Saturday, May 28, 2011

Assignment: Writing through Imitation

On June 1st my creative writing class will participate in a Skype session with Dr. Gregory Roper. A longtime friend of another professional in my district, I was approached to contact Dr. Roper as he has recently published The Writer's Workshop: Imitating Your Way to Better Writing.

The premise lays it out that human beings learn from imitation and experience. I can think of a dancer watching and stepping as an instructor demonstrates; perhaps a tennis or golf instructor is a more appropriate analogy--we watch, someone guides us, and we take a swing.

Roper notes that if we watched any of Ken Burns's PBS documentary on the Civil War "you heard letters written in beautiful prose by men and women with no more than a grammar-school education. How did they learn to write that way? Through practice--and imitation."

He takes it further: "In school, William Shakespeare and John Milton were given assignments asking them to imitate carefully the great Latin authors Ovid, Cicero, and others. Abraham Lincoln, surely the best writer of all our presidents, learned his prose style by imitating his great masters."

So, the arrangement is that my class will attempt to imitate a great author and Dr. Roper will speak about the process afterward and offer some critique...hopefully opening up some useful discussion between my 8th grade students and Dr. Roper.

The assignment to take a given passage and rewrite it in the style and voice of a different master. Since my students have read both The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Red Badge of Courage, our two authors are Mark Twain and Stephen Crane. As an aside, many of my students this year find Crane painful and literally groaned at the prospect of revisiting him.

The two passages I selected are when Tom first sees Becky Thatcher and goes through a series of histrionics to show off for her to gain her favor, and when Henry witnesses his friend, the tall soldier, walk away from the group of freshly battered men, find a place which suited him, and collapse and die.

Rewrite Twain in Crane's style...and rewrite Crane in Twain's style. As an side, the fact that the surnames rhyme has been a pain in the ass. I and my students have constantly confused each while talking about this assignment--"in the Crane passage, not where I'm writing like Twain but as Twain writing Crane...is that still the Crane passage or the Twain passage.." Fun times.

In our rough drafts I've found that my students have been able to (bit by bit) alter the tone (somewhat), modify the word choice (mostly) correctly, and have even picked up on Twain's use of simile and metaphor while trying to conjure some appropriate uses of nature for the Crane-sque Tom Sawyer rewrite.

Where we are falling short is in the syntax. The 8th graders are all over the map in their understanding of phrases, clauses, and sentence structure. This aspect of the assignment is a challenge, but a refreshing one. It afford us a practical approach to grammar--"THIS is why we study the differences between phrases and clauses and adverbs and..."

Admittedly, we cobbled this Skype class together rather quickly, but I do like what I am seeing. I'm looking forward to hearing Roper's thought on manipulating syntax appropriately and trying to find a way to make it work for my 13-year-old brains in the future.

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