Bad Advice Wednesday: Remake

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Elizabeth Bowen

Not too long ago I was thinking about how I might grow my writing, move into a new phase, switch things up, rise up out of the ashes of the old and into something fresh, different, not to be expected.  We’re all stuck with our minds and our set of biases, also with whatever genetic inheritance, a certain approach to language, to structure and structures, and certainly to character. Our pathways through narrative may resemble neural pathways inherent in our brains, and may account for the wide divergence of what’s considered great storytelling.  I might dislike Thomas Pynchon while you love him, for example.

Anyway, my experiment was to write a remake of a story from the past, to start with frank imitation, and revise from there.  I picked an Elizabeth Bowen story I’d never quite understood but always loved, one that took place between the world wars.  I started by moving it to our time, and just writing it again.  The time shift brought certain automatic changes, but I found the atmosphere remained similar, her story to mine, like nothing I’d ever made.  Then I changed the names of the characters, and let fresh things happen to them.  In the end, I had my own story, with little reference to hers (though I named a minor character Elizabeth Bowen).   My own story told in a way I’d never have come up with without help from a master.

I don’t see why this couldn’t be done with nonfiction, too.


Bill Roorbach lives with spiders and ladybugs in Maine, all of them waking from winter.


  1. Richard Gilbert writes:

    Bill, have stolen your idea and a similar one by Lee Martin. Well, I attribute. But what happened was I ended up writing about my new daffodils, a dead neighbor, and blues legend Big Moma Thornton:

  2. Richard Gilbert writes:

    This post has lingered in my mind, and so I return. A perfect example of what you’re talking about is essay expert Robert Atwan’s recent brilliantly conceived and executed re-imaging of The Great Gatsby, “That Summer, 1922: A Counter Memoir by Thomas Buchanan,” for The Believer:

  3. Howard Dinin writes:

    I tend to agree, Bill, with the supposition that this stratagem to rid oneself of the barnacles of old reliable devices and divagations would work with nonfiction.

    Especially when one considers, if not finds himself haunted by, the possibility that somewhere out there in the world, probably not too far away, in a few suburban houses down on a not too busy street, in a farmhouse down the lane, someone lives with a life far richer, if not effulgent, with incidents, events, and anecdotes more interesting and inspiring than one’s own meager existence can afford as fuel to the imagination.

    Change a few names, indeed, and aside from that—it’s nonfiction after all—change nothing else, and boom, you’ve got yourself a story to be proud of. A narrative to distribute among one’s friends, not to mention the cognoscenti.

    Here’s a piece I’m working on now, a reimagining of my life as a woman, as retold in my own voice by another woman… It’s moving along very easily, smoothly, and quickly:

    “Chapter 1 – BEFORE I CAME TO PARIS

    I was born in San Francisco, California. I have in consequence always
    preferred living in a temperate climate but it is difficult, on the
    continent of Europe or even in America, to find a temperate climate and
    live in it. My mother’s father was a pioneer, he came to California in
    ’49, he married my grandmother who was very fond of music. She was a
    pupil of Clara Schumann’s father. My mother was a quiet charming woman
    named Emilie.”

    Thought you’d be interested.

    • Bill writes:

      Love it, Howard. Another way it could work for nonfiction would be to find a beloved essay and write it as your own until it was entirely your own.