Thursday, September 13, 2007


Yesterday I spent a few hours rewriting in a cozy spot in the bookstore's art section. Among the many titles were Learning to Draw Facial Expressions, Drawing the Human Form and How to Draw What You See. Those books made me remember the times I've been in a museum and observed an art class drawing a painting by a famous artist.

Almost every writer when asked for the best writing advice answers, "Read." And though I enthusiastically agree with that advice, and have certainly repeated it many times myself, I think we can go a step further. Writers can learn a lot from those art students. They aren't just looking and appreciating the work before them. They are trying to capture each line and brush stroke, to personally experience the genius of a master.

One way a writer can do this same thing is to warm up by typing a paragraph of a work they admire. Better yet, try two writers. Then press the delete button and write your own story. Some may argue that you are stealing another writer's voice, but I believe you will find your true voice if you learn from the best.

Take the work of a master. Experience each word. Pay attention to the way one word connects with the others to form a magnificent sentence, just like the art students who sit in front of a Van Gogh. They attempt to draw each line, eventually creating a field of sunflowers. I doubt that any of those students finished that assignment and thought, now I can draw or paint exactly like Vincent Van Gogh. But they got a close up view of his genius by attempting to draw one of his brilliant works. And their own work will be better for having done so.

When I met the National Book Award Winner, Han Nolan, I told her that she taught me how to write long rhythmic sentences. Years ago as an unpublished writer, I picked up her book, Send Me Down a Miracle. At the time, I was working on a rewrite for my first book, My Louisiana Sky. When I read her wonderful book, I was awed by her use of occasional long rhythmic sentences. I remember reading them and thinking, I can try that. One morning I typed a paragraph that I loved from her book, then I deleted it and turned back to my own story. I used my words and my thoughts, but my sentences were stronger because, for a few moments, I got to try out what it was like to write like Han Nolan. I got to learn from a master.

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