Why Rewrite Old Stories?

If you take a look at the “my work” page on this website, you’ll notice something interesting: of the eleven pieces posted there, two of them are the rewritings of biblical tales. That’s nearly one fifth of all the work I've publicly posted, which speaks to a personal tendency: I really enjoy rewriting older stories. Taking past works that have made their way into popular culture such as fairy tales, myths, or bedtime stories and rewriting them in a new way is one of my favorite exercises as a storyteller. However, I’ve had to confront a question about this tendency before, from both myself and others: what’s the point? Why would I spend my time rewriting stories that someone else has already told instead of creating original works?

Before I get into why it’s worth rewriting old stories, though, I want to make one point: when I sit down to rewrite a story, I consider it just as much my own creation as if I had invented an entire fantasy world. I’m using characters that already exist, yes, but I’m taking liberties with them and their lives that transforms the story into something entirely my creation. When I change Eve from a submissive, obedient wife into a firebrand, no-nonsense woman who’s willing to talk frankly with God, I’ve created a character entirely mine. I put just as much of myself into these retellings as I do into my other writing, and the former are just as original as the latter.

But now on to my main question: why rewrite? What value can I add to a work as famous as the bible, and what do I personally get out of retelling a story that isn’t considered strictly my own? The answer to the first question is actually rooted in a rather simple fact: most of these stories were written a long time ago. As wonderful as folktales, mythology, or religious texts can be, they were written in cultural contexts and value systems vastly different from our own, and reflect these differences. In revisiting these stories over the years, I’ve found myself troubled by some of these reflections. Why is it so bad to have knowledge of good and evil? What really is ? Why does the ugly duckling need to become beautiful to be accepted? My rewriting is an attempt to rebut some of the lessons taught by our earliest stories, a debate with thinkers past, an attempt to offer powerfully empowering lessons to future generations. 

As for what I personally get out of rewriting old stories, I’ve already covered one answer. There’s just as much creation in drastically changing an older story in a new direction as there is in inventing your own world, and as such I get just as much out of a rewriting as I do out of any story I tell. The second thing I get out of rewriting, though, is the ability to enter into conversation with cultural phenomena. On the one hand, it's great fun and a huge rush to engage with works as famous as the bible or the Grimm tales. However, rewriting an old story also allows me to engage with powerful cultural symbols and customs, giving my work, and thus the message I want to send with it, extra significance and reach. I suppose, in the end, the reason I rewrite old stories is the same reason I write at all: I have things that I want to say, and this is the best way to say them.