Abe Lincoln Teaches Creative Writing

If I were teaching a writing course, instead of spending hours lecturing to my students I’d force them to watch the movie Lincoln. As a more experienced writer trying to improve, I’d go watch that movie and pay attention.

OK, class, what are analogies? Why do we use them? What is their power? Here’s a hint: Just watch ol’ Honest Abe spin a few yarns that only sort of relate to the issue at hand. Sure, some folks became impatient with his little stories. But they were entertaining and funny and off to the side of the real issue. His listeners understood his point in a powerful but indirect way. They didn’t get angry or argue because you can’t argue with a story. Instead of telling someone, “You make stupid mistakes because you rush,”  he might drawl out the story of the tortoise and the hare. Later, his listener might figure out that it could apply to them and feel proud of their new insight. Abe implanted the analogy and gave them space to make the connection. His stories were less obvious than that and it was fun to watch him weave his oblique arguments. He gave a master class in metaphor and simile if you paid attention.

He also won opponents over to his viewpoint by giving them the evidence and letting them chew it over. That is, he let his reader do some of the work. He gave them the tools to come around to his way of thinking, then stepped back to let them think. We’d be wise to remember this trick.

Instead of tormenting a young writer by whacking them on the head with “show, don’t tell” I’d refer them back to those same yarns in the movie. No narrator ever said, “Abe liked to tell stories.” Instead, we watch him telling story after story and figure it out for ourselves.  That’s how you do it, I’d tell my students. Any questions?

Every character was flawed, injured, damaged and in some sort of pain. Just like real humans are. Every relationship was fragile, painful, and contradictory. Characters loved despite their own grief, and despite the pain they caused each other. It’s harder to write, but it’s a bigger love. Even the noblest characters shaded the truth and bent the rules for something higher. Or sold their soul for trinkets and bits of silver. I would ask my students to examine their own characters. Do they love someone who hurts them? Do they sacrifice something of staggering importance (like their life) for something of even greater value? Where is their complexity? Or are we content to draw cartoons?

Then I would ask them to recall the details in the movie that carried more weight than their size would predict. A guy’s bad wig told us a lot about him and the times. The President crawled on the floor to add wood to a fire or wake his child. You noticed that just like I did, but would we have written it? Hundreds of more important events and characters were downsized or omitted. Robert E Lee, Jefferson Davis, the assassination — none of those get much screen time. A map with a burned corner gets more time than the Vice President. That’s not an obvious choice when allocating space for details. I would ask my students if they use generic details to describe scenes? Or do they prefer the more selective and creative way the movie uses them?

One detail I appreciated was the use of the song Rally Round the Flag, Boys. When I was 18 years old and a freshman at St Olaf College, my first college presentation was about that song. It had been mentioned in something we had to read, I got curious,  tracked it down, learned its history and wrote a paper about it. It was summer, I was far from home, but I had my guitar. As part of my term paper for the course, I performed the song in front of the class. I did not know until years later that Bob Dylan’s brother was in my class and heard my little performance. We were both pretty quiet guys, I don’t think we ever spoke. It’s about as close as I’ve ever gotten to celebrity in my life.

The song was a huge part of the Civil War. It was so effective at rousing the Union soldiers that the Confederacy had someone write words to the same melody. From then on, both the North and the South considered it their battle song. When they started singing the song toward the end of the movie, it triggered some memories in me that the director didn’t plan. But my main reaction was satisfaction. It was the absolute perfect song to choose, the most authentic detail possible.

That’s how you do it, I would tell my students. It’s not about including every detail, or the biggest or most famous ones. It’s about choosing the best ones.

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