We’ve been assigned this project in my Bible as Literature class: we have to take a Bible story and turn it into a piece of modern fiction. We can put an ironic spin on it, give a different ending, or twist any of the characters, but the biblical inspiration need to be evident.
At first, I was lost and floundering. I cobbled together a proposal about an extended free verse poem that retells the story of Exodus through the story of a woman who’s a drug addict. I just couldn’t get excited about that one. As odd as it sounds, my interpretation of Exodus was too literal, too obvious. I wanted something subtle and strange that had layer upon layer of meaning to it.
So I started going through my Someday I’m Gonna Write About It List. It’s a list of story ideas I pick up from eavesdropping, news headlines, historical anecdotes, and any other snippets of narratives I stumble across.
Yes, the list really does exist, and no, you can’t see it.
There were two story ideas I’d jotted down recently that fired my imagination and made me want to write immediately. The first was the story of a death-row inmate who ordered a huge last meal–pizza, roast turkey, fried okra, ice cream, and so on–and then didn’t eat a bite. When the food arrived, he acted like he was never hungry and wondered why they had brought him so much to eat. I was captured by the duality of feast and famine, life and death: the convict who orders everything and eats nothing.
The second story was about a young aspiring actress who landed a starring role in a play when she was just eleven. She rehearsed for and performed the play in a very old theater in a city’s downtown district. She said that when she slept at night, she would dream about plays that had previously been performed on that stage. When she did some research about famous actors and actresses who’d performed on that stage, she recognized people from her dreams. This is a wildly different narrative, but the duality is the connection. In this story, it concerns dreams and reality, the state of sleeping versus the state of being awake. I couldn’t decide which of these two stories I wanted to pursue. The convict story suggested Joseph or Paul in prison. The actress story suggested Daniel or one of the prophets. Both had an intriguing, otherworldly feel. I was torn.
So naturally, I picked them both.
My idea is to create two side-by-side plays, to have the scenes switch back and forth between the man in prison and the woman on the stage. Then I plan to have the stories collide in a twist ending. Ostensibly, the plays will reference Joseph in prison. One play will showcase the doomed cook character; the other will have the cupbearer character (in this case, a perpetually drunk actor), and each of these characters will have tumultuous relationships with the dual protagonists. Then in the surprise twist, a very different Bible story will be referenced, and the real meaning of both plays will become clear. One character will experience freedom and life; the other will experience death. In the meantime, competing philosophies about life will intermix with the duality motif as the characters walk the line between life and death, between dreams and reality.
It’s intriguing, original, fascinating, and right now it’s a hot mess. When I wrote a complete short story for the first time this summer, one of my main challenges was coming up with dialogue. A play, in case you haven’t noticed, is ALL dialogue. It’s slow going because I keep feeling like the characters are saying awkward things that real people wouldn’t say. But it’s a story I’m excited about, something that I can really believe in, something that will hopefully yield deeper meaning with multiple readings.
In the world of fiction writing, you can’t ask for more than that.