What is a Creative Writing Reflective Essay?

What a Reflective Essay is and how to write one

 

Below you can find a reconstruction of the reflective essay I wrote about my own Creative Writing Master’s Dissertation.

At the time, I can remember thinking and furiously Googling “What is a creative writing reflective essay and how do I write one?” Hopefully, I can answer this question for my fellow aspiring writers.

For me, it was a critical examination and criticism of my own work. It was very hard to do. The end result of a reflective essay should be a deeply personal piece of writing.

My essay will expose – for the first time on this site – details of my first novel.

The aim is to expose vulnerabilities and weaknesses, so that through tuition they might be overcome.

Read on to see what a reflective essay looks like.

If you want to learn more about The Ghost Story Writer, visit the About page.

Creative writing piece commentary and criticism

I have always had a morbid fascination with fear. What makes us afraid? Why do we feel the need to learn what our biggest fears are? Why is a feeling of terror so exhilarating to some and so uncomfortable for others? More specifically, what makes our audience afraid? As a keen listener of the classic British ghost story, I developed a desire to become the architect of such stories.

Having read the work – both novels and short stories, of Lovecraft, M R James, Dickens, Poe, King and more recently the likes of James Herbert and Susan Hill-I have developed an increasing desire to create such terror-filled tales. The way these writers portray those feelings that are unusual to most of us is awe-inspiring because they have the power to make us feel troubled, usually by giving us relatable characters in realistic circumstances then creating disturbing and terrible events around them.

‘The Outsider’ by HP Lovecraft is a great example of a tale that creates tension and fear. By utilising themes and feelings we can relate to such as alienation and insignificance Lovecraft taught me that the biggest fears are normally internalised rather than externalised. What we are defines our fears. He personifies the notion perfectly by his direct admission that the horror is the self: “(I know) I am an outsider. This I have known ever since I stretched out my fingers to the abomination and touched a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass.”[1]

However, the contemporary ghost story has evolved into what is known these days as Horror. Horror relies on a reaction to something that has already happened. In spite of this growing interest in horror, I am more interested in terror: the anticipation of an event, the anxiety one feels when faced with the unknown. Generally, my interest is in what waits for us in the dark. Everyone has experienced fear of the dark. What answers will we find if we are willing to stray out of our comfort zone? What genre still produces such work? And how can I fit myself into it?

Knowing that I want to write about troubles of the mind, self-doubt, and the ghostliness of a society in which self-destruction is so important a vice, I set out to define my work. I turned to Gothic. It is difficult to define Gothic in a general sense. Is Gothic “the art of freezing the blood”[2]?

Eventually, American literary critic Ellen Moers stated only “that it has to do with fear”[3].

Regardless of definition, what is considered the Gothic movement originatedin the 17th century, starting with Horace Walpole’s ‘Castle of Otranto’. The aim of the literary movement seems to be combining fear and romance. The Gothic movement distanced itself from the domestic lifestyles of the middle class and moved more towards the supernatural and the sublime. As such, it was more likely read by the female upper class as a form of escapism[4]. This fact is no doubt linked to the rise of female Gothic. Gothic has been expanded upon over the decades thanks to novels such as Dracula and Frankenstein, which would now be considered male Gothic, and Gormenghast and many more, which would currently be considered female Gothic. By male, we mean Horror, and female we mean Terror. In male horror, the supernatural, the threat, is very real such as a vampire or werewolf.

Feminine Gothic, in contrast, explains the supernatural. The threat is not real: the heroes imagine it. The threat of violence is ever-present, but it remains only a threat. Often this threat stems from the relationships of the characters, instead of some supernatural presence. For example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is an excellent example of female Gothic literature. It might be a ghost story, it might not, but it is most definitely Gothic and horrific because we are given suspense, action, re-action and an exploration of the psychosis of the protagonist. Another example would be Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’. Again, we cannot tell if this story is an authentic ghost story or a portrayal of the mental breakdown of the female protagonist.

