Monday 26 February 2018

Writing for Pleasure 5 - Imitating

I have no snobberies or fears about imitation. 

The simplest way to think about this is to see every piece of writing as something that is available to us to imitate or copy. The question that hangs over this, is to what extent do we as writing-teachers point things out about what it is being copied?

For example, we might look at how a series of story-writers begin stories, begin chapters, begin scenes. We could say, 'let's copy that', meaning let's copy that way of doing things. We could also ask, are there any guidelines here about the way story-writers begin things? The author Morris Gleitzman and present Children's Laureate in Australia, once told me that he likes to begin any book and any scene, 'as late as I can'. What he meant is that he didn't like to use up any words setting up a scene, he liked to get straight into some action or dialogue. 

Another example: how does writing do  'reveal-conceal'? It is essential to all writing because you can't say everything at once. In fact, quite often in nearly all writing, we flag up that we've got more to write, or there's more to come, or there's something mysterious, dangerous, exciting etc about to happen or will happen later - and so on. These reveal-conceal moments are often the 'hook' that helps to pull us through a piece of writing. Note: I don't just mean in fiction. Think, even a recipe has reveal-conceals - we write 'Ingredients'. That's an invitation to go on reading. Newspapers do it with headlines which indicate something serious or absurd has happened without telling you how. Even the single word 'disaster' is a reveal-conceal until we know what the nature of the disaster is.

Another example: how is a piece of writing 'narrated'? Who is the narrator, who is being narrated to? Does this change across a paragraph? Chapter? Across a book, or newspaper or magazine? This business of narration is a crucial aspect of how a piece of writing has meaning and how its ideas are expressed. 

Another: how are thoughts conveyed? A good deal of writing, fiction and non-fiction has to use ready-made ways of saying what is thought, what is opinion, who  is having these thoughts or opinions. In non-fiction we have to decide when it's valid or OK to say that an opinion comes from the writer - or not. In fiction, we have to decide whose mind are we going to hear about? Everyone's? The main character's? 

Another: most stories put characters into situations in which they have problems or dilemmas, they face jeopardy or peril, they succeed in overcoming this in stages, sometimes with setbacks, sometimes with help, sometimes hindered or distracted (because the author deliberately tries to throw the reader off the scent of being able to predict the ending), until there is some sort of resolution. 

Another: how is time represented? Most writing  conveys time frames in which what's being told,  sits. However, quite a lot of writing mentions events past and future, and it can also convey the idea of 'continuous time' in the sense that there is a state of being that is continuous, e.g. 'she had brown eyes', or there was a continuous state of being in the past, 'he used to wear a brown hat'. It's interesting to see how the time frames stay constant and/or change in a piece of writing. Changing time frames is one way to  create depth to writing because it often conveys history, motivation and purpose. 

Another: dialogue. Is it direct or indirect? Is it 'realistic'? Or 'stylised'? How is it paced? Is it 'interrupted'  with e.g. views of how people look, how people think, what else is going on in the surroundings? 

Another:  when, where and how do we see, hear, smell, taste what is going on? Traditionally this is called 'descriptive writing'? What is it for? Does it add to or subtract from the action? Is it working to help us feel for the action and understand it, or does it feel like the author is grandstanding?

In non-fiction writing, there are often rule-bound forms to follow according to the place or purpose of the writing: newspaper sports report, opinion column, book/film/music review. Same goes for e.g. recipes, science experiments, accounts of a day out, re-telling of history, geography; representing one argument in favour or against something; representing several arguments in relation to each other.  I've always been surprised by own children's homework how often they have had to do a piece of non-fiction writing without a model to look at first so that its method can be imitated. Starting from scratch, even with the cue questions that the teacher has provided have often felt that there isn't enough in the questions to get a feel of what's expected.  

So these are all questions that we can ask when investigating and/or imitating a piece of writing. I am suggesting that it's the writing (presumably by someone who is good at it) that is a crucial (if not the most important) teacher in this matter and the writing-teacher's job is to use the writing as a kind of template or trigger. Through a combination of investigating and imitating, 'the way writing works' offers a new or young writer a way in. 

I've read quite a few 'this is how to write' books and more often than not, they are full of exercises, rules and directions rather than a much simpler approach which says, e.g. 'You could write like that' - in which 'like that' can mean, 'that way of writing', 'what that writing is about', 'what is triggered off by that piece of writing', a 'parody' of that way of writing. To my mind there is 'virtuous circle' made up of: 

in which trying to, say, imitate the way of writing in question is a powerful way of investigating it in order to find out 'how it works'. In short, every kind of writing from any time or place is available to us to have a go at copying, in some fashion or another. 

In the next section, I will add in 'invent' to the virtuous circle.