The “simple” exercise would be: Pick up a book you love, the kind of book you’d like to write, and copy it down by hand, word for word. Feel what it’s like, through your body, to write a great book. And once you’ve finished writing out all those Chekhov stories, or that novel by Toni Morrison, or the book of Anne Carson poems, begin your own novel. Reading and imitation is how we form and strengthen our writing voices. Okay, copying out the whole of Beloved might be a bit excessive, so just do a couple of pages. See what happens to your own writing when you go back to it.
A remedy for writer’s block (even though I don’t believe there is such a thing, but that’s for another post): Feeling stuck? Look closely at the opening line of a story or a novel you like. See how the sentence is structured. Start a sentence in the same way, use the same construction to say what you want to say. The opening lines of Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place are: “If you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you will see. If you come by airplane…” Do the same for your character’s town… If you go to Portsmouth… If you go to Damascus, this is what you will see… If you go to Rome, to Reykjavik… What will you see if you arrive by plane? Or by boat? Or on foot. Starting the way Kincaid does, using her exact sentence structure, will give you a new perpective, new insight into the world of your story.
We’ll be doing a lot of that close-reading and experimentation in the workshop I’ll be running (fortnightly) from 11 May, 2011. You can see more details by clicking here.
To read more about the importance of reading, check out Italo Calvino’s essay “Why Read the Classics?” in his book of the same title.