solely on the artwork that’s in your wheelhouse?

There are plenty of fantastic artists on both sides of the spectrum, of course. Leonardo Da Vinci, the quintessential “renaissance man” was astounding in nearly every academic discipline he pursued. Conversely, Thomas Pynchon hasn’t strayed far from what he excels at: writing complex post-modern prose.

My grandfather is a talented oil painter. As a child, he noted my proclivity to dabble in multiple mediums. He remarked on several occasions that I’d eventually “have to choose one” if I wanted to be truly great.

Even in sub-sets of the arts, I wonder how true this is.

During my college years, I worked toward a journalism degree. As such, I wrote almost exclusively narrative pieces, creative nonfiction, and other journalistic types of stories. During my post-graduate studies, I picked up an affinity for flash fiction and prose poetry. Did my creative non-fiction suffer as a result? I doubt it.  One could make the case that I would’ve further developed my journalistic skills if I’d applied myself to that style of writing, instead.

I’d rather not pigeon-hole myself. The last thing I want is to end up with an impossibly esoteric niche of writing. Who wants to be known as the world’s greatest neo-formalist poet who focuses on sparrow migration imagery?

What about you? Do you delve into various arts with reckless abandon, or mostly stick to one discipline?

A Taxonomy of Tired Tropes

If life imitates art, we’d do well to be careful what we put on our canvases.

Yet, at times, every artist is guilty of being a bit slapdash or lazy in their approach to their craft. How often do you find yourself groaning at a trite “truism” while reading a poem? Or rolling your eyes when an overused trope is rolled out again in a novel you’re reading?

To be truly exceptional, we must learn to write as writers and edit as readers. This means eliminating the tiresome, worn-down shortcuts we’ve taken in our writing process.

As a cautionary exercise, I think it would be fun to maintain a list of platitudes, thematic cliches, and tropes that are over-used. Some examples might include the following:

– Writing scenes in which a character looks at her reflection in the mirror and pores over every detail of her appearance. This is often used as a shortcut to having to deftly work in physical descriptions. Cut it out.
-“The moon” used ad nauseum in poetry
-A man who is denied justice by the usual channels, so he starts taking vengeance into his own hands.
-A nerdy, girl-next-door type gets a makeover and becomes irresistible to her crush.
-A former criminal tries to walk the straight and narrow, but is reluctantly dragged back into “one last big job.”

What examples do you have to add? Any scenario irk you in particular?

I leave you with the following quotation from the poet Gérard de Nerval: “The first man who compared a woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.

Profanity and Clichés: Perhaps They’re Cousins

In A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle shares a thought-provoking anecdote about a lecture she once gave at a university. In her discourse, she discussed the perils of American consumerism. At one point, L’Engle, who was a committed Christ-follower, planned to state sharply that consumerism has “screwed us over.”

Upon delivery of the sentence, however, L’Engle didn’t get the response she expected. She tells us in her book that no one appeared particularly surprised or moved that she had used what was (in her mind) a pretty crass and blunt way of communicating.

The word was commonplace. It’d lost all meaning and fell flat.

And in my opinion, this is the true crux of the problem we confront as writers, choosing whether to insert a four-letter word or fall back on the hackneyed statements such as “muttered profanities under her breath” or “yelled obscenities unworthy of print here.”

Poets and novelists, of all people, should understand that language wears out. Sentences have a shelf-life. If sentimental statements are used too often, they run the risk of becoming saccharine. And if a cliché is overly sweet, it’s sure to spoil, regardless of the truth it reflected, initially.

In the same way, “bad words” decay over time. We’ve all met individuals that have used “the F-word” as every known part-of-speech. What’s worse is when such words become disfluencies, taking the place of filler words such as “uh,” “um,” and “er.”

The net effect of both these examples is a devaluing of language. Writers and orators fall back on old chestnuts, platitudes, and thoughtless cuss words.  Perhaps, in some way, clichés and curse words are kin, both indicating an abuse of language.

If you’ve ever heard a friend whose language was typically very reserved and conservative utter a “curse word,” you’ve probably noticed you go on high alert. Likely, the hair on the back of your neck stood on end as you asked yourself what could’ve affected this person so deeply that caused them to reach for such a potent word.

It’s my belief that as a writer, we should treat unsavory language in a similar way. We ought not to abuse language. Cuss words, at worst, are profane, low-class, and utterly meaningless. But utilized intentionally in the mouths of our characters, these words can serve a purpose—illuminating a character’s inner turmoil or most heartfelt convictions.

Christ-followers would do well to remember that “risqué words” are even present within Scripture. From Saul calling Jonathan a “son of a perverse and rebellious woman,” to the erotic poetry of Song of Solomon to Paul’s use of the Greek word “Σκύβαλον,” (which translates closely to “the s-word,” Source. ) it seems that the Lord didn’t shy away from strong language to prompt an emotional response in readers.

So how do we reconcile this truth with the fact that in James 3:10, we read, “Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way.” (HCSB.)

The nucleus of the question comes down to motives. In the context of James letter, he’s admonishing us as believers to not curse fellow humans. Similarly, as writers, we ought to look toward the reasoning behind our own inclusion of such words. Are we attempting shock-value without redemptive purpose? Are we seeking to glorify God through the story arc and development of a particular character?

We worship a God who refuses to white-wash. He does not sentimentalize or use padded language to euphemize the wrongdoings of humans. In Scripture, he didn’t tend to edit or censor the stories of wayward people. Rather, he transformed their souls. With the Lord’s help, may our writing do the same.