Atticus Finch famously advised his hot-headed daughter that you never really know someone until you walk a mile in their shoes. And while both un-hygenic and impractical, it’s still a great code for living. I also find it useful as a writer. Not only in terms of learning to empathize with characters whom you might not naturally see eye-to-eye, but sometimes quite literally.
Occasionally, when I feel I’m in danger of falling into a rut, or am creatively stuck as a writer (which is a big chunk of time), I will try to deliberately ape another writer’s style. It will be writing I will never use, at least in its entirety, but it does a good job of making me reassess my natural diction and rhythms. Often, I will deliberately try write in an other genre entirely. It’s a great way to step out of your own habits, some of which you may not even recognize as habits until you’re walking in someone else’s shoes.
This evening, having some time to kill and being in many ways a lonely, lonely man, I decided to write a “Bob Dylan” lyric, circa 1965 or so. The advantages of this, to me, are legion. First of all, I’m not a lyricist, so I am freed from the burden of having to do it well. Secondly, I’m writing in the style of one of the great masters of the English language of the past century.
There is a 0% chance what I write will match the quality of his work. Which isn’t to say I’m not going to try my best to write as well as he can. But of course, that’s not going to happen, so rather than concentrate on the overall quality, per se, I can focus on seeing if my brain can approach language in a different way. The work, in this case, a Dylan knock-off I called, “Invisible You,” and its value to me as a writer isn’t necessarily so much about quality (I certainly hope not) as it is about breaking old habits I may not even be aware I have. To prove to you, as if you needed convincing, that I don’t write lyrics as well as Bob Dylan, I’ll risk your reasonable ridicule by posting it here:
I crawl through darkened doorways just to stand upright
Stare down some cutthroat killers who’d put up no fight
Down my drink to the sacred watchmen’s roar
In voices too familiar to ignore
What’s done is done, but so much’s left to do
Til I hope to glance Invisible you
The cascading fires of the godtouched preacher’s words
Land unheeded on pagan ears but afterwards
Sparks of regret fill my crowded head
Volcanic sorrows for what I’ve left unsaid
I pace down all your empty avenues
Searching in vain for Invisible You
Quicksilver mines refuse to yield me any ore
All my better angels have to say is, “Nevermore”
The poets have no urgent aching words
To comfort me for all I’ve overheard
What’s done is done, there’s nothing to undo
It’s burnt to embers, Invisible You
The riddle’s only answer is a dirty joke
And the dancer’s only costume’s a velvet cloak
That hides a truth too ugly to reveal
Of a wound far too deep to ever heal
And a grudge that no midnight can conceal
It doesn’t matter if it’s false or true
As you fade to black , Invisible you
Honestly, I have no real sense of what this song is about. Were I to work on it, I think that would be one of the first issues I’d tackle. But the whole point it is I’m NOT going to hone it. It’s a pastiche and is of course in no way is meant to pretend I can effectively imitate his genius. But it did make me play by different linguistic “rules, ” and even if it’s a game I’m not very skilled at it, I learned a little something, even if I’m not sure what it is (other than Bob Dylan has nothing to worry about from me). Also, amid some eye-rolling aping, it yielded a phrase or two that in some future iteration might be of value, which I wouldn’t have otherwise have had. I’ve also tried my hand at sonnets, writing sentences like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and stage directions like Tennessee Williams. The common denominator is that these are all masters, and I’m not putting any pressure on myself to rival anything from Tender is the Night or “Hills Like White Elephants.”
Anyway, I think it helps my writing in the long run. And it’s not like I don’t have the free time.