When I was young, I learned to draw by tracing. I learned to sing (sort of) by trying to sound like Barbra! Before I ever wrote a word, I spent a lot of time reading. I typed sentences I really loved–sentences that stopped me for all the best reasons. Then I studied them to figure out why they were so good.
I first read Carolyn Coman’s WHAT JAMIE SAW when I was getting my MFA at VCFA. I immediately loved everything about that book. That first sentence blew me away. (From that moment on, I referred to it as “THE sentence.)
When Jamie saw him throw the baby, saw Van throw the little baby, saw Van throw his little sister Nin, when Jamie saw Van throw his baby sister Nin, then they moved.
It still gives me chills. I love it because it is scary to read. I see the baby in slow motion. Like I’m reading a movie.
From the moment I read it, I hoped that some day, I would be able to write a sentence that great.
And so, with all due respect to Mr. Mellville, I tried to do just that. Over and over again, I tried to make ONE sentence that scanned the same way–that slowed down a moment–that offered the same master effect. I believed that by studying this classic, I could learn more about the power of words and how I could tell a story (or at least write one good sentence!!!).
As I wrote, I did not worry that I was guilty of theft. Or that most of my attempts were terrible and contrived. (One advisor thought I had a tic–or a problem with the word, AND.)
I also found other sentences to mimic. And then paragraphs and prologues. I tried writing in second. In third present. I challenged myself, over and over again, to experiment with techniques I enjoyed reading, and along the way, the best thing happened:
I began to develop my own voice.
I still collect sentences. And quotes. And good advice. Because writing is not always spontaneous. Most of the time, when I sit down, I need a prompt. A push. Some time to step away from my manuscript and play.
Imitation is just one game. It is one way to be inspired and to get the writing ball rolling. So is drawing. Or walking. But because we are in the business of WORDS, studying the language of my favorite books, more than anything else, helps me discover and practice my own voice, likes, and style.
Apparently, in the bigger world of ART, this is a bit controversial. I know a couple of art students who have been DISCOURAGED from learning to paint in the classic styles. No imitation at all. It seems to me that all they care about is the voice they went to school with. To me, imitation is an opportunity–especially in the arts. It is a chance to learn, to see how the picture gets drawn. For us, a chance to experiment with every level of story.
So are you ready…to be a
Go ahead and pick up your latest favorite book. (Mine is CIRCUS MIRANDUS. It is an absolutely wonderful book. I actually had to stop reading to read it out loud to my husband.)
Now type the entire first chapter word for word and print it. Hold it in your hands. Read it outlaid See what that beautiful writing looks like as a manuscript. If you like, dissect it. For white space. For meter. For words that make you pause. Figure out why you love it. Pinpoint what appeals to you. Read it out of order. Figure out its secrets.
Then go back to your own work. If you like, play with the rhythms of a sentence. But don’t stop there. Take off! Let great writing imprint on your style. The more you read the more you will see how flexible writing is. Let it inspire you to write your own masterpiece in your own voice.
Or talk to a master herself.
I am DELIGHTED to tell you that Carolyn Coman will be one of the mentors for the upcoming Writing Novels for Young People Retreat at VCFA. Also coming are authors, Martine Leavitt and Micol Ostow, as well as editor Laura Schreiber. The dates are March 18-20. Registration starts November 1. (It will probably end Nov 1, too, so be ready to push the button THAT day.)
Why I love the retreat? It’s about craft. And experimentation. And discussion. And play. Want to be part of it? Email me. Or check my FB page.
Sarah Aronson is the cofounder and organizer of the Writing Novels for Young People retreat. She also teaches Whole Novel workshops for Highlights and other classes for www.writers.com. Stay tuned for more information about her new books: Just like Rube Goldberg (Beach Lane) and a new chapter book series, The Worst Fairy Godmother Ever (Scholastic).