Monday, October 08, 2012

The sincerest form of flattery

There was a lovely piece by Michael Erard in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago about how we tend to echo the styles of the things we read most often.  It's called "structural priming" or "syntactic persistence" (I love both these terms), and it's almost like muscle memory, how our brains form habits in relating words to each other in predictable patterns.

The author's point is that we need to cross-train, as it were, to experiment with different genres and voices so that we don't become too stuck in our own.  I thought it might be useful to think of this the other way round, though.  If I'm struggling (as I am) to craft a book manuscript, and I wonder occasionally if my writing isn't getting a little too lumpy and stiff, wouldn't it help to treat myself to regular exercises of reading the writers I most want to sound like?  The first two that come to mind are Tim Egan and Garrett Mattingly, both of whom are masters of compelling and lively nonfiction. Who would you read to teach your brain some new tricks?


  1. I'd love to have the ability to write like Stephen Nachmanovitch, who wrote "Free Play, Improvisation in Life and Art". He strings words together with clarity, rhythm and great beauty.
    Another writer on my wannebe list is Michael Campbell, at Michael Campbell Essays. He can write about anything and leave me smiling.

  2. When I first started writing poetry, I read Joy Harjo obsessively because I wanted to write like her.

  3. Heh. I've heard that Michael guy is pretty clever.

    jo(e), did it work? how do you balance between borrowing good techniques from someone else and finding your own voice?

  4. Just wanna say...

    Q: Can anyone tell me the difference between K2 and IQ? A: Nthn. In Seventh-Heaven, we gitt'm both for eternity HawrHawr Need a few more thots, ideers, raw wurdz or ironclad iconoclasms? Ta-da! Voila!!

    VERBUM SAT SAPIENTI: As an ex-writer of the sassy, savvy, schizophenia we all go through in this lifelong demise, I just wanna help U.S. git past the whorizontal more!ass! we're in (Latin: words to [the] wise)...

    "This finite existence is only a test, son," God Almighty told me in my coma. "Far beyond thy earthly tempest is where you'll find tangible, corpulent eloquence" (paraphrased). Lemme tella youse without d'New Joisey accent...

    I actually saw Seventh-Heaven when we died: you couldn't GET any moe curly, party-hardy-endorphins, blatant, extravagantly-surplus-lush Upstairs when my beautifull, brilliant, bombastic girly-girl passed-away due to those wry, sardonic satires.

    "Those who are wise will shine as brightly as the expanse of the Heavens, and those who have instructed many in uprightousness as bright as stars for all eternity" -Daniel 12:3

    Here's also what the prolific, exquisite GODy sed: 'the more you shall honor Me, the more I shall bless you' -the Infant Jesus of Prague.

    Go git'm, girl. You're incredible. See you Upstairs. I won't be joining'm in the nasty Abyss where Isis prowls
    PS Need summore unique, uncivilized, useless names? Lemme gonna gitcha started, brudda:

    Oak Woods, Franky Sparks, Athena Noble, Autumn Rose, Faith Bishop, Dolly Martin, Willow Rhodes, Cocoa Major, Roman Stone, Bullwark Burnhart, Magnus Wilde, Kardiak Arrest, Will Wright, Goldy Silvers, Penelope Summers, Sophie Sharp, Violet Snow, Lizzy Roach, BoxxaRoxx, Aunty Dotey, Romero Stark, Zacharia Neptoon, Mercurio Morrissey, Fritz & Felix Franz, Victor Payne, Isabella Silverstein, Mercedes Kennedy, Redding Rust, Phoenix Martini, Ivy Squire, Sauer Wolfe, Yankee Cooky, -blessed b9...

    God blessa youse
    -Fr. Sarducci, ol SNL