One learning technique that writers sometimes recommend is the practice of retyping a work that you really admire. The point is to make yourself slow down and think about this work on a word by word level, and also to get your fingers used to idea of typing complex and interesting sentences. I think this is particularly useful for me, since I’m so prone to getting caught up in the living dream of a novel and forgetting that it’s made of actual words. Anyway, about four years ago, I did this for my favorite short story of all time–F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon, Revisited”–and learned quite a bit about how sparing it is possible to be. For instance, F. Scott draws scenes that feels much fuller and longer than they actually are: most of his dialogues aren’t really longer than ten lines, but they feel like entire conversations. He’s also (at least in “Babylon…”) very sparing with physical descriptions. It really taught me that it’s possible to be very vivid without spending pages and pages on things.
Since then, I’ve often wanted to try retyping a longer work. However, I’ve been torn about what it should be. For awhile, I was considering Cather’s My Ántonia. However, I wondered if that might not be too singular of a structure to really learn from (the novel is told in five parts that all deal with fairly different parts of life in turn-of-the-century Nebraska). And then I considered retyping Nabokov’s Lolita, but again I thought that maybe it wasn’t quite right: there was too much wordplay, and the prose style felt too singular.
Now that I have this month where I don’t have any projects and where I’m going to be driving around, I figured that it might be a good time to get underway on this task. And eventually I settled on Mrs. Dalloway. It might seem an odd choice: few novels are as singular and inimitable as Woolf’s masterpiece. However, the thing that I really wanted to learn from is the prose style. To me, Woolf feels like she has the prose style that seems closest to real life. When she writes, I feel like I am actually there, seeing things and experiencing what it is like to be that person.
I’ve been doing it for three days now, and I’m about 25% of the way through (although I’ve slowed down lately because my wrists have been hurting). And I’ve learned quite a bit. For instance, Woolf writes a lot of short clauses that are joined by semi-colons. Many of her descriptions are just lists of things. She often has big similes that overpower the thing that’s being described in a way that, in another writer’s hands, would seem pretty comical. She uses lots of exclamation marks in her dialogue. She uses way more adverbs and adjectives than any writing instructor says you should. And she doesn’t describe the way that things look; it’s more like she describes the impression that they give. There’s also a lot of repetition in Woolf, both repetition of individual words and phrases, and repetition in terms of including multiple clauses or adjectives that describe the same aspect of the same thing. For instance, take this sentence:
She had a right to his arm, though it was without feeling. He would give her, who was so simple, so impulsive, only twenty-four, without friends in England, who had left Italy for his sake, a piece of bone.
Look at the way that the bolded clauses build, giving us a gradually escalating picture of both her helplessness and her bravery. Also look at the description of his hand as “a piece of bone.” It’s not a visual description. It’s very impressionist, very much a description of what it feels like when she holds it.
In terms of how she describes important moments, I was surprised by how little actual description there is. Take for instance, this section, which is one of the mini-climaxes of the novel (it describes Mrs. Dalloway’s first kiss a childhood friend, Sally Seton):
Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it–a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, teh religious feeling!–when old Joseph and Peter faced them:
As you can see, the kiss is stated baldly. And then there’s an immediate retreat inwards, into metaphorical language.
I’m enjoying the exercise immensely. I already feel like my own prose style has improved immensely. Part of that is illusory, for sure, but I’m also thinking about things that I never thought about before (and thinking about them in a way that I never thought about them before), and that’s surely going to have some effect.