As some of you know, I took a class in creative writing in October through December. It was focused on mythology, fairy tales and how to reference them to build depth into your stories. Yes, sounds very pompous, but it wasn’t as bad as it sounds.
Every lesson (three hours every other week) we had assigned reading and writing. The writing was based on the lesson we just had, the reading on the lesson we were about to have. During class we discussed the reading and tried to analyse it to figure out what it was really about ("I meant it was fuckin’ blue", to misquote a punchline). Afterwards we went through our classmates stories, giving the good, the bad, and ways to improve it.
In my class we were six students and the teacher, so we had good conversation. I think my favourite was the guy whose writing always dripped with sarcasm and societal critique with just a few penstrokes. Mixing the mundanely mundane with the absurd. The reading was very interesting; it included the first chapter of Kafka’s Metamorphoses, bits from Wittkop’s The Necrophiliac, and similar texts showcasing particular areas to learn.
We covered metamorphoses, from a more absurd, overt style (Kafka) to did-they-or-didn’t-they, other mythical motifs such as Challenging the Gods and Katabasis (a fancy term for descending into the underworld), and how to draw on images that give you so much for free, at least if your reader understands it.
Let’s say that there was a scene with an apple being offered. What comes to mind? Maybe Snow White. Maybe Eve and the Serpent. Possibly ambrosia or fairy food, depending on what other trappings we see. Or when it comes to characters, let’s say that we have an older person with one eye, and the face in shadows? It doesn’t take much to give the suggestion of this being Oden, does it?
I think that’s the thing that I love the most of what we learned: how to pick the right details to build layers in the story. Layers that may not be noticed by all, or maybe not even by most, but that we knew were there, and which may help to influence the reader subconciously. One visual example was the scene in Silence of the Lambs where Clarice Starling is led down into the bowels of the hospital where Hannibal Lecter is held. The imagery is derived from Dante’s description of the descent into hell, down to allusions to Lecter as the devil.
What I learned
The most important thing is to trust my instincts and to continue honing them. I do my best work–per the teacher, and I’m not inclined to disagree with her here–in the borderlands of the realistic and the fantastic. My language is vivid and leans towards ensouled imagery, which lends itself well to write the fantastic, but also to muddy the line between realism and fantasy.
I’ve also built up a larger library of myths and other tools to draw from in my writing. It gave me words for things I knew I wanted to do, but could never describe, and words for how to explain my writing in more academic terms.
The final bit of usefulness was to get critiques and critique in return. I didn’t always get glowing comments, but they consistently complimented me on my characterisations, use of the five senses and ability to transport them to wherever the scene was set. During the final class, my teacher noted that she’d been hard on me because she thought I could develop even more, and she suggested to keep in the realism/fantasy borderlands, but also to deepen the point of view even more. One warning she gave was to not always allow the narrator to be in control of themselves, but to show sides they are not prepared to even acknowledge. This was, in particular, in comment to my "monster", which was a 1st person present tense series of memories from a serial killer.
The conversation about the "from the monster’s point of view" was actually amusing. The others got a "so, what is the real monster in this story". I, however, was told that it was clear that he was the monster. It didn’t seem like she felt that made it worse than the others, but it was a bit amusing, what with my tendency towards symbolism.