I’ll be teaching classics of European Literature throughout this academic year, and whenever I’ve dealt with such writers before, I’ve always been fascinated by a sudden twist of phrasing or a gem-like statement that makes me think, “Gosh, this would make such a great writing prompt.” They pop up anywhere in classic texts. Some meaningful, some obscure, and some so quirky or poetic or blunt that you feel—or hope—it could really stir the creative juices.
So this is what I hope to do throughout the academic year: Give brief quotes, on Twitter, label them as “Prompts from the Classics,” and throw them to all you busy, struggling, and devoted writers of fiction out there as possible goads to your inspiration, inventiveness, imagination. A few helpful words that might lead to an idea, a plot, a character, a theme, a mood.
All of these lines I’ve found intriguing, so I just want to share them.
And here’s my first batch. I was reading The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the first major works of literature, from Sumeria or Mesopatamia (present-day Iraq). It tells the story of a half-divine ancient king whose habits are so bad he’s given by the gods a half-animal friend—Enkidu—to keep him occupied. All’s well with them (together they go off to kill monsters) until his friend Enkidu dies. And then Gilgamesh encounters, for the first time, the fear of death. He goes on a quest for immortality, and though he learns much during his travels (by following the sun beneath the earth, speaking with a bartender at the end of the world, and begging secrets from a survivor of the Flood), he does not gain immortality. He returns home, much wiser, but still mortal.
While reading the epic (in translation, of course, this one by Benjamin R. Foster), a few lines stood out, the shorter of which I’ll send out in Tweets for instant wide-open prompting. Take from them what you will. But I hope you get, from these brief but sometimes haunting phrases, a responding idea, a scenario, a character, a scene, a mood, a setting, anything at all.
Good luck! And let me know if it works.
- What kind of a person, or what would that person have to do, to see “the wellspring, the foundations of the land”?
- Who would have the label, and why, of “The Distant One”?
- What would cause the following:
Aghast, struck dumb,
His heart in a turmoil, his face drawn,
With woe in his vitals,
His face like a traveler’s from afar . . .
- What situation would lead to: “Even the great gods are kept from sleeping at night!”
- What kind of creature would this describe: “His maw is fire, his breath is death.” (Don’t make it a dragon.)
- Imagine a landscape with thirteen winds:
South wind, north wind, east wind, west wind, moaning wind,
Blasting wind, lashing wind, contrary wind, dust storm,
Demon wind, freezing wind, storm wind, whirlwind . . .
- What would create this scenario: “Will he not share tiara and scepter with the moon?”
- What would be the duties of this job: “meat carver of the netherworld”
- And imagine the background for this: “The scorpion monster called to his wife”
Hope you get some ideas. All quotes are from The Norton Anthology of Western Literature, 9th ed., vol. 1.
Next, The Odyssey.