This week I want to talk about writing and learning: how we learn and how we could learn.
Ancient teachers did not teach “literature” as a separate subject, but they taught storytelling as part of rhetoric—the art of persuasion. And they expected their students to learn to tell stories, not just analyze them. Many ancient, medieval, and renaissance students began their training in rhetoric by retelling stories such as Aesop’s fables. The original stories are short, often fewer than 100 words in total. A student might be asked to expand the text to five or ten times its length by adding dialogue, characterizing speakers, or even adding entire scenes, while remaining consistent with the original characters.
Monkeys Deliberate: How the Greeks Taught Writing
Here’s an example from an ancient Greek teacher named Hermagones. He offers this short fable as a framework for young writers:
The monkeys in council deliberated on the necessity of settling in houses. When they had made up their minds to this end and were about to set to work, an old monkey restrained them, saying that they would more easily be captured if they were caught within enclosures.
Then he shows how a student might expand the story. He starts with the first “plot point,” the proposal that the monkeys should build a city:
The monkeys in council deliberated on the founding of a city; and one coming forward made a speech to the effect that they too must have a city. “For see,” said he, “how fortunate in this regard are men. Not only does each of them have a house, but all going up together to public meeting or theater delight their souls with all manner of things to see and hear.”
A young writer would continue the scene, inventing arguments from the different monkeys and characterizing each of them. Maybe she would decide that one monkey plays on their fears. The monkey warns his fellows that without city walls they will always be at the mercy of humans.
Another monkey might point out that many humans live in squalor and ask, “Why should we leave our beautiful homes among the trees?” A third could remind the monkeys that they always go hungry in winter. A city would allow them to stockpile fruits and nuts.
Yet another speaker might address the monkeys’ pride. He could say that every great people has cities, and ask, “Why should humans lord it over all the other creatures? We should show that we’re just as good as they are.”
The only rule is that the story must include all the plot elements of the original. The monkeys must deliberate about founding a city, they must decide to do so, and then an old monkey must get up and convince them against building a city because they are safer without one.
The original story implies that the old monkey is wise, but a clever writer might play with that, too. Maybe the old monkey has been the chief for a long time, and he speaks against the plan because he cannot understand the new world that he sees coming. Or maybe he is jealous of the young, ambitious monkey who wants to build the city.
The only requirement was that the old monkey needs to win. Nothing says he needs to be right.
Structure Enhances Creativity
The exercise above is from an ancient course of studies called the progymnasmata, which includes many other tools for learning to tell stories. Teachers asked their students to take a long narrative and condense it—turning a story of, say, 2,000 words into one of 100. Try doing this sometime: it will force you to distinguish between the crucial points of the narrative and those that are less important.
In another exercise, called “impersonation,” you would give a speech in the voice and manner of a particular person. Sometimes this was a figure from history or legend, but other times it was an ordinary person in a new circumstance. My favorite ancient assignment is an example of impersonation: students were told, “Deliver the speech that a farmer from inland Greece gives when, for the first time in his life, he sees the ocean.”
What do all these have in common? They are structured exercises in creativity. Each one gives you a framework within which you can create. Often, today, we think of rules and structure as opposed to creativity, but the ancient Greeks didn’t think that way at all—and neither did thinkers in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance. They all saw that rules produced and enabled creativity.
If you’re looking for something to write this week, give one of these a shot. Take a story, identify its key elements, and write another story that shares them. Your story can be shorter or longer than the original; it can change the point of view or reassess the characters. But the key events of the story should be fixed. Maybe you’ll find—like I usually do—that following those rules makes your writing flow.
Best wishes and happy creating,