LawProse Lesson #235: Learning to write by sedulous aping.
What did David Foster Wallace and Robert Louis Stevenson have in common? They taught themselves to write better using the same technique: reading short passages from superb writers, trying to re-create from memory the passages they’d just read, and then assessing how their own versions compared with the originals. The assumption was always that the original was superlative—and that each departure from exact replication was a slight failure. It’s a superb technique to improve your command of syntax, punctuation, and phrasing. So let’s try this technique on a passage I’ll suggest. It’s a splendid opening paragraph from the current Atlantic Monthly. The piece is Sarah Boxer’s “The Exemplary Narcissism of Snoopy.” It’s only two sentences, a short one and a long one. The second sentence will be the challenge for you to re-create from memory. But try. I suggest that you read it three times, then put it aside and try to write out the passage without looking back at the original. Here it is: “It really was a dark and stormy night. On February 12, 2000, Charles Schulz—who had single-handedly drawn some 18,000 Peanuts comic strips, who refused to use assistants to ink or letter his comics, who vowed that after he quit, no new Peanuts strips would be made—died, taking to the grave, it seemed, any further adventures of the gang.” Now let’s say you try the exercise then say to yourself that the second sentence isn’t any good anyway. Not true. It’s a virtuoso sentence. “But I thought simple syntax is good!” you might object. Yes, but just as a good pianist needs to know something more than “Chopsticks,” a good writer must be able to construct well-wrought sentences that are more advanced than subject-verb-object. Boxer’s sentence is highly readable, and the cadence is perfect. Here’s what David Foster Wallace said about the exercise: “If you’re like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate the passage that you’ll actually learn what’s going on.” Robert Louis Stevenson called the exercise “playing the sedulous ape.” He said: “I was unsuccessful, and I knew it; and tried again, and was again unsuccessful and always unsuccessful; but at least in these vain bouts, I got some practice in rhythm, in harmony, in construction and the coordination of parts.” So even though the best exercise is to repeat the drill using the same passage, this technique is not an exercise in rote memorization and reproduction. It’s a technique to improve your attention to the building blocks of superb writing and to develop your feel for them. As you do that, you’ll be able to appreciate the cadences, syntax, punctuation, etc. in your own writing. You say you’d like to try another? Okay. Here’s another from Boxer—again, an excellent short passage. It’s longer and more challenging: “Although in the Stone Age of Peanuts key characters were missing or quite different from what they came to be, the Hobbesian ideas about society that made Peanuts Peanuts were already evident: People, especially children, are selfish and cruel to one another; social life is perpetual conflict; solitude is the only peaceful harbor; one’s deepest wishes will invariably be derailed and one’s comforts whisked away; and an unbridgeable gulf yawns between one’s fantasies about oneself and what others see. These bleak themes, which went against the tide of the go-go 1950s, floated freely on the pages of Peanuts at first, landing lightly on one kid or another until slowly each theme came to be embedded in a certain individual—particularly Lucy, Schroeder, Charlie Brown, Linus, and Snoopy.” Perhaps these little snippets will make you want to seek out more of Boxer’s writing. I hope so. I plan to do that myself. Her entire article on Snoopy is stunningly good. If you’ve liked this LawProse Lesson, let me know. I’ll prepare others like it from time to time—if the demand is there. Further reading: Garner on Language and Writing 15–17 (2009). Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace and Bryan Garner Talk Language and Writing 27–28 (2013). Robert Louis Stevenson, Learning to Write 2–3 (1920).