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Learning to Write from the Ides of March

In honor of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, here’s a blog post from a few years (and one month) back.


It’s March 15, the famous Ides of March, the day of Julius Caesar’s death. The day when we recall high school English teachers bemoaning half-hearted attempts at Shakespeare with “Et tu, Brute?” as if we’d stabbed them heart.

Well, turns out Caesar may never have said that, but that’s good writing. Of course, it may not have been Shakespeare’s writing. This does get confusing.

Some historians say that upon being stabbed by Brutus, Caesar called out (in Greek) “Kai su, teknon?” (You too, my child?) or (Latin) “Tu quoque, Brute, fili mi?” Some say he said nothing (as he was being stabbed). I believe he simply cried out in agony.

What I’ve Learned About Writing From The Ides of March:

1.      Writing is about simplicity. “Et tu, Brute?” is far more memorable than “Tu quoquoe, Brute, fili mi?”. Even people who never had a day of Latin class, who routinely butcher e pluribus unum  and ex post facto know Et tu, Brute.

2.      Simple words can still convey complex ideas. Shakespeare again. Does anything say it better than “To be or not to be?” or Out, out, damn spot!  How about FDRs “All we have to fear is fear itself”? The words of philosophers found in the mouths of three year olds.

3.      It doesn’t have to be English if it fits. A good phrase is a good phrase. People repeat “Ich bin ein Berliner” even if it could mean “I am a jellyroll.” OK, it doesn’t, but that’s a long-standing joke. And people sing La Bamba and La Cucaracha without knowing another word in either song. Either they’ve just gotten married in Mexico or like cockroaches.

4.      You don’t have to write it. Shakespeare wasn’t the first to write “Et tu, Brute.” It was in common usage and had already appeared in two other plays prior to his. If you’re more famous, it becomes your line. John F. Kennedy wasn’t the first to say, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It was the Roman poet Juvenal, who nobody remembers. You don’t have to be first, you have to be the best. By the way, I don’t like this lesson, I’m just saying. Which, of course, is a saying I can’t take credit for. It’s already in common usage. See how that works? But if you’re Shakespeare, it’s yours, lock, stock, and barrel.
5.      Leave emotion open-ended. I’ve always been a big fan of this. I’ve been criticized for not writing how my characters say a line. Are they upset? Angry? Etc., etc. I prefer to leave it to the reader’s imagination. I think writers who routinely overemphasize a characters emotions don’t trust (respect?) their readers. After all, it turns out when Caesar said Et tu, Brute” (or “Kai su, tekron”), he may not have been surprised by Brutus’ betrayal but rather cursing him, as in “Et tu, Brute!” Maybe Shakespeare should have given his actors a choice. Imagine the difference in that scene.

So if you’re looking to apply these lessons to children’s books: keep it simple, don’t be afraid to present complex issues (bullying, divorce, disabilities, etc.), foreign words and phrases are OK (especially if you’re trying to teach), common phrases are fine in dialogue, and you don’t need to stress every emotion (of course, in picture books, the illustrations can do that, but this rule holds for young adult, mid-grade, and early chapter books, too).

Your goal (and maybe this is a good writing assignment) is to make a line sleeker, memorable, rhythmic, yours. It’s not likely any of us are Shakespeare (or Juvenal, for that matter, though juvenile maybe), but the tricks work just the same. Make lines simpler and dialogue friendly, whether in chidlren’s books or adult stories.

It worked for writers of their caliber. Why not for us lesser talents?

So think about your favorite lines. Can they be rewritten according to this  formula?

P.S. ( I may have to explore this idea further. By formula, one should know if a line is good. It should hit you. Yet too many writers take twisted, convoluted – dare I say gobbledygook – to be good writing. Shouldn’t be a problem in kidlit, but you’d be surprised.  Sometimes I wonder what the heck I was thinking. And that’s the problem with formulas or as Caesar and Juvenal would have said, formulae…)

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This entry was posted on April 23, 2016 by in Uncategorized, Writing and tagged .


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