So there we have Shakespeare scratching away at Hamlet, sucking the end of his quill for inspiration, when he suddenly throws it down in disgust (possibly because he was sucking the wrong end) and says something like, ‘I wish I’d never started this bloody play. Everybody’s heard this story a thousand times before, the characters are all completely out to lunch, and every time I think this is it, I’m going to get Hamlet to do something at last, he bottles out. Why can’t I write like Kit Marlowe? He’s much better than me.’
I teach a creative writing class, and every person in that class thinks that everybody else is better than them. I make them read their stuff aloud, you see, because it’s the quickest way I know of improving . Instead of thinking, oh well, I can just write any old nonsense, because only Elaine will read it, they now realise they have to please an audience of their peers; that they have to entertain or at least be thought-provoking.
The trouble is, I hadn’t bargained for them getting depressed by the quality of each other’s work. So this week I think I’m going to have to point out the positive side of being a listener. First off, you get new ideas on how to construct sentences, on how to describe things. One of my students introduced a real sense of rising tension in her work, simply by showing what other people were saying to the main character, and not having the main character speak at all. Another described an anorexic character simply by the way she whispered (and I can still see her in my mind’s eye almost a week later). Another nailed the description of a hot nervous night by putting her character in a car with no air conditioning where the windows wouldn’t open, and another put over a family relationship very neatly by having one member arrange all the chairs in a particular way, only to have them moved aside by all her relations.
Of course I’m not suggesting plagiarism, but there is nothing new under the sun, and we are all inspired by other people. I must go now. I’m planning a 21st century Hamlet, with an anorexic Ophelia, set during a heatwave at the South Mimms services on the M25. Gertrude keeps moving all the chairs, and Fortinbras is going to drive a truck through a plate glass window. Hmm. Actually… that might work. Thanks, everybody.