The authors you admire can be your best teachers. Lucius used to stress this to his students. Like many writers, he would try copying from memory a passage he admired, over and over, until he got it right. More than once, he told me about copying the first couple pages of Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima. He admired how a culture, a time period, and a family were all evoked by the description of a photograph, and he seemed oddly proud of himself for managing to reproduce it, though I’m not sure whether he copied the passage from memory or rewrote it with different elements entirely, trying to abstract its effects. In any case, what I’m talking about is merely copying from memory.
It’s daunting work, very tough. So I’ve been experimenting with different ways to approach it. Lately, I’ve been copying Tolkien. My approach is to read a paragraph a few times, take some rough notes on it, and then attempt immediately to write the paragraph from memory. When I’m done, I check it against the original and edit it with track-changes in Microsoft Word so I can see what I got wrong. Then I study my mistakes to see how the original is better, and it usually is much better.
I’ve read The Lord of the Rings a ridiculous number of times, so this approach works, but for prose I’m not that familiar with, it’s too slow. In that case, I simply read ahead a couple of sentences and then try to copy them from memory.
Here’s one of the final paragraphs from Jack London’s man-against-nature story “To Build a Fire” that I gave this latter treatment to. After I finished the paragraph, I went back and edited it. Text that’s crossed out was wrong; in bold is text I failed to put in:
“And all the time, the dog ran with him, at his heels. When he fell down a second time, it curled its tail over its
forelegs forefeet and sat in front of him facing him curiously eager and intent regarded him curiously. The warmth and security of the animal angered him, and he cursed it till it flattened down its ears appeasingly. This time the shivering came more quickly upon the man. He was losing his battle with the frost. It was creeping into his body from all sides. The thought of it drove him on, but he ran no more than a hundred feet yards, when he staggered and pitched forward and fell downheadlong. It was his last panic. When he had recovered his breath and control, he sat up and entertained the conception of facing meeting death with dignity. However, it the conception did not come to him in such terms. His idea of it was that he had been making a fool of himself, running around like a chicken with its head cut off – such was the simile that occurred to him. He realized he had been running around like a chicken with its head cut off – and was therefore ridiculous. Such was how it occurred to him. Well, he was about to freeze to death anyway. He might as well approach death with dignitytake it decently. With his new-found peace of mind came the first glimmerings of drowsiness. A good idea, he thought, to sleep off to death. It was like taking an anaesthetic. Freezing to death was not so bad as people thought. There were lots worse ways to die.”
There’s a lot I could say about this paragraph that I noticed while doing this. Note the proper triggering of emotion and action. He watches the dog. He gets angry. He curses. In that order: stimulus, emotion, (then reflex, which doesn’t apply here), then action. Note how the man’s diction changes as he freezes. His thought stream as related by the narrator becomes narrower and simpler.
But that’s all largely beside the point. The main point is that as you do this and make mistakes, you’ll become more attuned to what you miss, to the places where, maybe, you had failed to absorb craft. It’s a powerful way to learn from your favorite authors.