Updated: Aug 5, 2021
We round off our Easter celebrations with some sound Creative Writing advice.
As all students of Creative Writing know, the most common challenge for anyone wanting to pen a novel, a short story, or even a brief poem, is that they simply don’t know what to write about. Or they know perfectly well what they want to write about, but somehow the words elude them. Professional writers, even great ones, are not necessarily strangers to writer’s block, a kind of mental constipation that clogs up all creativity, and leaves sufferers gnashing their teeth and (in extreme cases) screaming at their laptops.
Philip Larkin, who lost his gift for poetry in his later life, said that it got to the point where “the notion of expressing sentiments in short lines having similar sounds at their ends seems as remote as mangoes on the moon.” For all we know, even Shakespeare felt he was being mocked by the blank sheet of parchment, and resented the ink well that stood undisturbed before him for whole minutes at a time.
The happy news is that there are things that can be done about it. One method for ‘curing’ writer’s block (if it’s not a disease, can it be cured?) is to imitate those who have gone before. To my mind this is the best method, and it’s the one I am going to discuss today.
Sometimes imitations get a bad rap. And it’s true that plagiarism--simply copying the creative work of someone else--has no value. But adaptation, in which the author creatively reworks an existing text, is something else altogether. The mistake is to confuse invention with imagination. Any story that is any good has to be fully imagined by its author. But by no means does it have to be the author’s invention.
Shakespeare invented few of his characters and almost none of his plots. He could not have claimed that he came up with Hamlet or Lear in the way that Dickens came up with Miss Havisham and with Bleak House. But he certainly imagined what sort of people they were, what they might say at certain crucial moments. Shakespeare’s greatness then was to adapt stories that already existed, and to give his characters life through their deathless speeches. Macbeth existed long before Shakespeare dreamed him up, but it wasn’t until then that he spoke out his agonised condition thus:
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is head no more.”
The advantage of using literary models is that it’s a quick way to give you something to write about when no plot readily suggests itself. The trick is to change some aspects of the story you are planning to rewrite to make sure your own work is creative rather than slavishly derivative. A good rule of thumb is to start by trying to relocate the story in time and place. Authors have always been doing just this, offering modern versions of familiar myths.
As it’s Easter, I thought I’d bring your attention to Ernest Hemingway’s short drama, 'Today is Friday', a somewhat irreverent retelling of the Crucifixion. The piece, which is presented as a one act play with dialogue and stage directions, appeared in Hemingway’s 1927 short story collection, Men Without Women. The cast of characters (three Roman soldiers and a wine-seller) have gathered in a tavern near closing time. At first their conversation revolves around drink. “You tried the red,” asks one soldier, and promptly buys a round. One of his drinking buddies refuses to partake. “I can’t drink the damn stuff. It makes my gut sour.” We are told that the soldiers were already a “little cockeyed” when the came in.
Soon enough they get to discussing Jesus’s crucifixion, in much the same manner that other Hemingway characters might talk over a boxing match or a bullfight while knocking back vermouth. They seem to admire Christ’s resilience, speaking of him like a prize fighter. “He was pretty good in there today,” says one of the soldiers. “He didn’t want to come down off the cross. That’s not his play.” The bartender, however, missed the spectacle. “I didn’t take any interest in it, Lootenant,” he explains.
Although the designations of the characters in the script (Roman soldiers 1, 2 and 3) make it sound as though Hemingway is being faithful to the Biblical setting of the story, the way they speak--which is slangy and dispassionate, with recourse to an American vernacular--transforms them into Hemingway’s contemporaries. The resultant tone of the story, which is both ironic and comical, is far-removed from the solemn religiosity of the source material.
Notice also how Hemingway alters the narrative perspective of the story. The central event--Jesus on the cross--takes place off-stage, and we only get to know about it through the drunken mutterings of a few spectators afterwards. Through these two quite simple strategies (using modern dialogue and focusing on the reactions of peripheral characters), Hemingway has taken very familiar material and made of it a story that is unmistakably his own.
Blog Post Crafted by Toby
Toby is in charge of recruitment of new tutors. He conducts interviews with prospective tutors and assesses their lessons to get a feel for whether they have the teaching style we're looking for.