The Joys of Copying from Someone Else’s Paper

I spent spring break in Florida.  No, really.  I wasn’t flashing anyone on the beaches or slurping down vodka infused Gummy Bears, though.  I was building sand castles with my grandchildren in nearby Orange Beach, Alabama…and Pensacola, Florida happened to be the least expensive airport to fly into.  (To be honest–instead of a storyteller–I was watching my granddaughter and grandson and even my son and daughter-in-law build sand castles while I huddled nearby because it was unusually chilly that week.)

In the evenings, I sat between the two twin beds and read aloud from my brother’s new middle grade novel, Adventures of a South Pole Pig, a story of Flora who is determined to not be stuck on the farm and goes to sea, is stuck in the hold, fights rats, survives a shipwreck…all the while also determined to discover her purpose-driven life.  “Why do you think she’s really on the ship?” I asked.

“To be COOKED,” five-year-old Noh said.

True.  But she believes she can become a sled-puller, and she is not the sort to roll over and, um, play dead, and she is helped in her quest by a irascible cat, a dog of little words, and a cabin boy.  I loved those wonderful “just one more chapter” moments. 

After we finished, my eight-year-old granddaughter said that she and I should write a story, as we did at Christmastime.  Great.  We bought a notebook.  “Let’s brainstorm,” I said.  “Characters?”

A pig.  Named Emerald.

A cat.  Dandi (“Two eyes popped out of the darkness.”)

A dog.  Buddy.

A joke.  Hay, Mr. Horse, why the long face?

What is our hero all about?  She likes to explore. 

What’s her problem?  She gets stuck in the Antarctic.  (My note: We have to learn some good details about the Antarctic.)

They meet a girl named Ally in the Antarctic.  Ally doesn’t give up.

“What is something inside of Emerald that she doesn’t yet know?” I asked.

She has a special, brave heart but she doesn’t know it.

Hmmm.  This all was beginning to sound like a certain novel by Chris Kurtz.

When I told my brother, he laughed.  Once at a writers’ conference, an author said that he’d never taken part in a critique group because if he wanted to play in an orchestra, he wouldn’t begin by sitting around playing his clarinet with other people who were learning to play the clarinet.  In most art forms, there’s a certain copying of the pro’s that goes on for a while.

Have you tried typing out the text of a picture book?

A novel?

Do you read poetry or picture books aloud to train your ear to the rhythms?

VCFA essays, disturbing as they can sometimes be to write (and read), have the wonderful effect of making us all stare deeply into a text, noticing things we haven’t noticed before; thus, all of those authors are on the faculty in a way.  We learn from paying attention to technique other artists have explored…and as we stumble around the Antarctic with ice crystals forming on our foreheads, we might even grope our way to our own true story places.


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2 responses to “The Joys of Copying from Someone Else’s Paper

  1. Martine Leavitt

    Jane, I plan to mention something along this line in my lecture this summer. Thank you for this excellent advice!

  2. I sometimes read favorite passages from novels aloud. I’ve read to my niece and nephew on long car trips. And I never thought I’d say this, but writing the essays during my first and second semesters at VCFA were good exercises for me, as you mentioned, Jane. I miss delving that deeply into a work.

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