I’m going to start a new series on this blog — a weekly (I hope) writing exercise in invention, prose style, and imitation.
There are many theories about how we learn, but most of them stress the importance of feedback. Without regular feedback about how one performed a particular skill or task, it can be very hard to keep improving.
Perhaps this explains why writing well can be such a challenge. After all, it’s a solitary activity, and even our closest friends may feel reluctant to give us daily feedback on the paragraphs we compose. And writing a novel, as I am doing now, can feel like an almost absurd exercise in artistic loneliness, striving each day to add another 700 words to the halfway drafted manuscript.
To solve that problem, I’m going to share a writing exercise I really enjoy. It’s simple and quick to do: while I’m reading a book, I get to the middle of a paragraph, write out the sentences I’ve already read and, without reading any further, write out two to four sentences to complete the paragraph–as seems best to me. Then I compare the sentences I wrote with the original author’s paragraph.
This produces immediate feedback, because the standard version is right there in front of me. Compared to the actual paragraph, did my version seem vaguer, more airy and abstract? Did it wander around too much? What was the author trying to accomplish, and how was that effect achieved? Was there a telling image that I got down which remains, when compared to the original, pretty good?
I give myself unofficial bonus points if I keep, roughly, to the style and manner of the original.
For this blog, my idea is this: on Fridays, I’ll post a short excerpt from a novel I’m reading (this summer, I’m reading a lot of novels), just two or three sentences. Then, in the comments to that post, I’ll put my version of the full paragraph. You should post your version, too! See what you come up with–there are no wrong answers 🙂
On Sundays, I’ll post the full original paragraph, and write a brief comparison of my version and the author’s, and perhaps, if this experiment works and people post their own versions, comment on some of those paragraphs, too.
To start us off, this is a paragraph from Don Delillo’s White Noise, a wonderful and eerily prophetic novel. The protagonist is a college professor terrified of death, deeply attached to his somewhat peculiar family, and afraid that his reputation as America’s foremost expert on Hitler will be destroyed if anyone discovers he can’t actually understand German.
At this point in the book, the family has rushed out of their homes to avoid a toxic cloud that is spreading over their town: they have just reached a crowded shelter. There is no clear information about when the cloud will pass or what it does if you are exposed to it, but all signs suggest it is very dangerous.
Here’s the original start of the paragraph:
At three p.m. Steffie was still wearing the protective mask. She walked along the walls, a set of pale green eyes, discerning, alert, secretive. She watched people as if they could not see her watching, as if the mask covered her eyes instead of leaving them exposed. People thought she was playing a game. They winked at her, said…
To do the writing exercise, write two or three more sentences to complete this paragraph. My version will be posted in the comments. If you like, post your own version there.
On Sunday, I’ll post Delillo’s full paragraph.