Why Good Writers Copy

Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci

Before I knew that I wanted to be a writer, I used to hand write out the books and passages that I loved.  I didn’t keep them anywhere special–this was grade five.  I kept pages of copied words in my desk.  Every now and then, I would take them out and read them over.  Except one day my teacher saw what I was doing and pulled me aside.

“That’s cheating,” he said.  “You can’t do that.”

“I’m just trying to keep the words,” I said.

My teacher frowned.  “People who copy end up in jail,” he said.  “That’s just the way it is.”

Horrified, I threw out all of my copied pages and I gave up the copying game for building The Most Amazing Snow Fort Of All Time.

It wasn’t until a little while ago that I started to see what it was that I had been doing.  I’d always known that there was never a nefarious scheme to steal the words that I had written down, but I’d never realized that my goal in all of that tireless scribbling had been a form of writing practice.

A little while ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Michael Winter at a local writing seminar.  In person, he is affable and easy to talk to.  While telling stories about his own writing practice, giving examples of writers that he likes and even singing a song, there was one piece of advice that really stood out to me:

michael winters quote

What I realized was that all of the great writers start out by playing with the writing that is already out there.  It’s not illegal to write in somebody else’s voice! (As long as you are telling your own story).  If you’re feeling adventurous (or maybe just in need of something new to try) why not choose a story that challenges you?  Write in the voice of that author to find out how it feels. At the very least, you’ll discover something new about yourself.

 

*Photo by Michael Caven.

Miracles and Mountains, Or Finding the Fantastic in the Ordinary

Image

I was in the mountains when I first realized that miracles could exist.  Not in the biblical sense, the way I saw it, but in that visceral feeling you get when something is real and at the same time magical.

Our rental car on the ride up to Mt. Cook was a nice one.  One of those shiny, tank-like creations with the headlamps that look like cartoon shark eyes.  We’d been in the car for several hours, already and everywhere around us the fields had sunken into valleys so deep you had to crane your neck out the window to see the bottom.  Did I mention that we had forgotten our map in the previous night’s hotel room? Oh yeah, and (once again) we were feeling like we might have taken a wrong turn.

It started quietly at first, a flash of cotton speeding past my window.

I blinked. “Was that a bush?” I asked?

Except a moment later, two more muddy “bushes” sped past the other side of the car, their milk-coloured ears flicking, heads bobbing up and down as they ran.

Matt broke out into a laugh.  “They’re sheep!” he said, driving slower.

Sheep poured over the horizon, hundreds of them crowding up the nearby hills and in every direction of the road.

“It’s already two,” I said, trying to keep the nerves from jangling into my voice.

Matt turned off the engine.  Frowned.  “Hm,” he said.

“They’ll cancel our reservation!” I said.

Then he turned to me with one of his mischievous grins that got me hooked on him in the first place, opened the door and took off running down the road after the sheep.

“Move along little sheepies!” he hollered.  “Git! Git!”  He turned around to wave me out into the crowd, his wild, curly hair the only thing setting him apart from all of the wooly heads.

I laughed.  The spell was broken.

We did reach the mountains, eventually.  They were only around the next hillside, we soon learned.  Together, we looked up at Mt. Cook, stepping out of the car into the biting winter air.

It’s not like I hadn’t seen mountains before.  In Christchurch and the country that surrounds it the mountains rise out of the fields like silent spectators.  Can a mountain—or a herd of sheep—be a miracle?  Miracles, I think, are those ordinary moments that make you realize the wonders of the mundane.

This time, seeing the mountain was different.  It had the feeling of an end to a journey, the way Frodo must have imagined himself when he finally reached Mordor.   In a few short weeks, we would fly home and the future seemed uncertain.

“It seems far,” I said, as we headed down the boardwalk, the mountain looming icily before us.  I had to shield my eyes with my hand to see it clearly.

Matt jogged ahead, then stopped to peer at Mt. Cook himself.  “We can make it,” he said.

I smiled.  I didn’t know for sure if we could–make it, that is–but I took off down the empty path anyway.  “Maybe so,” I said.  “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Snapshots of Wisdom: Pythons, Spiders & the Uphill Climb

Photo by: Chen Siyuan

A couple of years ago, I was camping in the Australian Outback.  (You might have heard about my encounter with a python.  Spoiler alert: I totally won).  When I was there, my husband and I ended up doing a lot of hikes.

Fact: I strongly dislike hiking.

Fact: A sign at the beginning of the trail that claims to be a “moderate” hike is totally bluffing.

I can recall one hike where, amidst the poisonous neon blue spiders and the miles of searing hot sand, I was getting particularly tired of the uphill climb.  We had been hiking for a few hours now and as the unforgiving sun seared into the backs of our necks, I huffed and puffed my way through the rocky wasteland.  Might I add that we were totally and irrevocably lost?

“There’s no end!” I whined.  “We’re just going to be stuck out here forever!”

The husband was equally unimpressed, but ever the optimistic soul that he is, he insisted that we push on.  “The trail has to end sometime,” he said.  To which I replied “Yeah, when a crocodile has eaten us.”

Without a hint of irony, my husband said “In this part we’re more likely to die of heat exhaustion, I think.”

After some deliberation and a lot of backtracking, we did eventually find our way out of the sandy wasteland.  What we found was a pretty awesome sight:

Ubir, Australia

Ubir, Australia

Every once in a while, when I am knee deep in stories that don’t want to come together, I have to remind myself that all of the best adventures happen when we go a little further, step outside of our comfort zone and work hard to dig deeper.  It’s only when we force ourselves to keep going that we are rewarded.