One of the many valuable, and highly recommended, exercises suggested by Priscilla Long in her invaluable writing book The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A guide to Art, Craft and the Writing... pertains to engaging with sentence work. Priscilla urges her students to collect exquisite sentences (and also paragraphs, passages) written by others. Copy them down, word for word. Study them. She tells us
“The more I study them, the more they teach me.”
“Don’t skip the physical act of copying out the passage. Copying it out slows it down, puts you almost physically inside it. Always when I am copying out a paragraph, whether by hand or on the keyboard, I see moves and turns that I entirely misses when I merely read it. Consider the passage to be your master-teacher for this moment.”
Since I recently posted a review of The Winter Vault above I can think of no better example than the following from the beginning of her novel. What I have copied below bears truth to what I have written above. I read these lines, and many more by the author/poet, and weep at the sheer exquisite beauty and perfection of them.
From The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels, pp.5+6
“At dusk, the light was a fine powder, a gold dust settling on the surface of the Nile.
As Avery took out his paints from the wooden box, thick cakes of solid watercolour, his wife lay down on the still-warm deck.
Ceremoniously, he parted her cotton shirt from her shoulders, each time witnessing her body’s colour deepening: sandstone, terra cotta, ochre.
A glimpse of the secret white stripes under straps, the pale ovals like dampness under stones, untouched by the sun. The secret paleness he would later touch in the dark.
Then Jean peeled her sleeves from her arms and turned on her side, her back to him, in the velvet light. The light of darkness, more evening than day.
Avery leaned overboard, dipped his teacup into the river, then set the circle of water next to him.
He chose a colour and let it seep into the soft hair of the brush, infused with river water.
Gently he released its fullness across Jean’s strong back.”
Writer, reader and teacher Richard Gilbert wrote a fascinating blog post over onBill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour about how Cheryl Strayed’s memoir influenced his own writing, in particular how reading another author closely can help one write one’s own book. Gilbert recommends the following:
“Over the years I’ve picked up the notion of reading and rereading three, and only three, books as models while writing. But I don’t strictly follow that regimen, in part because I’ve worked on my memoir for so long that I’d go insane with just three books; however, I do try to operate in that spirit of that concentrated devotion to a few books that I aspire to emulate. “
He also quotes Cheryl Strayed’s advice from her own web site:
“Find the work that moves you the most deeply and read it over and over again. I’ve had many great teachers, but the most valuable lessons I learned were from writers on the page.”
It seems to me that if I heed both Richard Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed, and combine their recommendations with Priscilla Long’s exercise above, then really what more do I need in the form of mentorship? I have found my guides, my mentors to light my way. Have you found yours?