Tag Archives: creative writing

Writing: Revisionist Poems & Stories

A discussion of revisionist writing came about on another list when I mentioned that I had sold my poem “The First Taste” to Dreams & Nightmares. It is a revisionist poem about Persephone. I was asked what I meant by revisioning. A good question because the term is probably most often used in terms of history and politics. But on the other side are the revisionist myths or fairy tales. Some will come tagged with feminist revisionism but it goes beyond that.

I ran into revisioning somewhere way back, maybe first to do with the retold fairy tales, especially the ones that were in the Datlow/Windling anthologies. But I was also doing a course on children’s literature where we examined fairy tales right back to Perrault and the Grimm brothers. Angela Carter’s tales came up as some early revisionist fairy tales. I’ve also run into it in poetry but don’t remember when anymore. It could have been in the creative writing courses at UBC or in the world of speculative poetry.

I guess the basis for any revisioning poem is that instead of a third person or narrative tale of a hero’s or god’s deeds, the tale is now told in first person, though third person is also used. It might also be in the voice of the lesser being/mortal/bad guy who traditionally was fairly two-dimensional. This is not always the case with stories, which may also be in third person, but all tend to delve into the psyche of the person and how they feel.

This is sort of what happened to SF when it evolved past the embryonic stage of BEMs (bug-eyed monsters) and started to become more realistic; or magic realism, set in today’s world with just a small twist of otherness. (Is this the bastard child of canlit and spec fic?)

Like all genre labels, revisioning is just another fancy word for categorizing what we write. 🙂 In my revisioning poems (which really is just a classic tale, whether fairy tale or heroic myth, from another point of view) I’ve written on Dionysus, Kore/Persephone, Athena, Leda, Psyche, Demeter, Aphrodite (though the last really doesn’t fit the same way as the others). I’ve also written one story on the oracle on Pythos before it/she became the Delphic oracle.

In stories, I’ve taken various fairy tales and rewrote them as well, from the Princess and the Pea, to Snow White, to Dorothy after Oz.I’m sure there are other takes on revisioning but this is pretty much how I see and understand it. One well-known child’s story done in a revisionist mode is the about the three little pigs but from the wolf’s point of view, pointing out how he was framed.

Classical fairy tales are fairly thin and two-dimensional, offering very little depth into the whys and wherefores. Many fairy tales were cautionary tales, and others were, what academics now presume, tales to show/train young women for their eventual separation from their parents, and subsequent marriages. It is the purview of fantasy and speculative fiction to take the regular world and twist the what-if. If we’re looking at old, tried and true  tales, then it’s turning the story on its edge and presenting a new view.

Whether called revisionist, speculative or just plain fantasy, taking the classics and showing a new perspective is part of the evolutionary process. Fairy tales, myths, fables were once passed down, word of mouth from person to person. The oral tradition actually kept the story current to the times as the teller would adapt or change aspects to suit the understanding of the listeners. The constant evolution means many stories have passed over the lips of humanity to be lost in the trails of time. With the newer tradition of taking those now codified tales, whether Sleeping Beauty or the tale of Eros and Psyche and telling a new story, the process continues to bring evolution to the myths and fairy tales of our ancestors.

Here is a lesson plan on revisionist fairy tales for anyone who teaches about writing and reading: http://www.readwritethink.org/lessons/lesson_view.asp?id=992

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Genre vs Literary Works

Now that movie technology has advanced, movie makers create worlds with all manner of special effects. There are a great number of fantastical, science fictional works. There is the whole gamut of superhero movies from the various comic books. And then there are movies based on books. Back in the sixties, science fiction movies went way out on a limb when 2001: A Space Odyssey was filmed. And then there was Bladerunner, based off of P.K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (an awesome title by the way). There were many others, which ran the range of B and lower–the Godzillas and Blob and other somewhat campy horror flicks.