Not unusually, however, there is a crossover between the two types of Gothic, with males producing works of female Gothic such as Isaac Crookenden, Francis Lathom and George Moore, and females including Charlotte Dacre, Sophia L. Francis, Ann Julia Hatton, Harriet Jones and Anna Mackenzie creating work that would be categorized as male Gothic. Of course, most Gothic novels will not be explicitly male or female, and will utilise elements of both. [5]

My novel, Window Pain: Fatal Inheritance will be one such work, although it edges more towards the female side of the Gothic mode, exploring themes of repressed sexuality and the jealous, selfish nature of love. It also investigates the causes and consequences of domestic violence, and as such features a male Gothic trait: the monster, Wesley. I started writing it years ago because I want to contribute to this interesting and thought provoking movement. Whilst the category has seen modern action such as Shirley Jackson’s ‘Haunting of Hill House’, I believe my novel has a unique twist because it fits within the movement in a way I have not encountered before in my extensive readings, that twist being a complete reversal of normality. The human is in the minority from the start. As modern Gothic has leant more and more towards Horror, I see this tradition reflected in my own work, yet I am unwilling to expel the psychological themes that I believe are a staple part of the modern canon.

I find it incredibly difficult to create the kind of foreboding one feels when reading stories such as ‘A Warning to the Curious’, or ‘The Woman in Black’ whilst writing from a first person and deeply psychological perspective. It is natural to want to jump in with a shock scare tactic: a horrible monster, bloody assailants, or crying ghostly children. However, I want my work to reveal that the true threat to anyone is themselves. Humans have an enormous capacity for self-destruction. Wesley, my protagonist, is one such human. Constantly living in fear, Wesley does not trust the world around him, only himself. Ironically, this distrust of anything except his own instincts will ultimately be his downfall, as his constant running from safety leads him straight into danger, and unfortunately endangers others.

Wesley feels safest around the women that he loves and alcohol; this is dramatic irony, as we know that the women he seeks are in fact ghosts and his favourite vice is a deadly intoxicant. The ghosts in my novel are legion. You might say every character we meet is a ghost. The apparitions appearing before Wesley have been directly harmed by him. In this, the extract that forms my dissertation, we meet two: the girl at the window and the shadow in the classroom. Wesley sees these women in such shocking extremes because he has the ability to see the potential ghost in everyone. In a world as full of fear as Wesley’s this is nearly everyone. The shadow in the classroom is a girl who will suffer greatly as a result of Wesley’s actions. These have not yet taken place within the narrative and so to the others in the class she is just a normal girl, yet completely horrifying to Wesley. Arcing the narrative in this way I feel I can establish a sense of foreboding, and hopefully lead both Wesley and my audience further into the plot with a sense of trepidation. As he can see the destruction he is responsible for causing, the women appear as ghosts. It is Wesley’s inability to interpret the feelings of others or communicate with them that results in the hellish events he must endure. In classical literature, some of which could be described as Gothic I.e the tragic plays of Euripides such as ‘Medea’ and ‘Hippolytus’, violence is a consequence of the frustration caused by misunderstanding and a hubristic attitude. This theme has a resonance within my work. As the gulf between Wesley’s two sides widens, so does his understanding of relationships.

Having written the story in the third person past tense – typical of a ghost story – I soon learnt that this style severely limited Wesley’s voice and therefore would inhibit the storytelling aspect of the novel, which needs to be relatable in order for my audience to better understand the characters and events. He needed to be live in the first person. To accomplish this change, and to accommodate Wesley’s ability to get in our heads I decided to employ what is now considered a standard literary trope: I would have him break the fourth wall i.e he would become aware of his existence as a character within a story, and thus speak directly to his audience. This narrative technique has not been done in any conventional Gothic literature as these tales are almost exclusively told in the past tense; a story that is narrated to someone. Wesley cannot narrate the story as it has not happened yet, so we must experience it with him, and share his thoughts and feelings.

This new direction stuck, and in my opinion Wesley has become an interesting and well developed character. I know him. People often say “write about what you know.” In writing about Wesley and the darker sides of human psychology however, I am not writing about what I know, I am writing about what I want to know. Psychology in literature fascinates me, and I would like to have my novel laced with informative and subtle comments upon the human psyche.

