Critical Re-Writing.By Derek Newman-Stille
I am currently teaching a course at Trent University on Fairy Tale revisions, and one of the assignments I asked students to complete was their own re-writing of a fairy tale. I wasn’t certain about the response from students because I knew that creative projects are often criticized in academia. I was worried that they may not take this assignment seriously. However, I balanced this with the potential power that I saw in re-writing as a critical, questioning action.
I was at a meeting of the American Folklore Society in 2016 and noticed that many of the people I encountered who were doing critical work on fairy tales were also involved in creative projects – either doing fairy tale revisions, erasure poetry, or visual arts. Through conversations with these academics who harnessed the critical power of creativity, I began to observe that their creative projects frequently gave them new insights into the fairy tales they were exploring that they may not have gotten through simple analysis. I wanted to harness this for my own students, to see if they could use critical creativity to re-envision the fairy tales they were examining and gain new insights through acts of shifting the voice of a character, shifting the time period, shifting the personality of a narrator, playing with gender, with ability, race, class, and orientation. These creative shifts could open up new analytical positions about the way that these tales construct identity.
After doing analyses with students about the way that identities, social perspectives, and social constructs were manifested and reinforced in fairy tales for the first half of the course, I asked students to put some of these critiques into practice and do a critical revision of a fairy tale. They had already, by this point in time, been asked to do an analytical close reading of a fairy tale, so my hope was that they would be able to use these analytical lenses to explore their fairy narrative.
Since many students were uncertain about creative writing and questioned whether they had the skills to do creative writing, I decided to have them do a “pass the story” activity in class first. I passed out (at random) the titles of fairy tales they had read in class. Students were then asked to begin writing their own take on the fairy tale, leaving enough of the original tale in their revision to let the next student know what tale it was while also not giving it away too easily. After writing for about ten minutes, I then asked them to pass their story to the next student, who would add to it, and so on until I asked the students to conclude their tale. This activity gave them some confidence in creative writing and allowed them to feel that they could write a tale on their own.
The creative writing assignments I got back varied, some exploring single tales and some exploring multiple. Students examined constructions of gender in fairy tales, the role of food, ideas of hunger and poverty, critiqued the heterosexual happily ever after, questioned tropes of ageing, critically engaged with ideas of the rural. These tales represented an engagement with theory and text.
In some cases their creative critical re-writing was stronger than their close reading assignments, allowing them to explore textual issues. Where many of them were resistant to ask the critical question “why?”, their creative assignments interrogated the question of why certain images were prevalent in a narrative, why characters were positioned in certain ways, and why different tropes were employed in the narratives. There was a shift in the STAKES of the narrative: instead of the narrative being about someone else’s tale, the tale now became THEIRS. It became something that they were invested in constructing, and so their process of rewriting also became a process of reinvesting themselves in the narrative and in what the narrative was saying. This was no longer the work of the Grimm Brothers, it was their own.
The act of critically writing allowed students to examine what other fairy tale revisions are doing, how they are adapting the tale and what allows the tale to be so open to adaptation and fluidity.