We already know I'm on board with putting my "fist" in my work. Like Mr. Theroux, handwriting is a crucial part of my process. I can't think at all unless I have a pen in my hand--it is where I store my brain. Handwriting is not optional; I need to do it or I cannot write well. At least, I cannot write like me. (Also like Mr. Theroux, I do enjoy a nice Lamy pen.)
I've read other articles that suggest taking Mr. Theroux's advice another step further. If handwriting can light up our creative neural pathways and open doors into our own writing, then it naturally follows that a positive practice effect can be achieved by handwriting copies of works we admire. Basically, if I want to learn to turn a phrase like Steinbeck or draw a setting like Hemingway, I can learn how it feels to do so by copying the places they did those things well. It is a way to marinate our brains in someone else's good words so that eventually, when we are writing our own work, we will recognize the cadence, the look on the page, and the feel in the hand. Then we will know when our own words are good, too.
I learned of this technique a good while ago. I thought it was a good idea, and I meant to try it. I have written miles of pages since then, much of it morning grumbles about how I always want another cup of coffee, but I had never taken up my pen to try it out. I guess I am so hardwired against plagiarism that copying someone else's work seemed out-of-bounds, even for practice.
Since I have been sick and operating on half a brain, I figured it was as good a time as any to give it a try.
Like with most good advice, it turns out it was effective, and actually a good bit of fun.
I started with a handful of nearby books I have read and admired for one thing or another. After I did the handwriting sample, I did a little slab of analysis on what I learned.
A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
Watership Down by Richard Adams
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Clearly, there is a lot to be learned by studying the works of writers who matter to us. I can milk a lot out of a reading experience if I put my mind to it, but there really is something to writing down their words. It's like trying on someone else's shoes. They probably don't quite fit, but you can still see how they look on your own feet.
This is an ongoing process, and I have a lot more to learn and discover. If nothing else, it is giving me a mighty fine excuse to use my favorite pens and paper, and to wave hello to a few books that have become old friends.
*Paul Theroux, "Paul Theroux on the Powers that Flow From a Pen," Wall Street Journal online, retrieved May 21, 2012