We’ve been exploring creative process through the lens of jazz trumpeter Clark Terry’s formulation, “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”
The last two posts have focused on acting teacher Sanford Meisner’s famous Repetition Excercise. We saw Meisner and then acting coach Jack Waltzer state that the value of this exercise, rooted in imitation, is that it gets us out of our own head. We focus elsewhere and thus clear the way for our impulses to emerge naturally (instead of artificially as the result of overthinking).
Hold that thought and consider the following quote from Vladimir Nabokov.
“A wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine.”
— Vladimir Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers”
By reading with the spine, Nabokov is describing something very much like the natural impulses that the Meisner exercise aims to produce, attention unfettered by overthinking (and in Nabokov’s case, over-feeling, too).
When I teach writing, I ask my students to keep a journal of favorite passages of writing by others. Here is an excerpt from my instructions to them:
As you read begin to notice when the writing does something, stirs your imagination, strikes you as especially vivid, elicits even the slightest shift in your attention. Take note of those passages (e.g. “p. 32, middle ¶”), and when you are finished reading, go back and record them in your Reader’s Journal, always noting the author, work, and page numbers. Write out the passages by hand (or, if you must, type them, print them out, and paste them). The act of transcribing the work from the page to your journal will further inscribe the text into your consciousness. (Photocopying, not so much and is thus not allowed.)
Then record any observations about why each passage might have moved you. Your journal will begin to fill up with passages and notes, for example . . .
"The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them."
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, opening paragraph
“Greek temples” a surprising but convincing note of epic grandeur
Sound sets so much of the mood: the flat A’s — “accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness” and then the sharpness of the T’s — “frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes.”
Pay particular attention to your aesthetic experience and cultivate that part of your awareness. Becoming a reader who notices even the subtlest effects will make you a better writer. Furthermore, your Reader’s Journal will allow you to revisit those passages, study them, and unpack their magic, for instance, how the allusion to Greek temples sets off Capote’s description of the plains of western Kansas.
Enter at least 100 words of excerpts every week (not counting your insights about the passages). Everything you read (in and out of class) is fair game.
My goal, like Nabokov and Meisner, is to cultivate each student's attention as a reader. Because if she can learn to access her impulses as a reader, she will begin to access them when she reads her own writing and thus learn to discern when her writing feels contrived and where it feels natural.
Thank you for reading.