A strategy for theft

Let's stick with STEAL FROM THE BEST for a bit.

One strategy that all artists have used in the past is to flat out copy another artist, sometimes literally: J.S. Bach simply transcribed Vivaldi's Concerto for Four Violins to create his Concerto for Four Harpsichords.

We don't do that today—copyright, Mickey Mouse Protection Act, and all that—but we can use other artists as models for our own work.  There are a couple of ways to do that that are not as blatant as Bach and which will keep us out of court.

Method 1: select an author you admire, flip to a random page (or select a passage you really like), and start copying.  You can do this longhand or on your computer, but the trick is to do it slowly—s l o w l y—so if you're typing, concentrate on every letter.  Longhand is probably better.

As I tell people when I'm trying to teach them to waltz, don't learn with just your head, learn with your whole body.  As you copy the words, your fingers are playing a role equal to that of your mind as you get a (literal) feel for how your author put those words in that order.

(N.B.: this ignores all the ABORTIVE ATTEMPTS and SUCCESSIVE APPROXIMATIONS that the author suffered through in order to get to those perfect words in that perfect order.  Do not be fooled: he/she did not write what you're copying the first time he/she wrote it.)

Method 2: Benjamin Franklin did this one.  From his Autobiography:

“About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator – I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it.

With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them."


  1. Read through the passage.
  2. Make notes on each sentence: what it says, the tone, etc.
  3. Take a break.  (TASK AVOIDANCE!)
  4. Using your notes, write your version of the passage.
  5. Compare to the original, correct where you think you failed to match it. 

N.B.: You're not trying to write the passage from memory.  You're trying to write your version of it so that it matches the elegance and style of the original.

All of this is to say that this week I'm going to write an essay which emulates the style of poet Mary Oliver, whose Upstream I have been reading and thrilling to, specifically the essay, "The Ponds."  My essay will be about my labyrinth/back yard haven, and I will attempt to find my version of Oliver's lyrical, deeply poetic voice.

Stay tuned.