Look to the Books
By Karen Wojcik Berner
Sentences not flowing the way you’d like? Consult your bookshelf.
Problems with your plot? Ask “What would Shakespeare do?”
Dickens. Woolf. Austen. Thackeray. Joyce.
Shakespeare. Ibsen. Wilde. Homer.
Poe. Shelley. Keats. Milton.
Having inspired readers for hundreds of years, the classics often reveal universal truths of human nature, truths that do not change from decade to decade, from century to century. Each time I sit down with one of these beloved novels, plays or poems, I discover something else I had not noticed before. Now that is great writing.
Don’t get me wrong. I love contemporary fiction, but there is just something about revisiting a classic. Maybe it harkens back to my English major days, blissfully discussing narrative voice in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, trying to keep track of all the characters in Bleak House, or focusing on dialogue in Pride and Prejudice. Back when reading was fun and not something you try to squeeze in while waiting to pick the kids up from school, or on the train to and from work if you could ever get caught up on emails.
Here is your assignment. Pick out a classic. Lovingly caress the cover and spine. Oh, wait, a minute, that’s what I always do. Just get a classic and join me at the next sentence. Pour yourself a cup of tea (or something stronger), and snuggle into your favorite comfy chair. Begin reading through writer’s eyes.
Notice the sentence structure and dialogue. Chart the plot. Revisit vocabulary you haven’t heard in awhile. Track down the allusions to Greek, Roman and other mythologies. How does your novel embody the manners of the day?
All of these can be applied to our writing. For example, Virginia Woolf is a great illustration of how beautiful the English language can be. I’m not saying to write early-twentieth-century sentences whose word counts would equate to at least two paragraphs nowadays, but rather to pay attention to how Woolf uses her words and compare it with our own styles. How can we mix our sentence structure up a bit?
Check out one of the epic tales, stories that, although large in scope, still manage to connect to us on an individual basis. Melville’s Moby Dick comes to mind here, as well as Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. Talk about some crazy plots! What can we learn from them? Go big—don’t hold back.
No one blends a powerhouse storyline with gorgeous prose better than William Shakespeare. One day, awhile back, I could not get my main character from Point A to Point B. As You Like It was sitting open on my desk because one of my characters has a bit part in a Shakespeare in the Park production. I started reading and became enthralled again. Witty. Hilarious. And no one can deliver an insult like the Bard!
I began fooling around with some Shakespearean-style insults, hoping the wordplay would unclog my mired mind. Very therapeutic. Afterward, I was able to write a full chapter in one sitting, free from whatever was bogging my brain down. Who knew playing around with Shakespearean insults would function as a mental plunger?
After graduating from Dominican University with degrees in English with a writing concentration and communications, Karen Wojcik Berner worked as a magazine editor, public relations coordinator and freelance writer. A two-time Folio Magazine Ozzie Award for Excellence in Magazine Editorial and Design winner, her work has appeared in countless newspapers and magazines. She is the author of The Bibliophiles series, about a fictional suburban classics book club. She lives in the Chicago suburbs with her family.
To learn more about Karen, please visit her website, www.karenberner.com
So, WFW friends, which classics have inspired or assisted your writing? I’m going to think on this — and chime in with a comment of my own! Many thanks to Karen for reminding us that something new can be driven by something not-so-new! (Being not-so-new myself, I do appreciate this very much!)
15 thoughts on “Writers: Get Inspired And Motivated By The Classics”
Great post. I read many classics as a young woman and must find the time to reread them! Also adore Shakespeare’s plots and lyrical language. Othello is my favourite and the sonnets are beautiful – so much to consider. I remember when I was writing my women’s novel I was also reading Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and was intrigued and influenced by the clarity of her voice. I didn’t produce a classic, but it helped!
Good luck Karen and ciao Amy xcat
It is amazing how things just come out during the writing process. I agree. “Rebecca” is an excellent example of voice. Who knows, Catherine? Maybe someday your novels will be classics.
A newer classic always inspires me, one I reread regularly, and that’s To Kill a Mockingbird, for its heart, for the elegant way the characters are drawn, for the realistic dialogue and for its authenticity. And just for its gorgeous and skillful writing.
I agree, Samantha. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a great piece of literature. Thanks for your comments.
Great post, and great advice. One classic I return to again and again is Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Such a slim novel, and yet I get so invested in the characters and their story every time I read it. The character development in that work blows me away.
Steinbeck is such a powerhouse. Amazing work to be able to draw us in multiple times. Glad you brought him up, Jessica.
I love Edith Wharton. She goes so deep into the pysches of all her characters, even the minor ones, that I really miss them when I finish the book. Thanks for the post, Karen!
“House of Mirth” is a fantastic novel. That reminds me, I haven’t read that one in awhile. Thanks for bringing it up!
I think Shakespeare is the “be all” of inspiration. What a wonderful reminder of yet another way to unlock our creative potential!
Yes, the Bard inspires in many ways. 🙂
A great reminder. Thank you very much.
My pleasure, Sarah. Thank you for reading.
Last year I began reading some classics – Hemingway, Woolf, and Truman Capote – and what an experience! Especially the comparison of styles between Hemingway and Woolf! — A scant of words vs a bevy of words! 😀
I don’t know if it affected how I write my novels, but I still loved reading these classics. And as for Shakespeare, well, he makes a sort of appearance in some of my novels — I took a couple of Shakespeare classes years back and it opened my eyes to his work.
thank you for the great post!
I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Great idea to compare and contrast Hemingway and Woolf. Love the idea of having Shakespeare make an appearance in your novel. He deserves all the press he can get! 😉
Jane Austen rules, always. Great characters, wonderful humor, and comparatively sparse words. Shakespeare is awesome – and it is important to remember he was considered a “low” writer in his day because he did use so much humor and bawdiness. Gone With the Wind proved that characters could be severely flawed and still compelling.
I have to admit, though, I am slogging through Les Miserables at the rate of a crippled snail. Sometimes when I read a “classic,” I am blown away by excessive wordiness, head-hopping, and crazy tangents that have nothing to do with the actual plot.