Writing Prompt: The Pitiless
In Volume One of his collected letters, Gustave Flaubert wrote that “the highest and most difficult achievement of Art is not to make us laugh or cry, nor to arouse lust or rage, but to do what nature does—that is, to set us dreaming.” He went on to say that writing that achieves this often has a pitiless aspect to it. Its “somber depths turn us faint, yet over the whole there hovers an extraordinary tenderness.”
This prompt is based on this idea that writing from a point of severe detachment can set the reader dreaming. So choose a moment of heightened drama to write about. I often suggest a death scene to my students, but it can be any moment that’s full of extreme tension—a scene of violence, of heartbreak. Write about this moment focusing purely on the concrete details, avoiding any commentary, any statement of how the characters or narrator feel, erasing any hint of melodrama. The idea is, through describing this moment without emotion, in an almost pitiless manner, great feeling will be evoked in the reader. I do this exercise in fiction classes, but it can be done in any genre.
Biography of Alistair McCartney: Alistair McCartney recently published The End of the World Book: a Novel (University of Wisconsin Press, April, 08), which was a finalist for the Publishing Triangle’s Edmund White Debut Fiction Award. Currently at work on his second novel, The Death Book, he teaches creative writing in Antioch University’s MFA and BA Programs. See what he’s up to at http://alistairmccartney.blogspot.com
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