For example, Wesley is a typical narcissist with an out of control Thanatos Drive. He lives like a rock star without being one, and has a barely justifiable arrogance. I do not want the readers to relate to him too much, but I want them to draw parallels between him and people they know, and realise that humans are masters of deception. People build walls and faces to hide behind. Do we ever really know somebody? Well, I think by the end of the novel we will know Wesley. This is why the idea of an unreliable narrator that can speak directly to the audience has such an appeal to me. By the end of the story, or even the extract, we know a lot about Wesley. He is a minimalistic man. This is referenced when he tells us that he thinks about asking how his friend is, but doesn’t as he would be wasting his precious time.

In relation to this trait of Wesley’s I have taken a minimalistic approach to writing and economised words. Writing a Gothic novel that stays true to the genre has been a challenge as in all Gothic literature we have an incredibly vivid and well-described world painted for us. What I have tried to do is portray the gritty details of the real world, in contrast to the often lush forests of typical Gothic. Wesley thinks of himself as an observer, but focuses on certain things and overlooks others. Writing in a way that expresses this point of view is problematic. I cannot simply state that whilst Wesley is out walking the dog he feels afraid of the trees, so I use image creating words like “twigs that reach out like fingers” to create that sense of foreboding that I would like my audience to be feeling, giving a sense that even nature is hostile towards Wesley.

Creating a sense of anxiety about everyday happenings or objects is quite typical of classic Gothic. A locked room for instance, can make us feel uneasy.

Typically found in classic Gothic and ghost stories is the journey of the protagonist through these well-developed and described landscapes. They seek answers to a hushed question, typical human curiosity often getting the better of, leaving them worse off as a result. Arthur Kipp’s quest for knowledge in Susan Hill’s the ‘Woman In Black’ ultimately leads to the death of his young boy and wife. The curiosity and greed of the three men in M R James’ ‘A Warning To The Curious’ ultimately leads to the violent death of Paxton, and in the end they fail to learn their lesson.

Wesley’s journey is not one of travel, being more spiritual in nature. He journeys inwards, to his psychological extremities in an attempt to understand himself and the events occurring around him. His story includes few locales: the hospital, the field, the school, his house, the pub, and occasionally someone else’s house. Some Gothic would include fewer locales, such as Stephen Kings ‘Room 1408’, which includes only the hotel that protagonist Mike Enslin is staying in, similar to typical haunted location stories such as ‘Number 13’ by M R James. Other Gothic stories might feature many locations.‘The Tomb’ by HP Lovecraft is one such story, which includes multiple mansions, a nearby village, woods, a mausoleum and a room with barred windows. The locations themselves are often a metaphor for the various mental states of the protagonists. The hospital is a metaphor for Wesley’s darker subconscious, whilst the school serves as a personification of his lucid mania.

The most important location that Wesley ever visits is in his dreams. Dreams are a very common trait in Gothic and horror literature and have resounding psychological and supernatural implications. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein places emphasis upon the power of dreams, Viktor’s dreams having profound psychological resonance throughout the novel, and according to Mary Shelley herself the book is based upon a dream of her own.[6] Often when reviewing this genre in whatever medium, be it film, television or literature, we have to ask ourselves, is this a dream? Dreams are often an important plot device, affording revelatory effects for the protagonist, or even nonsensical events that later become clues. Wesley will end up having everything explained to him in his dreams by the three ghosts that scare him the most, and, he believes, everyone else. These are the ghosts representing the three women that should be important in Wesley’s life, but aren’t.

These three ghosts have sprung into existence as a direct result of Wesley’s interaction with the aforementioned. They are a manifestation of the feelings he causes within people, especially women. Plot portraying representations of a characters emotion is generally typical of a female Gothic story, for instance ‘The Dead’ by James Joyce portrays the death of a relationship as actual death. However, as it has been written from a male perspective I have chosen to rebel against the common tradition. Writing Wesley as a less-than-typical pubescent male teenager allows us to get into his head, and truly understand why he does the things he does, and whether he thinks they are right. I believe that as a result of this more psychological approach we will garner a better understanding of Wesley.

