Imitation as Learning
My process borrowing Hegi’s structure has taught me things I observed as a reader, but didn’t think I knew how to do as a writer. For instance, when I read her novel Children & Fire, I felt amazed by the ways in which Hegi quickly established a sense of community, of political tension, and of inner turmoil for the protagonist. She’s a good writer, I thought to myself. A really good writer. But beyond pointing my finger at certain lines on the page, I couldn’t really explain what I meant by such a compliment. “Look,” I could say. “Here’s Hegi drops a line about the Fuher right in the middle of this scene she is narrating about children learning basic geography. That adds depth and implies tension.” Or I could observe, “See. She flashes back to a very private, personal memory for the protagonist right in the middle of her morning routine as a grade school teacher. That shows her character is complex and realistic.”
I could see it and I could name it, but could I pull something off like that? More to the point, would I remember to do so at the right juncture in the narrative? Because of course I can put words on the page. Even good words about interesting people doing interesting things. But my writing can only be as valuable as the tools in my writers’ toolbox. Furthermore, my intuition or my inner conscience or whatever it is that finally pushes the words out and onto the page, doesn’t necessarily know what to do when handed a wrench. It knows what a wrench is. It can point to one at the hardware store. But if it’s never used one before, then it’s highly unlikely to, in the flurry of generating new material, decide to pick it up and give it a whirl.
In short, I needed practice exercising with those writers’ tools I saw Hegi use so seamlessly. And if I wasn’t going to pull the tool out of the box on my own, I needed to imitate her structure to discover for myself just what such a tool looked like when it came out on the page in my voice, in my very own novel. I had to use imitation to force the learning, and by borrowing Hegi’s structure and working with content I already understood (I’ve been contemplating this novel for a while, so I wasn’t inventing characters whole-cloth while also trying to do something new and fancy), I was freed up to exercise my new writers’ tool with precision.
For those of you patient enough to ride this wave with me (you know I rarely blog about the craft of writing itself), let me dweeb-out a little longer and offer the following example. Here, I noticed Hegi doing something really cool. Note that the abrupt ending of her paragraph with an em dash and italics is copied here verbatim.
From page 18 of Children & Fire by Ursula Hegi (Scribner, 2011):
A storm of hands, up, more enthusiasm than she can expect during her lesson on Lent. To lecture about Lent may be appropriate when there is plenty of food; but with such poverty in this country, it would be cruel to influence children to give up anything else. She’s seen devastating poverty when she’s visited some of her boys’ families; and yet, their mothers will offer her food they cannot spare. “I just ate,” Thekla will lie, even if she feels hungry, her saliva slick in her throat. She understands the shame of being poor, not letting on that your furniture is being repossessed, pretending you don’t witness your neighbors’ disgrace. Pretending–
And from one of this week’s writing exercises on my novel-in-progress:
A sigh of relief fills the Humvee. The kind of lifting he couldn’t expect unless he gave them what they needed. To have announced the distance over the radio might be inappropriate, but on the last day of the tour he will give them everything he can. The solid facts. He’s seen what happens when leaders fail to make reasonable compromises for their platoons. He understands the trade offs life demands. Marrying Tenley meant giving up his Indiana home and moving to Western North Carolina. A culture and landscape as foreign to him then as the desert is now. Giving up those family Sundays, that Midwestern ease. Giving up–
Many chapters later in Hegi’s novel, the notion of “pretending” becomes a real psychological and moral issue for Thekla, her protagonist. Would I, the short story writer, have thought to try planting something like that so early in my novel? Would I dare end a sentence that way? It makes no sense as an incomplete thought at this juncture in the narrative but later, that incomplete thought pays off. For Hegi, at least. Time will tell if I can water all the thematic seeds I’m planting. In the meantime, if nothing else, I am learning more and more each day with this exercise. I’m growing as a writer. I’m practicing being different so that, eventually, I can be different. That’s an invaluable experience.