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Learning to Write – What I Did, Example 1

When I was just out of college I was very taken with two writers: J.D. Salinger and John Updike. I read Salinger’s stuff and I saw that it “was mostly dialogue,” as I saw it way back when. I looked at Updike’s work and I felt like I was in the presence of an angel describing the world in ways I had never seen it before. My first inclination, as maybe it is with all young writers, was to imitate what I was seeing.

So…I opened [i]Nine Stories[/i] to page one and began…typing Salinger’s story on my typewriter. I wanted to see how it felt to write those sentences. I wanted to see how the meter and rhythm of the sentences changed so the reader wouldn’t become bored.

And moved on. Many new writers back then, when I was learning, were Hemingway imitators. Everything was a simple sentence. Until it wasn’t. Gerund phrases, said Hemingway’s critics–you must learn to use gerund phrases if you are ever going to describe action that’s happening right before the reader’s eyes. So…I was teaching English to high school students then…I learned what the heck a gerund phrase was. Then I went looking for the animal of that name in Hemingway’s writing. I tried it out. I wrote a hunting story and it ran on for about a half page in one place, building gerund phrase upon gerund phrase until the protagonist must have been winded and exhausted by all the movement.

Moving forward. I wrote out John Irving’s first chapter to Garp. This was after I studied under John at Goddard College in 1976 in Vermont. He was teaching that summer session in their low-residency MFA program and I showed up ready to earn an MFA, but instead was told that writing couldn’t be taught, it had to be learned. Oh well.

Writing out other writer’s words.

What methods or techniques have you used to improve your craft?

  • March 15, 2015
admin - June 15, 2016

Hi Leon, I agree. Painters will try to reproduce the art of other paints, poets poems, and muscians great composers. So writers–at least this one–might do it too. In my csae I just needed to see, on plain piece of typing paper, what their words looked like and how long their sentences were. Also, were they using simple sentences followed by compound followed by complex follow by phrases and back to simple? What were they doing? So this helped me a lot. Thanks for writing

Leon Davis - June 15, 2016

Enjoyed the article. This is a technique and it is old. But not many new writers can seem to make them selves do it. It takes the mind set of a child, the belief and energy, optimism all that stuff that must be discovered through sustained trying.

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