Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Another Way to Write Better

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.


gvNL said...

What a great idea, I'm definitely going to try it out.

Wasn't it Sartre who copied whole books by Heidegger et al.?

Drew said...

Twice, I've handwritten the entirety of Two Serious Ladies.

Arna Bontemps said...

This also recalls that anecdote about Nabokov writing every paragraph (or was it sentence?) of a manuscript on an individual index card.

Ethan Canin just told my class a few weeks ago that the best (only) way to revise was to retype the entire draft of your story line by line. He also has said that copy and pasting ruins all sorts of things in a draft's fluidity.

I wonder if stories from the type-writer era reflect this (whatever 'this' is; maybe a type of focus?), or if it's just an aesthetic thing over time?

jrlennon said...

I disagree completely with Ethan Canin. I mean, that is probably true for him, but other people's minds work differently. Copying and pasting can work fine, but you need to read through and really massage those transitions.

I think the "this" in question is a type of focus--not necessarily that of the reader's attention but of the writer's process. I have done the retyping-the-whole-draft thing many times, and ultimately determined that it makes no difference whatsoever to the final product, at least for me.

Nabokov's The Original of Laura is quite unsatisfying as a novel, but utterly fascinating as a study of his process. The hardcover has perforated index card facsimiles you can punch out and rearrange!

rmellis said...

And I've found that the cut-and-paste seams that the writer sees are usually invisible to everyone else -- that they're only there to a person who has the previous version in their heads. But I respect Canin's argument. If I ever finish anything, I'll definitely retype it. I looove retyping.

Russell said...

"Demosthenes copied out Thucydides eight times. That is how you learn a language. One ought to have the courage to transcribe all the books one loves" (E. M. Cioran, Anathemas and Admirations, trans. Richard Howard [New York: Little, Brown, 1991], 170). Then again, "Beware of thinkers whose minds function only when they are fueled by a quotation" (ibid., 169). Cut and paste? Glenn Gould proved almost forty years ago that professional musicians and critics were wrong about themselves: they couldn't tell where Gould had spliced together different takes (ruining their argument that a performance, to be coherent, should always be the result of one take).

Anonymous said...

Rhian, what a great suggestion. My high school English teacher had me writing in the style of Hawthorne back in the 60's. It helped me understand where he was coming from so much better. A good, basic mentoring system.

-Nancy F

Anonymous said...

It's me again. You mentioned "paragraphs".
Just read the first page of "The End of the Affair" by Graham Greene. The reach of that first page, how far it travels...amazes me. He so knew where he was going.

-Nancy F

Yetsuh said...

Seems basically analogous to reading one of your favorites to get fired up before writing and a great way to break the bad groove, the funk, that we've probably all found ourselves in the midst of and can lead you directly to full on writers block.

The Writers Studio in NYC, run by the poet Philip Shultz (where I've taken classes for a decade and will be teaching this year) sort of takes this concept as the basis for much of it's program. Not copying of course, but seriously studying the techniques selected by the most successful authors (point of view, tone, mood, etc. etc.), analyzing the relationship of those choices to the subject matter and then trying your hand at the same technique. Basically building your craft so that your decisions as a writer become more deliberate and less accidental. So when you find your subject you have many arrows in your quiver.