The Apprentice Years

If imitation plays a central role in the performing arts, where incessant practice, repetition, and rehearsal are essential, it is equally important in painting or composing or writing, for example. All young artists seek models in their apprentice years, models whose style, technical mastery, and innovations can teach them. Young painters may haunt the galleries of the Met or the Louvre; young composers may go to concerts or study scores. All art, in this sense, starts out as “derivative,” highly influenced by, if not a direct imitation or paraphrase of, the admired and emulated models.

—Oliver Sacks, from "The Creative Self" 

William Maxwell would agree. And so would William Zinsser.

SxS: Coming in for Landing

I was stopped by delight only two sentences into “Black Man and White Woman in Dark Green Rowboat,” a 1981 story by Russell Banks:

It was the third day of an August heat wave. Within an hour of the sun’s rising above the spruce and pine trees that grew along the eastern hills, a blue-gray haze had settled over the lake and trailer park, so that from the short, sandy spit that served as a swimming place for the residents of the trailer park, you couldn’t see the far shore of the lake.

I find these two sentences, side by side, wonderfully instructive about artful handling of specificity. Consider the simplicity and directness of the opener; a time is specifically set, efficiently and plainly. We are not asked to see anything in particular. I mention this because what we are asked to see in the next sentence, whose expansiveness is felt owing to juxtaposition with the opener, is plentiful and — more important — effectively ordered. Watch how, by getting more and more specific visually, Banks brings us into the setting.

He begins by qualifying the time-placement: to talk about the “third day of an August heat wave” is rather general in comparison to “Within an hour of the sun’s rising.” And then we’re seeing. At first we’re up high, noting the spruce and pine on hillsides. (That they are “eastern” hills creates a greater sense of distance and dimension, I think.) We then drop down with the “blue-gray haze” over the lake and the trailer park. (That the trailer park is presented after the lake focuses our visual attention. Try transposing the two.) The filmic zooming-in continues: once we see the trailer park, we’re asked to see the “short, sandy spit” of a beach — that is, a particular part of the park. And once we see this, we’re placed on the beach (“you”) looking out toward the far shore, which, in the haze, is not visible, an imaginative fact that further focuses our attention; distance is closed. (If “you” could see the far shore, we would rise again; the visual scope would expand. The point is to be grounded now. Landing completed.) The sentence is well-balanced — that highly functional haze settles right in the middle of it — and we’re prepared for its ambition, to travel its length and experience its reach, by the quick, simple opener.

Two cooperative sentences for the “Mimic & Learn” file, I say.

“A writer is a reader who is moved to emulation.”

INTERVIEWER:  Virginia Woolf was an influence in your early work, wasn’t she?

WILLIAM MAXWELL:  Oh, yes. She’s there. Everybody’s there. My first novel, Bright Center of Heaven, is a compendium of all the writers I loved and admired. In a symposium at Smith College, Saul Bellow said something that describes it to perfection. He said, “A writer is a reader who is moved to emulation.” What I wrote when I was very young had some of the characteristic qualities of every writer I had any feeling for. It takes a while before that admiration sinks back and becomes unconscious. The writers stay with you for the rest of your life. But at least they don’t intrude and become visible to the reader.

From The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 71