Do we feel sympathy towards Wesley because he cannot understand the world he lives in? Is his evilness no fault of his own? Or do we hate Wesley because of his hedonism, licentiousness, and vicious self-aggrandizement?

The idea of an unreliable narrator, a character that manipulates us into loving them, and then betrays us as Wesley will do, is one that intrigues me. Having read Engleby by Sebastian Faulks and especially Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk – the character of Tyler Durden having a significant influence upon Wesley- , I knew I wanted to create a character we want to but cannot trust, to emphasize the shocking finale. These novels I have mentioned are not Gothic, but the unreliable narrator is present in many Gothic tales. ‘The Lonesome Place’ by August Derleth features unreliable narrators, who eventually conjure a monster from within their fractured psyches – as a result of a fear of the dark – and ultimately this action of theirs causes harm to someone else. In a similar way I believe Wesley is a genuine unreliable narrator. His dependency on mind altering substances should be an indicator.

Do these modern techniques and elements compliment or detract from the original themes? I have used them in an attempt to bring a classic mode of literature – the traditional British ghost story, into modernity. I believe my extract is both informed by, and battling conventional archetypes. We have a hero and doomed romantic love, but we have a story more informed by modern society.Wesley will eventually begin using a mobile phone.

This device will afford better keeping of time and give a more realistic and modern view of the story I am telling. In this extract however he does not need any of that. We have the setting of the school, a bustling social hub absent in the majority of classic Gothic stories which often feature closed universities and their lonely libraries, or a child being home-schooled by a questionable tutor, a castle.

Wesley’s doomed romantic love is more for himself than the women he meets. This self-love will erode later when he meets Her, and whilst in a typical Gothic story this love would be behind an obstacle in my story Wesley himself is the obstacle. Do we need a father or another suitor when Wesley can simply destroy his own progress through reckless behaviour? No. Wesley will end up being three characters. What he is, what he is not, and what he can be. My story is one of unrealised and failed potential. Wesley could be a great person if he so chooses, as hinted at in the first scene which acts as a prologue. Ultimately, he will fail to achieve greatness and “run out of fans, wives, and logs for the fire.”[7].

In modern society, antiquarian ghost stories can no longer provide the fright they once did. Our audience have become desensitized. How will literature compete with three dimensional horror movies? One answer is to adapt the stories we tell to fit in our changing society. A telephone call from an unknown number can fill us with fear, an oven leaking gas can cause auditory and visual hallucinations. A misdiagnosis from psychiatrists or doctors can cause psychosis.

There is still fear in the world. We must find it.

It is my belief that the trick to creating tension, and awe-inspiring dread is to take every-day objects, and transform them into sinister and twisted parodies of themselves. Paintings have often been associated with fear and horror in Gothic literature – the portrait of Dorian Grey, The Man in the Picture – could we not instil the same feeling using the television screen many of us are glued to daily?

Our fear of the dark and the unknown is slowly being eroded by the science of the modern day. It is time to tell stories that cause us to look inward, and make us feel fear when we realise the unknown is us: the fear of ourselves, which I try to demonstrate using Wesley. He is driven by that thirst for knowledge and self-understanding. Surely in modern society, as with Wesley, our greatest fear is that we will not live up to expectations, and have to face the fear of ourselves.

I intend to hold a mirror up to society.

References:

[1] (HP Lovecraft, The Outsider, Weird Tales, April 1926)

[2] William Hazlitt about Anne Radcliffe. Literary Women: The Great Writers (New York: Doubleday, 1976; rpt. Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 90-98

[3] (Ellen Moers,Literary Women, [1976] (London: The Women’s Press, 1978), p. 90)

[4] It was a dark and stormy night: The rise of Gothic fiction By: Dr Stephanie Forward (The Open University) Oct, 2010

[5](Adam Matthews Publications, Gothic Fiction, Male and Female Gothic, an introduction by Peter Otto)

[6] Mary Shelley’s introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein

[7] (The Downhill Struggle, Jeffrey Bernard)

 

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