Writing Experiment No. 66: Copyist

On Saturday I again taught my workshop Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Writing. We started the day by introducing ourselves with a favourite book, telling the group how and why it’s left an impression on us. Much-loved books came up: The Underground Railroad, Cloudstreet, Ladder of Years, Station Eleven, My Name Is Lucy Barton, Home (twice!), Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Palace Walk, Pride and Prejudice, A Song For Issy Bradley, This Is How You Lose Her, East of Eden, Tirra Lirra by the River, Finn Family Moomintroll.

What was evident was that all of these books had in some way evoked feeling for their readers: these books are loved. One writer talked about the book she chose simply leaving her in awe, and it’s often hard to sum up how and why the simple fact of words on a page have spun their magic.

As writers we have to read books critically as well as for pleasure, unpicking the workings of craft and identifying techniques that have, however invisibly, had an impact on the reader.

Such analysis usually requires the sort of critical thinking we might have done in a literature class, e.g., looking at the effects of word choice and sentence length on tone, or identifying actions that define a character, or finding symbols layered within the work. Francine Prose’s book Reading Like A Writer is a super guide in exactly that.

Much of my Everyday Magic workshops is, however, about not thinking about writing, i.e., not so much engaging our thinking gear (Air in the four elements), but also working with the energy (Fire), emotions (Water), or physicality (Earth) of writing in order to develop and expand our instincts and experiences as writers.

There are many ways to do this. A couple of methods that I often recommend (and that we did on Saturday) are reading a text aloud, and listening to it, e.g., listening to an audiobook, or to a writing partner reading some of your own work back to you. I’m also thinking of friends in Boulder who have a reading group where, rather than reading a book for discussion, the members gather simply to read books aloud in a group, taking it in turns to read sections or chapters. They’ve read large amounts of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf that way – and in both instances I can’t help but feel that reading aloud or listening are perhaps the ideal ways to experience certain writers.

In both instances, my old teacher Bobbie Louise Hawkins would say that the sheer acts of utterance and listening have a chemical effect on the body, and that affects how you write. The physical act of listening can slow us down and make us more thoughtful, more attentive. I certainly feel that being immersed in a good audiobook can shift my mood for the better. Reading and writing are, after all, physical acts too, so it’s worth paying attention to their somatic qualities.

This sets me thinking to another somatic exercise that I sometimes suggest: copying out text.

For this writing experiment:

* Find a memorable passage in a favourite book, and copy it out by hand on to the left hand page of a notebook – see my example of copying out ‘The Werewolf’ by Angela Carter above. When you reach the bottom of the page, continue it on the next left-hand page, until the scene is done. (Two or three pages should be fine.) As you are writing, pay attention: to word choices, to sentence length, to verbs, to punctuation, to the introduction of content, to beats within the action – but perhaps try not to think about this as you’re doing it. Just: pay attention through the physical act of copying.

* Then perhaps take things further by using the writing you’ve just copied out as a model for some writing of your own: on the right-hand pages of your notebook, write a passage that physically emulates the writing you have just copied out, roughly line by line. Write paragraphs and sentences of a similar length, e.g., using verbs in the same places as the original, adding description or dialogue where the original had description or dialogue, introducing new characters or aspects of content at similar points.

* You could also try copying this out using keyboard and screen – a different physical experience.

This is, of course, just an experiment, and I don’t necessary recommend writing a whole book this way … Not least, there might be the matter of plagiarism, though probably not if the content is different – there are ethics in acknowledging influences and models, but there are many shades of grey here too; lots of poetry uses found materials from other writing, after all.

Copying out writing is a known practice. Hunter S. Thompson apparently used to copy out The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms so that he could understand what it felt like to write a masterpiece; his biographer describes it as an ‘unusual method for learning prose rhythm’. This exercise in the somatics of writing might be a good way of shifting gear in your writing process, letting you experience in a fresh way a book that has inspired you. Think of it as echoing as a writing practice, and an exercise in listening to your body.

8 comments

  1. Patsy Alford

    Great idea. I love it and I’m going to do it on my morning pages when I am not composing. Thanks. I needed that.

      • Amy Lynn Hess

        … but I’ve really been in the mood for more beautiful language (More so than Vonnegut’s subtle irony). I may pull out some Jim Harrison or Tim O’Brien. Of course, using Bobbie would be a great choice, too. I’m teaching a Creative Nonfiction class in the fall, so something from My Own Alphabet would be inspiring. So many choices! Oooh! Using Thalia would be a great challenge, and being the nerd I am, I’d probably diagram the sentences to pick out patterns of language.

        • Andrew

          I can certainly see the value of diagramming the sentences, especially when you get to writing your own syntactically modelled version, and it would be a great exercise in itself to diagram the writing of writers we love. But I do suggest trying to switch off your thinking gear when doing the first copying out – at least in one of the exercises. I think there is a real value simply in the physical process of copying – letting your body (and soul!) experience the writing through eye, hand, pen, and paper. A physical exercise, really!

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