Sunday, May 24, 2009

It's Been Said Before and Better

By Bonnie Stanard

This criticism goes to the question of creativity, especially as it applies to fiction. How can we produce writing that departs from what has already been published? The challenge to poets can be seen in the desperation evident in some poems published today.

We write from our feelings, intellect, and experience, things that make us human. However, these very things are as old as humanity, and we’ve been writing about them for hundreds of years. The scenery may change, but there are no new plots or characters.

Our feelings are strong motivators. We’re tempted to turn our love life into a novel, but an affair, unique to us, becomes boy-meets-girl as a plot. The angst of puberty, loneliness of old age, and pride in battle are but a few examples of stories that have been retold many times.

Can our intellect save us from writing a rehash of what has already been written? It is possible to develop new concepts from our perceptions, as people like Freud, James Joyce, and Shakespeare bear out, but how many of us are in that league?

Surely each person experiences life differently from every other person. This may be analogous to saying nobody has my recipe for chili. The “ingredients” of life may mix, interact, and react differently, but we all have the same ingredients. You may say, “Nobody else can remember the time I cut my foot on a glass bottle while swinging on a vine.” That may be unique to you, but is it original? See what I mean?

The point here is that if we think we’re on the road less traveled, we may be unaware of the traffic backing up in our lane. One of the few ways we’ll discover derivative or mundane aspects of our work is from critics in our workshop. Our group is cautious with criticisms. Questions often mean the text being discussed is weak. If your manuscript gets hardly any reaction, it is either very good, very bad, or very long.

The advice I’ve heard at our SCWW conferences has devolved into my current writing strategy, which is to reach for the unexpected in characters and the unpredictable in plot. For instance, the guy sitting in a nearby seat just mailed a rattlesnake to his girlfriend. The little girl with him is not his daughter. If a character seems to be falling in love, the last place for the plot to go is the bedroom. The boss who promises his secretary a promotion is demoted himself. Screams in the night aren’t murder. They’re cat fights. A pizza delivery man knocks at the door, and he’s carrying...

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