Practice Writing

There are plenty of inspiring books that discuss the importance of writing practice – if you have a favorite writer, she or he has probably written one – so this post won’t go into detail about that. I assume, if you’re a writer, that you already have a regular practice.

No, this is about practicing someone else’s writing. Also known as “copying.” But, without plagiarizing. Perhaps you do this all the time, jotting down sentences from beloved books. Writers are obsessed with words and usage, and your journals, like mine, are probably dotted with examples that made your heart leap, stirred your mind and caught your fancy.

Do you practice writing these phrases? With intention?

I remember an instructor at Berkeley telling us that he spent a summer typing the screenplay for a movie he loved. The film had hit the theaters, and the instructor, then a young writer, had managed to get his hands on a copy of the screenplay. He spent a whole summer copying the thing (on a manual typewriter, in those days) just to understand how the writer had done it – how the story built, characters developed, dialogue formed and, the very essence of screenwriting, how the screenplay format worked.

A few days ago, reading filmmaker Edgar Wright’s blog, I saw that he’d done it too, locking himself into an edit suite at college with a stack of VHS tapes of other people’s movies, cutting together other directors’ footage of things like car chases and gun battles. He wanted to understand the visual lexicon.

“I basically made these for myself and to figure out how to edit,” he writes. (You can read his discussion of the “mash-up” process here and find links to both montages. Note that the blog post has one bit of language unsuitable for younger readers, and the “Gun Fetish” mash-up contains extremely violent images.)

The first writer who ever made me want to retrace his steps was probably Tom Wolfe. The first novelist was John Updike. I’ve sat in libraries, under trees, at kitchen tables, waiting for quiet to descend, slowly moving my pen across the page, trying to put myself in their minds, to see how the words came to these writers in that specific order. It’s a way of learning that can be as valuable as your own writing practice.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“The cave of his skull furs with nonsense.”
~ John Updike, “Commercial”