Sunday, January 11, 2009

Building on a solid foundation

A little music, a filling brunch of boiled egg and a cinnamon roll (homemade, of course) and a pot of green tea and I feel almost human again. I found a 10 x 10 stoneware pan and yesterday baked some cinnamon rolls, iced them and had one this morning. They turned out really good, not too sweet with a soft crumb and a light vanilla glaze. In a word, perfect. The urge to bake is on me and I'm contemplating an Italian olive oil bread but the kitchen has to warm up more first or the dough won't rise sufficiently. That's where turning on the oven comes in and kills two birds with one stone by getting the oven ready for the bread and warming the room.

It's a quiet Sunday and I have taken my time reading the news, checking emails and catching up on writing. The sun shines in a pewter sky, moderating the heavy gray curtain of horizon to sky clouds bearing down from the mountains and promising more snow, hiding the hoary white rise of Pikes Peak. Whether my placid mood is due to impending snow or the slow Sunday pace isn't important, at least not as important as an essay I read by an author on Glimmer Train website about learning from the masters, something I have been contemplating for some time.

As a fledgling artist, I was set to copy the Masters, examining and learning to duplicate their brush work and layering and compounding of color. It is the way artists have learned for millennia. Musicians are taught scales, then taught how the Masters created their own work and set loose to improvise on everything they have internalized. Writers are taught rules and theory, but starting from a Master's work, beginning with the words and construction of plot and characterization, texture and theme isn't quite kosher. Oh, there are some teachers who encourage finding inspiration and experience in great works of literature, past and present, but then writers are told that such copying is beneath them, derivative, cheating and will stunt their growth as a writer, their voice lost in the process. Not true.

While da Vinci and Michelangelo's influence is obvious in Raphael's early work, there is a distinct departure in his more mature work. Each generation of artist learns from the ones who have gone before and then emerge with their own distinctive style. The same is true for writers.

While on a whaling voyage Melville meticulously copied every word of a novel by Hawthorne, getting angry if anyone touched his work or bothered him while he copied. The day he finished copying the novel he gathered all the papers so carefully written and tossed them overboard. Shocked, the sailors asked why he did that and Melville replied that he had learned what he needed to know. Melville also studied James Fenimore Cooper and other contemporary writers, going back to the types of books that he wanted to write.

Modern day writers would do well to emulate their predecessors. Start with an author's work you admire. Take one of their stories or novels and begin by copying what you read, letting the words, characters and plots carry you to a different world. At some point, your own voice will emerge along with your creative instincts with the sure hand of the Master on yours. Dissect and outline novels in every genre to find out how a writer created the effects that made his book so successful. Break down descriptive passages, minutely examine the gestures and dialogue that make characters breathe, leaving no word or phrase untouched. Most of all, read, read, read. Read widely. Read with an eye on construction and method, theme and texture. Pay attention to what arouses your senses, makes your heart beat faster, chills your blood and inflames your passions then go back and dissect them, lay the bones bare and then sit down and write the same scenes. What would you change? How would you get from point A to point B? The trail is blazed, go off the path and find your own way through the wilderness. It's not cheating; it's common sense, a time tested method to help build the sensibilities and tools needed to become a good masterful writer.

There is no sense in reinventing the wheel. Use the wheel to invent something new and different, something uniquely your own.

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