Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mirror, mirror!

One of the most frustrating things for a writing teacher is to encounter students who say they love to write but they don’t like to read. What? Really?

Recently I was writing a proposal for an introductory course in creative writing. My colleagues couldn’t understand why so much of the course was devoted to reading and analyzing the works of others. Did I need to point out the obvious? Reading the works of great (or even good) writers is simply the best way to learn how to write well. One of my coaching clients has never taken a creative writing course, but he’s read everything Tom McGuane ever published. McGuane is a brilliant writer. My client is pretty darn good, too.

Immersing yourself in reading helps to plant a narrative voice in your head. You begin to think narratively. This voice is something we need to coax. It is the muse. And quite often we catch the muse from another writer. Reading widely also opens your mind to the incredible, the infinite, variety of forms that your own writing might take.

Of course there are those who are afraid their own unique style is somehow going to be unduly influenced by reading someone else. Harold Bloom called that the “anxiety of influence,” and I suppose at some point that can happen. You might not want to read Ulysses while you’re in the middle of your epic novel. (But you should read some James Joyce at some point in your life -- if only his famous short story “The Dead.”) If this is a worry, read outside the genre you are working in. I love to read poetry. I read several poems a day, but I rarely write it. Still, reading poetry makes me think about language. It keeps me attuned to the way words crumple the spaces in my heart.

In the end models aren’t likely to turn us into imitators. Our own experiences and filters will ensure that. I love Faulkner, for example, but I’ve never lived in Mississippi or experienced life from that particular perspective. That doesn’t mean I might not want to try on the long, verbose sentence for size. On my story it will look different.

When I teach introductory poetry, I ask students to study a particular poet and then write a “mirror” poem. That is, take the cadences of the poem or the rhyme scheme or some essential aspect of the poem and borrow it to write a new poem. What comes out is often fresh and exciting even if the frame has been borrowed.

WIY: Try it. Find a poem you like and borrow the structure to write your own poem. And if you’re writing a novel or a memoir, then read a novel or a memoir, paying close attention to the structure. Is there something that will be helpful to you? We don’t reinvent the wheel (forgive the cliche), every time we write. It will still be original if we’re true to the heart of the story or the poem that we need to write.

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