Robert Pinksy is a poet, translator, and essayist and the author of 19 books. He’s also the former poet laureate of the United States. In an interview, he was asked what the single most helpful thing he learned about writing was and how it had helped him as a writer. Here’s what he answered:
“William Butler Yeats told me that there is no singing school other than studying monumental examples of magnificent singing. I perceived that my teacher Yeats meant that I had to decide for myself what those magnificent examples were. He also meant, I thought, that it was not just enough to read them. I had to study them. The way a young filmmaker studies films. Or a guitar player listens to great guitar playing.”
“So I began memorizing and typing out and thinking about things I thought were great. From Homer to Ginsberg and back again. I still feel nourished as a writer if I read a few pages of Ulysses or discover a Dickinson poem I had overlooked.”
My playwrighting coach once said that one of the best pieces of advice he ever received on writing was the suggestion that he take one play he loved and just study it over and over again for a year. In short, there may be a lot of value in going deep instead of going wide: In really becoming intimate with a handful of works that really affect you emotionally.
I love Robert’s strategy for really studying works he admired: He memorized or typed them out so that he could really absorb them body, mind, and soul. It may sound strange, but just the act of physically writing out a page of prose that you absolutely love or a poem that moves you in mysterious ways can make you feel closer to it and give you greater insight into how it works and why a writer made certain word choices. This is a simple, yet powerful way to begin to understand a writer you admire more fully. Why not try it and see if it makes a difference? Write on!