Writing Models: How Close Study of Top-Notch Writers Can Up Your Game

by Marylee MacDonald, December 5, 2017 in For Beginning Writers, For Writers Doing Revisions

Writing models can help you turn a so-so draft into a work of art. In the old days, before bookcases filled with how-to books that made the act of writing seem simpler than it ever is, aspiring writers learned the craft by closely studying the work of other writers. In 1971, after the death of my first husband and six weeks after the birth of my last child, I decided to go to graduate school in Creative Writing.

writing models

In 1971 I had just given birth to my last child and decided to go back to school for a Master’s in English/Creative Writing. After I graduated, I had to put the writing on hold and earn a living, but when the baby went off to college, I discovered that the use of writing models was one of the most valuable lessons I’d learned in grad school. Writing models helped me become a far better writer than I would have become, had I not used them.

San Francisco State was relatively close to Palo Alto, where I had settled and was attempting to figure out how to constitute a life. My plan was to go to grad school, learn how to write, and then get a job teaching writing.

So, there I was, twenty-five, my new baby thirty miles away with a babysitter, and thinking that, over the course of a semester, I could learn to write a novel well enough to teach the craft of fiction to junior college students. In other words, basically clueless. However, looking back at the younger version of myself, I can see that grad school instilled a certain ethos. My lifelong passion for fiction comes from those early days.

Learning from Writing Models

Wright Morris

The fall semester began, and my professor, Wright Morris, ambled into the room, looked disparagingly at the cigarette butts on the floor, and made a comment about the janitorial service. I didn’t know then that Morris was one of the most renowned writers in America. Like Kay Boyle, who taught the short story, Morris had lived in Europe and had absorbed its literary traditions.

THE FALL by Albert Camus

Wright Morris used Albert Camus’ THE FALL as one of our writing models.

Morris chose ten novels to use as writing models. One was The Fall by Albert Camus. Another was To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. A third was I’m Not Stiller by Max Frisch. Morris himself was a Nebraska farm boy, and his style sprang from what he called the “American vernacular.” He shared his thoughts in two books of craft essays–The Territory Ahead and About Fiction.

As the semester progressed, Morris taught us by writing sentences on the chalkboard. He was small man, frail with angina, but had a steady hand. Letters unfurled from the tip of his chalk, and he might as well have been sitting at a desk with a fountain pen.

We copied the sentences and stared at them. More than once I felt punished, like a fourth-grader required to write a hundred times, “I will not forget my homework.”

Over the course of the semester Morris talked a little about voice and reliable vs. unreliable narrators. However, in the main, he talked about sentences, in particular why a sentence written by Virginia Woolf differed from one written by Camus.

Now, here’s the kicker. Our final exam consisted of a dozen sentences pulled at random from our reading list. Utter panic set in. Here’s an example. Imagine seeing this out of context. You’d have no idea what it was about.

“Before explaining myself on the subject of judges-penitent, I must talk to you of debauchery and of the little-ease.”

It was the only sentence that stumped me, but I’ve never forgotten that passage from Camus.

Why did Morris choose this pedagogical method?  It was the only method he knew.

Morris came to writing late, meaning he began to study the craft about the time he turned forty. There were only a few books on craft back then. One was E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. As for the rest of Wright Morris’s education, he studied notebooks, letters, and writers’ journals, such as those by Virginia Woolf, Dostoevsky, and Henry James.

But, more important than all of that was his attention to writing models. Morris hand-copied passages from writers he admired. That was the way to learn to write, he said. By reading not just the good writers, but the great ones.

What, Nothing About Plot or Characterization?

Not once in the entire semester did he ever tell us how to create characters or how to construct a plot. Not once did he talk about setting. Nor did he mention log lines and query letters, all part of the jargon today.

What he did tell us was that the word “symbolism” had no meaning for him. That, if we were to become writers, we had to look not at the front of the picture, but at its back. He encouraged us to judge a work not by what we liked, but by how well the writer had succeeded in satisfying his or her own ambition. (And, this is the standard I apply to any manuscript I’m asked to read.)

Morris said that learning how to write happened by osmosis. We must turn ourselves into sponges. We had to let the words soak in.

And he instilled a passion for the words themselves, for the sentences flowing from our pens.

When I came back to writing after a twenty-plus-years’ absence, I picked up where I left off. I found writers whose words spoke to me. I photocopied passages from their books and pasted them on green scratch paper. I made notes about what I liked and thought I could try to do myself. Moreover, I used these excerpts as writing models.

I thought I had lost the binder full of my writing notes during my various moves. I’ve searched for it in attics and basements, but the binder had vanished. But, then, voila! Up it turned. Now, I can share my early efforts with you.

 

SONGDOGS by Colum McCann

In this passage from SONGDOGS: A Novel (by Colum McCann), I focused on the emotion packed into the descriptive passages. As writers we all hope to convey feelings to the reader. One way we do that is by focusing attention on the particular, such as the “beauty mark on her lower right hip.” If McCann had not provided that detail, it’s not one the average reader would conjure up.

 

descriptive sentences of Colum McCann

In a second passage from SONGDOGS by Colum McCann, I’m looking at how he goes from the general to the particular in his descriptions. As I look at the passage now, I see how skillfully McCann guided our mind’s-eye to particular images he hoped would register emotionally on us. Through the grace of these descriptions, McCann reveals character.

 

Andre Dubus

The excerpt above comes from Andre Dubus’ short story, “Woman On A Plane.” You can find it in DANCING AFTER HOURS: Stories. I admired how Dubus was able to shine light on the subtleties of human emotion. He finds words to express feelings that are evanescent. The italicized words are the brother’s words, and from them, we understand that the woman’s brother is wise, not just on his deathbed, but that he had always looked at life in a way that pierced her heart. We, thus, understand the enormity of her loss

How Writing Models Help

I share these pages to show how I started (or re-started) my journey as a writer. I give these to you raw, with my handwritten scribbles and underscores.

Today, when I read a book that has something to teach me, I read it first for plot. I read it a second time to understand how the author has structured scenes and chapters. I read it a third time to discover what’s happening in particular passages.

When you find a passage that moves you or that you admire because it’s beautifully written, snap a photo. Copy it. Try to figure out why you liked it. Then, carry that lesson into your own work.

For another article on how you can make your sentences sing, go here. A second blog post you might enjoy is about fine-tuning your storytelling voice.


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