by Marisa PC
Every semester, as I teach scene-writing, I dedicate a class or two to dialogue. The content and pacing of dialogue are themselves worthy of discussion, but they are not my subject today. Instead, I notice that in at least half the cases, my students have difficulty punctuating dialogue correctly and sometimes struggle to paragraph it as well. Each time I teach it, I reflect on why these technical particularities come so easily to me. I’m detail-oriented, sure, and blessed with an undying love of grammar and mechanics. However, I’m also aware that no one—no teacher in a classroom, I mean—took time to teach me the hows and whys of dialogue punctuation. I’ve decided I learned how to do it through the practice of imitation.
In high school, I was already full of original stories to tell, but sometimes when another author’s work inspired me, I would rewrite it. I would copy in longhand whatever words had caught my attention, because I wanted to experience what it felt like to have such amazing words unspool from my pen. In no way was my copying an act of plagiarism. It was, rather, an act of homage—and of apprenticeship. I kept whole notebooks of song lyrics and passages from poetry and prose that moved me. Once, I even copied an entire novel but changed the point-of-view character to the one I preferred. Quite possibly, my long, attentive copying sessions led me to learn dialogue punctuation. I’m fairly sure it led me to learn other things about writing, too.
Among the creative writing textbooks in my possession is one by Nicholas Delbanco called The Sincerest Form: Writing Fiction by Imitation. I haven’t used it with any of my classes, but I find it an intriguing approach. Delbanco introduces each chapter with a short story—Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” Bharati Mukherjee’s “The Management of Grief,” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” among them—and follows with a step-by-step analysis of each, along with ten exercises promoting imitation of the story. The exercises for O’Connor’s story, for example, include incorporating dialect to write a scene between two characters discussing the Grandmother, writing five different endings, and expanding the relatively small role of the mother. An anthology of other stories and exercises follows.
Perhaps you have objected, as so many do, to the notion of imitation as a vehicle toward learning. You have your own style, your own stories, your own original you-ness of writing. I get that, I do, but Delbanco makes a strong case for such practice, pointing out how often we learn by example in other ways. We learn to walk and talk by example, he points out. Actors study other people’s actions and intonations; artists in their apprenticeship attempt to reproduce what they see. Delbanco goes on. And I’ll join him in promoting imitation as a fair practice.
Today I invite you to copy several pages of a story, essay, or book you admire or several poems by a poet whose work inspires you. Use longhand, and feel the words. If you want to take the exercise further, try writing a short original passage or poem of your own that follows the structure and mechanics of the admired piece. See whether you can develop a sense of how the author or poet of the piece you’re imitating made each decision—from word choice and sentence structure to development of character or theme. And if punctuating and paragraphing dialogue gives you fits, by all means, copy a long, effective passage of someone else’s and take note of what the author is doing!
In regard to the photo: Felix LaFollett is an African gray parrot who has his own Facebook page and is trainer to the people with whom he lives. As many of you know, I live with three parrots, and though they often repeat words, phrases, and noises, they are never merely imitating. Their gift of clear communication is one we humans should learn from and hope to emulate.