A question that I find myself being asked fairly often is, “How do you practice writing?” To which my knee jerk, somewhat sarcastic reaction is to say, “by writing.” Seriously though, there’s not really any other way to practice anything than by just doing it. And beyond that I don’t just mean free writing, because as much as I love doing that, it takes something more focused for me to feel like I’m to honing my craft and actually practicing.
I’ve found that as a writer a good way of practicing is to write out, word for word, works from whatever authors I admire. Not because I want my own products to turn out exactly like theirs, but because there’s a technique, a rhythm, a language, an essence within their text that I find especially captivating and hope to re-purpose and reinvent in my pieces. It’s like people reading tabs or sheet music when they practice their instrument or artists drawing by eye from pictures before starting sketches. Their aim in those exercises to is to learn something that will add to their own work, or become more proficient at their select skills and writing out works that inspire me functions in much the same way. And if nothing else, it makes for a good warm up before entering into a free write, getting me in the right mentality and emotional state before writing.
One of the fears of this method of practice seems to be that a person will lose their style or their voice. Part of the Post-modern (or perhaps now Post-Post Modern) mentality includes this fear of being unoriginal to the point that we have a literary paranoia of the past. An irrational phobia of surrendering to a cliché or accepting innovative defeat, but I don’t believe that emulating works that have preceded you means either of those things. When I sit down and take the time to interact with the text and engage with the words of other poems, I start to better understand the crucial subtleties of the piece and the poem opens up a whole new meaning to me. A meaning which transcends any individual’s style or voice to a truth that is universal and timeless. Truths that every writer in any age or generation seeks and looking at the tools and techniques other writers used to find those important conclusions only helps me in my search for them as well.
Because what’s new is you. Your perspective. No one sees the world through the same lens as yourself, so finding the most effective way to communicate that perspective is what refreshes literature, poetry, music, art, photography or whatever your passion or career might be. And furthermore it refreshes life as a whole. Every individual, artist or not, has something new to add to the dialogue of human history, but in order to communicate that you need to learn the skills and techniques necessary to express yourself through whatever medium you choose. So when I’m transcribing Shakespearean Sonnets, Matsuo Bashō haiku, Leonard Cohen songs, or whoever I’m currently inspired by, I’m not particularly interested in being them, or saying the same things they’ve said, instead, I’m hoping to learn what it was that allowed them to communicate the way they did, to try to figure out how exactly they captured such a subjective and uncontrollable thing as language.
I’m not concerned with being new. I’m concerned with writing a good poem, an honest poem, a poem that communicates what I feel eloquently and effectively and if that means having to use the techniques of writers and poets who have come before me, then I’m perfectly fine with that. This is not to say that I’m content or complacent, I still believe in experimentation and innovation because that’s the only way progress can happen, but I don’t think, as it seems some of my peers do, that progress requires a clean slate or a fixation only on the self and the future. Instead, I believe that progress requires learning and an understanding of history. And that’s what I intend to do, study the past and learn from the authors I love who were able to express themselves and in doing so enlighten the world in their way unique way. So that one day, if I’m lucky, I might be able to do that same.