Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Fresh and the Familiar

One of the first assignments in my creative writing course involved a set of four poems.  I fancied myself as a bit of a poet, so I was pretty confident I’d nailed it.  The lecturer rang to give me feedback and was very positive about two of the poems.  However, the other two were not as original as they could have been.  As he explained what he meant, I realised that I had used some well-worn phrases and ideas (e.g., God lavishing grace on us and people wearing emotional masks to hide how they really feel).  He encouraged me to look for the original thread that would take them out of the ordinary.  After revision, one of them was published in an American poetry journal.  I’ve never forgotten that advice and try to inject it into all of my writing projects.  I don’t always hit the mark, but I know that when I do strike that chord of originality, the whole piece sings.

After using parables to teach his disciples, Jesus said that “every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 13:52, NIV).  In the Amplified Bible, that last phrase is translated “the fresh as well as the familiar”.  What a great goal for Christian writers. 

So how do we inject originality into our writing? 

  • Read, read, read.  One problem with that poetry assignment was that I had hardly read any poetry since leaving school, which was … ahem … a long time ago.  I didn’t know what people were writing, I didn’t know how styles had changed, and I didn’t know where to send material. If you read more in the genre that you’re writing, you not only find out what’s already been done, but you also pick up great tips for improving your own writing.

  • Look for a fresh angle or perspective.  One trick I’ve used in poetry is to write from the point of view of a different character.  I’ve had poems published from the perspectives of Rahab, Barabbas, Sapphira, Joseph the father of Jesus, and the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak.  I’m sure I’m not the first person to have written poetry about these people, but by taking a different angle, it automatically puts your work into a smaller pool and hopefully brings fresh insights to a familiar story.

  • Chart new territory.  In some ways, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9), but we can look for new ways of expressing it.  For example, if you’re writing a crime novel, we already know that there will be a variety of suspects and a swag of red herrings before the murderer is revealed at the end.  What can you do to make the journey through that path more interesting?  What if your sleuth isn’t a detective, an FBI agent or a forensic pathologist, but a precocious 11-year-old amateur chemist who lives on the crumbling estate of Buckshaw in 1950s England?  Alan Bradley did that to great effect in his highly original Flavia de Luce series.  What will be your novel’s unique mark?

  • Pray and spend time in the Word.  Although I’ve left it until last, this is the most important point.  God is the master of originality.  If He created the world, surely He can give us great ideas and insights for our own writing.  As you spend time in the scriptures, ask Him to show you a fresh angle for a devotion, an original way of progressing your novel or an interesting theme for a poem.  After all, He’s never out of ideas.

Nola Passmore is a freelance writer who has had more than 90 short pieces published in various magazines, journals, and anthologies (including true stories, devotions, poetry and short fiction). She has a passion for writing about what God has done in her life and encouraging others to do the same. (Some call it "nagging", but she calls it "encouragement").


  1. Thanks, Nola--really thoughtful, practical post. I particularly love how you quoted Matthew 13 re new and old treasures and applied it to writing. Will have to remember that!

  2. Thanks Jo. When I came across that verse recently, it just seemed to leap out at me as something writers should do. I think it also applies well to sermons. Sometimes when I hear that a sermon is going to be on something familiar (like the parable of the sower or the prodigal son), by first thought is often "Oh no, not this again" - not very spiritual, I know. But good preachers seem to have the gift of being able to bring fresh insights out of the familiar and I've been pleasantly surprised by that a number of times. Something to aspire to. Thanks for your encouragement Jo.

  3. A lovely, refreshing and practical post. Thanks Nola!

  4. Thanks for your encouragement Penny.

  5. How true, Nola. Because of Solomon's wisdom in reminding us there's "nothing new under the sun", we do have to dig, and we and our stories/poems/articles are better for it.

    My poetry comes with the music for my songs. As I write them I hear the melody. But even though my CD title is unoriginal..."something old Something New" it's true!

  6. Hi Rita - that sounds like an interesting way to write poetry too. I've just gone to your web site and listened to a couple of snippets of your songs. Lovely. God bless.

  7. That was a very informative and original post Nola. Thank you for those thoughts. I loved the last one best - but of course we need the others too don't we? Thanks for the challenge - to inject our writing with freshness. It is so needed and a great reminder. Well done for getting that poem published .

    Keep writing!
    Anusha :)

    1. Thanks Anusha. I think you're really great at injecting freshness in your blog. It's something we have to think about constantly, but the rewards are worth it. Blessings.

  8. Hi Nola. Having read a few of your poems, I know exactly what you are talking about. I really liked the unexpected in your work. It's the Matt. 13 verse that jumped out at me today, and I am grateful you pointed it out. Your post has made me realise that I have actually been using these principles in my slideshow talks - without conscious intention. So now I know what makes them work so well - haha. Thank you!

  9. Thanks Margaret. That verse really leapt out at me a few weeks ago. It's a constant challenge, but worth the effort. Hope I get to see one of your slideshow talks one day. Blessings.

  10. Hi Nola,
    Thanks for this reminder to pursue freshness in our work. We have to go with our instinct, don't we? There's a fine line between being encouraged to stick to what has been proven over and over again to work, and to go with something new and different. I think we know deep inside when to go with a new idea.

  11. Thanks for that Paula. Yes, it can be a fine line sometimes. I suppose the trick is to work out how to make something interesting even when using a tried and true method. We know the hero and heroine are going to end up together in a romance novel and we wouldn't want it any other way. But there are 1000s of ways to make the journey from A to B different. Mmm ... just need to think of one of those ideas right now ;) Blessings.

  12. Hi Nola
    Thanks for your post....I love your writing style, I feel like you are chatting to me :-)
    Some of my first pieces of writing were lovingly critiqued by my husband and he called me the Queen of cliche' ....didn't go down too well at the time....but now I am thankful!
    It is amazing how everything I write sounds good to me (funny about that), then reading it out aloud can even give fresh perspective to how best to edit some of the words.
    Thanks again for sharing with us
    X Di

  13. Thanks for your encouragement Di. Yes, reading work aloud is a great idea. I do that especially for poetry and dialogue - it becomes so clear which lines work or don't work. My hubby also critiques my work, and he's especially good at picking up things that don't work well in devotions. I find it's easy to make a point that's a bit too obvious rather than a bit more thought-provoking, so it's always good to have another pair of eyes. Thanks for your input. Blessings.

  14. Enjoyed this post and have enjoyed Nola's poetry which I have encountered in a couple of anthologies. That fresh look is what makes a difference.