Tuesday, February 2, 2010


"A writer is a reader moved to emulation."
Saul Bellow

I will never write like Marilynne Robinson. Or Richard Yates. Charles Baxter. John Irving. Elizabeth Strout. Ron Rash. Kent Haruf. So many others.

But, I can learn a heck of a lot trying to.

Try this: take one of your favorite passages and make a go at an imitation. Yes, you'll feel daunted from the outset, maybe even a little embarrassed, in the way that one can feel embarrassed even when you're all alone. Embarrassed for trying. Your result will be nothing like the original--in fact it will likely be just horrible--but you'll be a better writer for the exercise. You'll learn, on an instinctual level, the rhythm of perfect prose.

I chose the famous opening to John Updike's Rabbit, Run:

Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires. Rabbit Angstrom, coming up the alley in a business suit, stops and watches, though he's twenty-six and six three. So tall, he seems an unlikely rabbit, but the breadth of white face, the pallor of his blue irises, and a nervous flutter under his brief nose as he stabs a cigarette into his mouth partially explain the nickname, which was given to him when he too was a boy. He stands there thinking, the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up.

Here, my clumsy--but earnest--stab at it:

Girls are looping daisies around a single pokeweed sprout with ripe black berry-bunches drooping down from its branches. Fingers, whispers. The murmur and lift of their unconscious chanting seems to puff the dusty yellow pollen from the petals into the dusk April sky gauzy just below the spread of oak tree branches. Georgina Perry, wandering through the field between all the houses in a bitty-flowered house dress, thick stockings, stops and watches, though she's eighty-three and her own fingers are bloated and clumsy. She walks with the aid of a cane and is so unsteady on it, she seems an unlikely wanderer, but the quick-blue of her eyes, dimpled deep inside her wrinkled, pale face, and the useless twitching of her thick, chalky fingers beneath the tattered, stringy sleeve of her dress give echo to the girl she once was: spirited and nimble-fingered and given to imaginative games such as this. She stands there, leaning on her cane, thinking, the knots are falling loose, they keep coming undone.


Jessie Carty said...

great exercise and great start :) i did something similar at the suggestion of Sally Keith while at Queens. I worked from the Elizabeth Bishop poem "At the Fishhouses'

Pam said...

At one writers' conference I attended, a speaker suggested two exercises guaranteed to help a writer improve: Copy out -- by hand -- 30 stories, analyzing as you work; then imitate (as you did so well, Susan!) another 30 stories (yes, the entire story).
I wish I could say I had completed this.