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Drawing from the Masters

(Originally published July 28, 2016)

Last month, we took our kids on our biannual extended-family vacation to California. We opted to skip the Disney experience this time and try out some new stuff, including the Getty. Yes, we gave our kids a world-class art museum as an alternative to churros and thrill rides.

They loved it. I’m not making this up. And I think it was largely because of a five-minute stop at the drugstore on our way there.

In an eleventh-hour moment of inspiration, I bought each of the kids a little sketch book, reasoning that they’d have a lot more fun engaging with great works of art instead of just admiring them. Several times throughout the day, they each picked a painting, parked themselves in front of it, and did their best to draw it in their little books in five minutes. If you’ve never done this before, the Getty has a great blog post about how to get started, and they even have several programs set up to encourage visitors to try their hand at this, including Drawing from the Masters, with professionals on hand for guidance, and Family Drawing Hour.

But this is not a practice unique to our family or to this museum by any means. For centuries, amateurs, students, and even professional artists have recognized the value of learning from the masters not only by studying their work, but by imitating it as an exercise.

Is there a parallel here for writers? I think there could be.

We do this naturally, I think, when we’re starting out. How many of us read our earliest attempts at writing and recognize them as copies of the written works we admired most? I know this happened in our household, when my then-six-year-old son penned a two-page literary masterpiece entitled “Harry Potter and the Diphtheria Blizzard.” He used Rowling’s characters and world, to be sure, but it’s amazing to look at how much beyond that he assimilated, including certain style choices and, as you can see, the title format.

Educators recognize this as a tool for getting kids writing and engaging with what they’re reading. The fabulous Tween Author Boot Camp (a spinoff of Teen Author Boot Camp intended for younger writers) has a writing challenge going this summer: rewrite a 250-500 word scene from a favorite book, but write it from a secondary character’s point of view. I love this!

At what point, though, do we outgrow this practice of imitating great works to improve our own craft? Maybe the answer is this: Not yet. I’ve blogged about this before in our Writers are Readers series, but I think what I’m picturing here goes beyond simply reading and studying the best books. I’m talking about fan fiction as an exercise, to some degree.

Of course, I want my books to be uniquely my own, but if I can write a practice scene with a conscious effort toward writing dialogue like Mark Goldblatt, or portraying emotion like Gary D. Schmidt, or capturing my characters so perfectly the reader’s heart sings I know her; I know him like Barbara O’Connor–well, I think that could do a great deal for my writing. And who knows? Maybe if we keep reaching and practicing and honing our craft, someday we could be considered the masters, and the stories we write could inspire a diphtheria blizzard of their own.

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