Ars longa, vita brevis

Ars longa, vita brevis.”  Anyone who has been writing seriously for any time at all would agree that the Greeks hit the mark imagesCAXME1FXon 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,copying masters 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 child imitationcalled 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.

Day 1
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.happy sad

A challenge:  Why not try this for yourself?  Give it five days.  See if it invigorates something in you.  And … let me know.


22 thoughts on “Ars longa, vita brevis

    1. Well, thank YOU, Ben. I’m going to have to check out that film as well. I don’t recall it. Thanks, by the way, for stopping by and visiting my blog. Come back again.

  1. This is exactly what I do…if I can’t feel the words when I say them outloud, there’s an element missing. Also, I’m a visual writer. There are times when I must see the pen and journal in my hand, especially if I’m having difficulty writing on the computer. Great post!

  2. How are you Jay?  I hope this delayed ( very) finds you well. Me, back to writing email. One favor, please: If I submit my manuscript to Amazon for publishing how long will it take for them to publish it? Will it be me to select the dates of publication as well as the week for free downloading? I’m planning to publish it before christmas, that is third week or second week of December 2013. So what will be the best time or date for me to submit the manuscript to Amazon? What else I have to know about Amazon publishing?. Guide me , my mentor.  See you in Christmas, in thoughts and gifts. J.B

    1. Hi, dear JB. So happy to have you back. It only takes a day (at the most two) for your book to nestle in among the ten million others. Not much autonomy, but nice to have the other covers to rub against on a cold winter eve. No, you won’t select the dates for publication. But once it shows on Amazon and you are ready for promoting, you can choose the dates. Ask a dozen or a hundred different authors what the best days of the week or of the month are best and you’ll get thirteen or a hundred and one different answers. Submit your manuscript when you’re sure it’s ready. But, allow a week before you promote it to get the word out so that when the day comes you’ll have people lined up, waiting. We should be so lucky! I wish you scads of good luck with your publication. Keep me in the know! Bless you, dear.

      1. JB, I feel so badly about not reading your request until now (long after your promo). I am SOOOOOO sorry! I hope it was a success despite my assistance. By the way, I know far less about promoting a freebie than you think — far less than a lot of writers out there. Also, I’ve never learned how to effectively use Facebook. What I could have done (and, certainly would have done had I read your comment on my blog) was to help you with your promotion from my Twitter account. I SO wish you had connected with me on Twitter or by Email as you approached the launching. JB, I really feel bummed that I let you down! Sorry …

        By the way, I just bought your book. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  3. As an educator, I can vouch for this method, at least in its basic form. The nuances take time of course, but it does make so much sense. I’ve done it with art, music, and poetry. I’d like to try it with prose. I’ve been trying to read some authors lately (mostly young) who definitely would benefit from this approach! Thanks for a great article!

    1. I enjoyed having you drop by, BB. So glad you enjoyed my blog. It’s not for everyone, of course, or any one person at different phases of his writing life. Hope you have a chance to sample some more of my blog. See you on Twitter!

  4. Hi Jay! It’s me J. B. My book of poetry, titled: In Between is a Skunk Scent and a Musk Oil: Poetry,  is published through KDP Select and I set Dec. 18 to Dec. 22, 2013 for free promo. Questions though: What info shall I write on my social media ( FB, site, blog, twitter, etc) to promote my free promo? Do they need amazon account, download kindle on their cel and computers or do I have to take them to a certain link to promote my free promo dates? You’ve been through that road, please help me navigate. For that thanks and thanks. Hope this email finds you well. Any other tips you may help me with to promote the free promo and the book? Maybe you can also help me promote the free promo dates…:-) Thanks for your grace my friend.. JB

  5. I haven’t a ‘favorite writer’ and that, perhaps, encapsulates why I’m not as proficient a writer as I’d like to be. Thanks for your post, Jay… always illuminating and thought-provoking. Best for 2014 (as I’m writing on 1st January).

  6. That exercise would def be helpful for some people. For me though? I was reading Poe at 7, Stephen King by 3rd grade, read pretty much all his shit and was sick of him by 13. I dropped out of college but read more books than I had brain cells, Martin, bukowski, Burroughs, Thompson, Wolfe, Kerouac. Then my bro got a job as an editor at Zharmae and encouraged me to do horror. Well, when I finished my first book From NJ to Hell I checked out King’s Night Shift from the library and I was amazed how his regional drawls, character backstories and groutesque imagery ran parallel to mine, except modernized and Jersey pineys instead of weird people from Maine. All of 20 years later! I must have taken it all in subconsciously.

    1. Thank you for your take on this, A.A. “Taking it all in subconsciously” is pretty much what the ideal results of the exercise would be. Do you agree? As a matter of fact, isn’t everything we read, see in the movies or on T.V., pull from our conversations with others and ourselves, our thoughts, prayers, meditations, meanderings and mutterings … aren’t all are grist for the creative mill? Even the cliche I ended it with! When I am creatively stuck, though, A.A., when the words just aren’t there and I can’t imagine their ever being there … I can take any one of the short stories from THE DARING YOUNG MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE and read it lovingly, or better yet, write it slowly, word for word and listen to the sound the word combinations have on my close-floating soul. Before long I am back into my own creative environment.

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