Deliberate Writing Practice: Day Six


The introduction to this series is here.

The idea is simple: one quick writing exercise a day for several days.

Post the results in a comment below, or, if you prefer, email them to me (at daniel wallace at gmail).

(Thanks to everyone who shared this series on Reddit, Twitter and FB.)

Day Six: Imitatio

To live in the world of creation—to get in it and stay in it—to frequent it and haunt it—to think intently and fruitfully—to woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation—this is the only thing—and I neglect it, far and away too much; from indolence, from vagueness, from inattention, and from a strange nervous fear of letting myself go.

If I vanquish that nervousness, the world is mine.

— Henry James

This series began with a question from a reader of this blog: how to improve as a writer when time is always short?

Some days, returning to the “world of creation” is hard. On the days when I feel nearly overwhelmed, like today, with many valuable things to do both intellectual and practical, I reach for a better writer, and try to copy them.

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If I can simply copy out a paragraph from a great book, then the day is well spent. If I can also design a new paragraph, using the copied prose as a model, then I’ve pushed myself, even if the actual writing session was short.

Today, I invite you to pick one of three opening paragraphs, each from a great novel, and, if you are pressed for time, simply copy it out, or, if you have a little more freedom from the clock, design a new paragraph in the tone and stance of your chosen model.

Model 1: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn 

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily. I’d know her head anywhere. And what’s inside it. I think of that too: her mind. Her brain, all those coils, and her thoughts shuttling through those coils like fast, frantic centipedes. Like a child, I picture opening her skull, unspooling her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts. What are you thinking, Amy? The question I’ve asked most often during our marriage, if not out loud, if not to the person who could answer. I suppose these questions stormcloud over every marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?

Model 2: My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout

There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks. This was in New York City, and at night a view of the Chrysler Building, with its geometric brilliance of lights, was directly visible from my bed. During the day, the building’s beauty receded, and gradually it became simply one more large structure against a blue sky, and all the city’s buildings seemed remote, silent, far away. It was May, and then June, and I remember how I would stand and look out the window at the sidewalk below and watch the young women—my age—in their spring clothes, out on their lunch breaks; I could see their heads moving in conversation, their blouses rippling in the breeze. I thought how when I got out of the hospital I would never again walk down the sidewalk without giving thanks for being one of those people, and for many years I did that—I would remember the view from the hospital window and be glad for the sidewalk I was walking on.

Model 3: Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

Early in 1880, in spite of a well-founded suspicion as to the advisability of perpetuating that race which has the sanction of the Lord and the disapproval of the people, Hedvig Volkbein–a Viennese woman of great strength and military beauty, lying upon a canopied bed of a rich and spectacular crimson, the valance stamped with the bifurcated wings of the House of Hapsburg, the feather coverlet an envelope of satin on which, in massive and tarnished gold threads, stood the Volkbein arms–gave birth, at the age of forty-five, to an only child, a son, seven days after her physician predicted she would be taken.

Here is my imitation of Djuna Barnes:

“During the summer of 2016, despite her doubts about the feasibility of life below the Mason-Dixon line, Jaime Durst — slight, but tough-jawed, the bruise around her right eye still not healed, her usual reticent towards the world amplified by recent events and the slow-boiling panic of the presidential election, her mind only more dubious about the planet’s willingness to allow her to exist peacefully on its surface, as though above all events and sensations, no matter how superficially joyful and amber, a cruel double-headed eagle perched, ready to strike the tiny people below, poised to collapse all distinctions and boundaries, break down hopes and summon ambulances — made the journey down to Tennessee, to live for the summer in the large, vine-infested home of her father’s friend Russel, a retired aviator and mechanic whom she did not remember ever having met.”

As always, feel free to email me what you write, or leave a comment below. Although very busy this week, I am reading everything.

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2 thoughts on “Deliberate Writing Practice: Day Six

  1. Here’s an imitation I wrote of the first paragraph of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick:

    “I am David. I simply am that I am. Some time ago – I don’t remember how long since I had that dream – I decided, having no particular education since I left high school, no particular design for my life, no purpose here, that I would join the United States Army to go off to some distant land I care not where, to exercised my unused manly abilities and unheeded and untended urgings of the manly, testosterone-fueled spirit that was given no proper channel or vessel to express itself. Before I walked to the registration place, I walked by a gun store which was around it, where they sold older pistols, many having seen service in the army, in bloody and torn lands. I also saw rifles like my father and grandfather used to use in hunting and in the defense of their homes and their lives and their families’ lives. It is a hot morning, on July several days after independence day. Whenever I feel the urge to tear a thing apart; whenever I feel the urge of anger rising and swelling up in me as a frothy foamy sea that rises high in the sight of all; whenever I feel the urge of rage and wrath coming at me like a mephisto ornamented and fitted with claws and reddened gold chains; and especially whenever I feel the urge to strike a man and see the blood flowing from him on the ground, particularly a different and impure man – that is when I join the Army to discipline my vessels and urges of wrath, to channel them into national service. As my biblical namesake walked randomly into the battlefields of Israel and by divine chance struck down the behemoth that badmouthed his people and badmouthed his God, so I walked randomly to the army registration post to register myself into the service, and perhaps randomly kill some behemoth that besmirches my people and doesn’t care about my God. So, three months after my eighteenth birthday, with little hope for my future in the civilian world, due to my frustrated urgings, I pledge myself to armed service in armed combat.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks again for the inspiration! ❤

    There was a long stretch of time, beginning at seven, when I wanted nothing more than to be dead. I didn’t want to have to do the deed – pull Dad’s heavy, frightening gun out of his nightstand, put it to my soft brown hair, and pull the trigger with my tiny hand – so much as just exist the moment after, in a bright, sparkling, joyful home in the clouds with a God who loved me the way no one on Earth did. At night, I’d lay in bed and pull the comforter over my head and, making no sound at all, sob. I’d pray, “God, please let me die!” The nights alternated with days at home, at the sitters’ across the street, at school, and I remember how I would see my classmates with their doting and breathing mothers, and I’d plan the note I would leave my own family. It was a decade later, in a high school psychology class, that I learned to name these feelings and that, indeed, I was unusual.

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