“Ars longa, vita brevis.” Anyone who has been writing seriously for any time at all would agree that the Greeks hit the mark on this one. “Art is long.” And, given all the inconsistencies, stumbling blocks, bad breaks … and the self doubt to which all else contribute while the writer is struggling to learn his art—indeed, “life is short.”
Perhaps in the heroic quest of safeguarding one’s own unique voice in the pursuit of his art by shunning writing courses or self-help manuals, the writer runs the risk of reinventing the wheel again and again and again until he finally runs out of precious time, or the flame of enthusiasm, which are one and the same.
“Ars longa, vita brevis.”
Let’s give this idea of the heroic quest a closer look, shall we?
The reader might be interested in learning that long before the popularity of the lonely battle of suffering for one’s art (a product of 18th Century Romanticism) it was the pre-Renaissance apprenticeship system that fostered such giants as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.
All apprentices started at the bottom, grinding and mixing paints, cleaning brushes and floors, stretching canvases. On their own, they painstakingly copied their masters’ work until they reached enough proficiency to be allowed to paint some of the background of their masters’ paintings. They did this until they were able to surpass their master. Which, of course, those two notables certainly did.
Until they found their own unique style (voice) the apprentice borrowed from the style of his master.
The apprenticeship system has found a resurgence in this century. The practice is called Imitation Learning, and it’s offered at Brandeis University. It’s based on the premise that you learn to tie your shoes by watching your parents.
To develop a golf swing like Tiger Woods’s, you need to watch his videos in slow- or stop-motion. Before you develop your skills as a master painter you need to choose the master painter who’s the closest to your desired style and you copy him or her until you feel you can improve on that master’s style.
Back in the early ’60s, when I was filled with angst, and the heroic quest was my modus operandi, I remember reading an article in a writer’s magazine that advocated Imitation Learning. The author of that article has long since evaporated in time. But, the method, though I pooh-poohed it at the time, I still remember. And, a few years after my initial disdain (with, perhaps the feeling that the winged chariot was certainly drawing near … and with personal voice intact, thank you, my personal success was eluding me), I decided to try the method.
The results I found encouraging. Over the fifty-plus years I’ve been writing, I’ve re-used it a number of times.
Here, then, is the method:
Everyone has an author that makes his heart beat faster to read. His vocabulary, his cadence, his—say it—his voice captivates you. You never tire of the music of his prose. With me it was (and is) William Saroyan.
1. Pick out a representative sampling of his writing (I’m using the editorial “he/him/his” for ease in communicating, but “he” could most assuredly be “she“).
2 Choose a time when you won’t be interrupted. Make sure your environment is quiet. If it can’t be quiet, then have some soft instrumental music in the background.
3. Set the timer for 15 minutes.
4. Write at a comfortable pace what he had written, word-for-word. The original instructions were to write it in cursive. I couldn’t do that then. I can’t do that now. I would get horrible cramps. The computer is my instrument of choice, but I have to force myself to type slowly. Try to stay within the internal rhythm of the piece. Don’t stop to correct errors.
5. When the timer sounds, stop.
6. Go back and read aloud what you’ve written. This is an important step! Read it lovingly, with feeling. Read it again.
Day 2 through End of selection
1. Begin your session by reading aloud the previous lesson.
2. Start each new session where you left off the previous day.
3. Follow steps 3-6.
Expectations? I don’t presume to tell you what you’ll experience in these series of exercises. I can tell you my experience.
First, I felt a closer affinity with William Saroyan as we progressed through our selection. It was almost as though I were in his skin, looking out through his eyes, watching over each word as he chose it. Trust me, it was more inspiring than creepy.
Secondly, my own writing practice seemed less studied, more spontaneous. I seemed to be developing a heightened awareness of balance within a sentence, the internal weight of a sentence, and of that sentence’s placement with the one before and after. Explaining it to you now makes it seem more mysterious or mystical than it really was.
Definitely, though, something was going on within me.
A challenge: Why not try this for yourself? Give it five days. See if it invigorates something in you. And … let me know.