According to my father, Robert Louis Stevenson taught himself to write by copying other writers. And that was how I got started. I figured that what was good enough for RLS was good enough for me. If I had stopped to think whether I could do it, I expect my courage would have failed me. But, as it happened, I dove right in, with a sense of joy and adventure, playing with styles, with words, with ideas. I wrote a story in the style of Louis Carroll, following his lead in playing with the logic of language to absurd effect. I wrote a dialogue in the style of Tom Stoppard, in which two actors argue about whether they should take bows for acting in his play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and in which I echoed Stoppard’s rhythms while discussing the philosophies expressed in his play. Borrowing a device used by Hendrik Willem van Loon in Van Loon’s Lives, I wrote a story in which Oscar Wilde’s entrance into heaven depends upon the literary assessment of his works by a jury of quarrelsome fellow writers. I have gone on, in the many years since, to play merrily with many other aspects of writing, and not as a study of anyone else’s work.
But how is this learning by studying, or “copying” other writers done? How did I do it?
Some might attempt it through a purely analytic approach, breaking down components of style, language, phraseology, subjects, plot structure, etc. But although that will teach one how someone else did it, it seems to me that a pure application of that technique alone would render a rather wooden replica.
What I tended to do was a variation of Professor Harold Hill’s “think” system. In The Music Man, the con man, Hill, pretends to teach the children of River City to play instruments by having them think the Minuet in G. Absurd. But, it works! And at the end of the film, they save him from being tarred and feathered by, lo and behold, playing the Minuet in G. So what did I do? I read the works of an author I liked until I heard his or her voice in my head, even as I went about my day, even as I talked to other people. Probably the writer’s manner of speech did not actually come out of my mouth, but I felt the flavor of it on my tongue, the rhythm. A form of osmosis. It gave me my own sense of the author’s heart, not just an intellectual understanding of his or her skill. And what I heard in my head came out on the page. It was not, of course, precisely the style of the author I emulated, but his or her style as filtered through my brain–which also permitted it to be something other than just a mere copy.
What advice would I give to writers who want to learn from other writers? First, read everything you can by an author you like. Read it for pleasure. Submerge yourself in his or her world. Absorb it. Then, perhaps, add some analysis of his or her techniques. And then, go and play. Try it out for yourselves. Apply it to your own themes. What have you got to lose?
Posted by Jessie Seigel on August 28th at 11:59 p.m.