When I'm feeling terribly uninspired, I remember some advice given to me by Pinckney Benedict, an old teacher of mine. He suggested that, when we have nothing we feel like writing, we sit down and type out a story by a writer we love, just to experience what it's like to write an excellent story. Have any of you ever done this?
I do it a lot. In fact, I started doing it in high school, long before I met Pinckney, in order to learn how to type. It is astounding to see someone else's awesome words arise from one's own typewriter, or to appear in one's own font. And you can learn things you might never learn otherwise. Type the sentence slowly, and guess what the next line will be. Are you right? Why did the writer make that choice? Was your choice better?
Lately I've been interested in the structure of paragraphs, so I've been typing paragraphs instead of whole stories. Two people who write great ones: Vladimir Nabokov and Denis Johnson. I cannot believe how far these guys can go in the space of a paragraph: across time and universes. Take a look!
The pitfalls of this technique are probably numerous. It can be a great way to waste time, typing other people's words for weeks on end. But as an isolated exercise, I think it's really useful. It can jolt you out of yourself and your invisible ways of thinking.
Try it and let me know what you think.