Peter Hedges: Find the Nugget that Can be Built Upon

Peter Hedges teaching at Amherst

Peter Hedges teaching at Amherst

By May Wuthrich

Novelist, Screenwriter and Director Peter Hedge’s visit to Amherst this summer was pure inspiration.   In addition to speaking in the Red Room, he taught a master class with students where they spent 90 minutes on a series of short writing assignments.  The idea was to lose self-consciousness about “writing badly” and allow ideas to flow from a variety of prompts — these included coming up with intriguing character names and descriptions, a location for a scene, favorite combination of words, among others.   The majority of students found an idea, a character, a scene, or a piece of dialogue that could become the basis of a longer piece, or as Peter described,  “a nugget that can be built upon.”

During the class, Peter discussed that creating something out of nothing is a process and requires patience and stamina; and the willingness of the writer “to traffic in the terrible in order to stumble onto something exquisite.”  He talked about his own experience of carrying around a character name, a title or a phrase that he found intriguing but didn’t know how or what it would become.  This was the case with his first novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, which he adapted into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp.

The first summer Peter taught, a student asked him what, if anything, he had written.  In response, Peter promised the student he would write a play that night, dedicate it to him and perform it the next day.  He fulfilled that promise and created a monologue that eventually became the novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.  The lesson: when we set out to do or be something, we can end up in unexpected places.

Peter isn’t alone in this.  Peter recounted a conversation he had with author Suzanne Collins whose nugget of an idea was to write an anti-war piece with a strong female protagonist…which became The Hunger Games.

So, don’t worry about getting stuck, grow your work through developing a habit and a sense of play and possibility. Keep dreaming up ideas, keep writing, and don’t expect instant results.

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