On Emulating Creative Writing

It’s difficult for me to sit down and practice my writing. I will jot down ideas, and work on a current piece. But to actually sit down and write — for the sole purpose of practicing — seems like a lot of work to me, especially if it’s not going to be used in a final product.

Madeleine L’Engle wrote about the idea of practicing writing in A Circle of Quiet when she claimed, “nobody can teach creative writing — run like mad from anybody who thinks he can. But one can teach practices, like finger exercises on the piano; one can share the tools of the trade, and what one has gleaned from the great writers: it is the great writers themselves who do the teaching, rather than the leader of a seminar. It doesn’t take long for the gifted student to realize that there are certain things the great writers always do, and certain things they never do; it is from these that we learn.”

I like L’Engle’s comparison of practicing writing with practicing the piano. It seems silly to expect to be able to sit down at the piano bench and play a difficult piece without having first mastered scales and techniques and knowing chords. And yet, sometimes, I naively and erroneously think that if an idea “comes to me,” I can somehow adequately represent it in writing without needing to do foundational work, so long as I work diligently on the piece (edit, revise) enough times through.

But you can only sight read your way through music so much.

In writing, this translates into prompts, which are great in theory, but in practice I (admittedly and guiltily) rarely do them myself.

Something I like about L’Engle’s quote is about learning from the “great writers,” and for me, that first means reading them. I’ve been reading some excellent books lately — currently on George Eliot’s Middlemarch. And while I think I do “pick up” quite a bit from reading, there’s no substitute for being deliberate in your practice.

Learning by osmosis will only take you so far.

So, after my post in which I theorized about making creative writing fresh by using literary techniques that I found in my reading, I thought it was high time I take my own advice and give it a try. After all, it’s much easier to identify literary techniques in others’ writing than it is to execute them yourself, to say nothing of explaining what’s happening on a word level, an importance which Stanley Fish wrote about in How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One.

And because I thought that perhaps some of you might similarly be struggling with getting up the motivation to practice your writing too, I thought I’d share my experience with you.

In that post on adding fresh ingredients to your creative writing, I’d focused on the simile in Homer’s epic The Iliad, and it’s here — with the simile — that I began to practice my own emulation.

I made myself a prompt by finding a great sentence in my own reading, identifying what’s going on, on a word and sentence level, and then trying to emulate it for myself. (Fish suggests we do these three steps if we are to be able to write truly good sentences.)

“Like a surging wave
that comes inboard a ship when a gale blows —
wind giving impetus to sea — the Trojans
crossed the rampart with a mighty cry
and whipped their chariots toward the sterns.” (Book XV, lines 443-47)

Homer used the same format, over and over again, to create his smilies: he used “like” or “as” as an opener, then described the thing that is to be compared (“a surging wave”), with details piled up on each other in numerous clauses separated by commas or dashes (“that comes inboard a ship when a gale blows/ –wind giving impetus to sea–“), before giving the thing that the author wants us to see in front of us (“the Trojans crossed”).

But there’s more going on than just that. The translator, Robert Fitzgerald, decided to write the original Greek in English iambic pentameter: five sets of of unstressed, stressed syllables, with minor variations introduced, and lots of enjambment (phrases spilling over into the next line).

And so I followed the same general pattern, in both syntax and format, and came up with the following:

Sprinkler’s Arch

Like a gymnast, arching her back, hands
over head to meet the firm earth with palms
outspread, so too the sprinkler on its return
journey across the lawn creates a rain-
bow curve, droplets glistening the green blades.

I’m pretty pleased with the end result. But it admittedly took awhile. I didn’t just sit down and write it. I’d had the comparison of the gymnast already in my head (had previously jotted it down when I saw the beauty of the arc of a sprinkler one day). And I spent a bit of time researching the rhythm of Homer’s original poem and Fitzgerald’s translation, and then decided to implement the latter into this exercise. And it took a lot of playing around with words–practicing them in various combinations, using a thesaurus of the mind.

In the end, I felt that I composed something superior to what I could have done on my own, without having studied what I’d found and applied it in this way. Figurative language, and imagery in particular, do not come naturally to me. But I felt that I had actually practiced my writing in doing this exercise in such a way that when I needed to employ the simile or imagery in my creative writing, that I’d have a better ability to do so.

One last quick example.

A few weeks ago, I went to see a talented musician who’d played in Carnegie Hall, and was giving a benefit concert for a local food bank. (Strangely, only a handful of people showed up to the large auditorium). I had the image of him in my mind swirling around after that. And then, I read these opening lines from Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “Picture-books in Winter”:

“Summer fading, winter comes —
Frosty mornings, tingling thumbs.”

There is something magical in those lines — I felt it as soon as I read them — and I wanted to try my hand at it myself.

I broke down the lines by parts of speech:

Noun gerund, noun present-tense verb —
Adjective noun, gerund noun.

by rhythm:

STRESS unstress STRESS unstress, STRESS unstress STRESS —
STRESS unstress STRESS, STRESS unstress STRESS.

and by rhyme:

a
a

When I went to emulate these lines as a writing prompt for my own practice, I turned to what I’d jotted down about being in the concert, selected just a couple of details, and played around with them for awhile before coming up with this:

The Pianist

Fingers tinkling, notes repeat —
Shiny shoes, tapping feet.

Perhaps my final product was not Carnegie Hall worthy. And I do prefer my “Sprinkler’s Arch” to this poem. But writing exercises are just that: practice. They don’t all have to be masterpieces.

Question: How do you motivate yourself to “practice” your writing?

(optional) Try it out on your own: take a great sentence from your reading, and practice emulating it in the comments below.