And then came Star Wars, an epic story with star spanning special effects. Full steam ahead and there are many movies now out at the same time. For example, right now we have Hell Boy II, Dark Knight, Journey to the Center of the Earth and the Mummy III, to name a few. So, a lot of these are good fun and not particularly deep. Hollywood does love to turn speculative fiction into only eye and mind candy. When you look at the evolution of speculative (SF, fantasy, horror) novels, we’ve gone from bug-eyed aliens to very complex stories and worlds that look at the human condition, ethical and moral tales and what-ifs of future technologies.

On top of covering a host of possibilities with humanity, an author has to often create a viable, believable world that works. It must still follow rules and must be shown enough to paint dimensions so the reader can see it. This is of course, much easier in a movie, and yes a picture is worth a thousand words, maybe even five thousand. Good speculative writing is not for the faint of heart, nor for the undisciplined and uneducated.

All of these skills that one must learn for speculative writing apply for any type of writing. Know your market, which means read, read, read. Then write, write, write and learn and perfect. This never stops, ever. I tend to lump all the genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror and even the myths of long ago under the umbrella term of speculative. In reality, anything that is not considered a history or telling of true life events, is in fact speculative.

Now the truly interesting thing is that a speculative writer can write science fiction and it will be looked down the long narrow noses of literary academics and called “genre” (said with nose in the air, as if smelling bad, and with an English accent). But a literary writer can write something that is speculative fiction and it will be praised and lauded and given awards. Case in point; Margaret Atwood has written two speculative novels (at least that I’ve read): Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale. They are sometimes claimed to not be speculative, or speculative but not science fiction, getting to the fine hair splitting of genre names. But she takes those technologies and does a what-if into the future. That is indeed speculative and even science fiction.

When I was slowly progressing toward a degree in Creative Writing at UBC, one had to specialize in three areas: I chose short fiction, children’s fiction and poetry. In my kiddy lit class, the instructor didn’t like it when we wrote anything to do with fantastical worlds. She said they didn’t sell that well. Well, Ms Alderson, are you eating your hat after the fame of Harry Potter? This attitude was reflected throughout the department. However, George McWhirter who was the department head, and the only person worth his weight in gold, understood that writing well came first and what you wrote came second. He was not of the opinion expressed in The Boston Globe: “[T]he genre of the comic book is an anemic vein for novelists to mine, lest they squander their brilliance.” Ow.

A champion for blending or removing the snobbery borders between genres (or lowbrow and highbrow as some put it) is Michael Chabon. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. For his most recent book The Yiddish Policemen’s Union he was award the Nebula and the Campbell Awards. He was purported as saying the SF related Nebula meant more to him than getting the Pulitzer.

Perhaps with such writers as champions, we’ll see “genre” fiction being treated as writing and not drivel, where the best of all writing will rise to the top and more “genre” works will be nominated for awards. I’m not holding my breath…yet.

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Worlds of What-If: Early SF

Tonight I was talking with Jean from Quebec City and he had a little piece he had written about his earlier influences as a writer, his interests as a child and how he was drawn in to SF.

I remembered that in grade 7 we had to create a newspaper. This was a project both to be drawn out like a real newspaper, as well as articles. I know we (in small groups of three or four) did a futuristic newspaper and I wrote articles that were science fictional and I drew various pictures of aliens. It’s odd to think that someday soon we could no longer have newspapers as we find all our information online or on downloadable readers.

In grade 10 I comprehended enough of English that I didn’t have to take the regular class but could take Communications instead. What this was, was a creative writing class. I started writing a novel, which I still have–all 50 handwritten pages–, about a woman abandoned by her scurrilous husband (possibly ex) in the desert to die. I don’t think I had quite made it to the section where I was planning to have aliens come into the book. Maybe I did. I’ll have to reread it. I do know in later years I realized the influence of Ray Bradbury and “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell on what I was writing.

I’m always amazed at some of the truly diverse ideas that people come up with and how our early childhood memories and reads imprint their paths.

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