Lessons from the Harte

American Literature, Editors

This week in American Literature we read three short stories by Bret Harte.

The stories were set in California during the gold rush. There was one thing in his stories that stood out to me: he would use the same characters in multiple stories. Like the character Mr. Oakhurst; he appears in “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” There is not much of a physical description of this character in either story, and the two characters do not seem to be the exact same person (at least to me). But Harte was trying to tie that character together through showing him in multiple stories.

At first I thought that this was just his way of being lazy and not coming up with new names. I know when I have to write a fictional story coming up with names is the hardest part for me. I do not want them to sound too fake or too cliche or too “extra.” However, Dr. Schleifer informed me that this was Harte’s way of developing his characters.

I am not much of a creative writer, but I always thought that, unless you were continuing a series of stories, you were supposed to come up with new characters for each story. However, when you write a short story, the whole point is for it to be a short story; so, you may not get to describe every character in a deep, drawn out way. You may only have a few sentences devoted to each character’s characteristics. Harte still wrote short stories, but he used the same characters in order to develop their characteristics more. (I wonder how many times I can say “characters” and “characteristics” in this blog post. Anyone keeping a tally?)

So, I guess Harte was not being lazy, but instead he was being pretty smart. He wanted to deepen his characters but also wanted to keep his stories short. (Anyone keeping a tally on “short” and “story?” Those ought to be getting up there in number, too) So, here is what I learned from Harte about creative writing:

  1. Write about what people are currently interested in. He wrote about the gold rush in California, and people ate it up. So, for today I guess a popular subject would be the millennial, being offended, and California would probably still be a popular subject. There is always something wild going on out there.
  2. You do not have to give every detail of your characters: leave something to the reader’s imagination. Yes, he does add to his characters when he re-uses them throughout other stories, but even still he does not talk much about their physical details. It is left up to personal interpretation. To me, that would mean not getting so hung up on the little details; I even do this in real life too much.
  3. Be original, but do not kill yourself trying to do so. Like I said earlier, coming up with characters’ names is the hardest part of creative writing for me and is normally the most frustrating part, too. Harte’s characters are original; however, he did not feel like every single story needed its own original characters.

But these lessons do not just apply to creative writing. Sometimes people will talk to me about something completely irrelevant to me or to this world, and I wish that they would learn lesson 1. Sometimes I am too detailed about things that do not matter in the grand scheme of things; I need to learn how to not be so OCD. And I think everyone sometimes needs to hear lesson 3. It seems like our generation is constantly screaming from the top of the world, “I am my own person! I am original! I am different!” But what is so wrong with not being “original” all the time? If we, as Christians, are supposed to be like Christ, then that means that we are not being “original.” Isn’t there an old saying, “Imitation is the greatest form of flattery?” Maybe I am stretching what Harte was really trying to say, but hey, I think it makes sense.

One thought on “Lessons from the Harte

  • I wish people would listen to your lessons more often! Particularly lesson two if they’re writers. I think that one of the most unique part of reading is finding out how much differently I interpret what a character would look like than another person. It’s especially fun when there is a movie made out of the book and I can yell at the screen for getting it wrong.

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