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30 September 2016 @ 07:52 am
The Ghost of an Idea  

The exercise in the page photographed above (photo by C J Southworth) comes from a book called The Practice of Creative Writing: a Guide for Students by Heather Sellers, pub. Bedford Books 2007. Basically it quotes a poem by Bob Hicok about his home town and then suggests the students make substitutes of their own for certain key words and phrases (like "Michigan"). They will thus "build their own poem in between the lines". The helpful advice continues… "After you write lines of your own built from Hickok's lines copy out just your poem, on a new sheet of paper. As you copy, tinker with your lines. Delete and add words to make them connect to each other. […] If you decide to submit the piece to a literary magazine or a class anthology, you can simply put 'After Bob Hicok's 'A Primer'" under the title if you feel it is still very closely related to the original. Poets and writers often talk to each other in this contemporary fashion; it's not unusual at all. Imitation is, after all, the highest form of flattery."

I used to teach creative writing. This isn't it. There is a world of difference between this and the process whereby one reads a poem, thinks "wow, that's just how I felt when X happened" and then goes off to write a poem about X. That is identifying what was universal in the poet's experience and how it was manifested in yours. I have used that as an exercise, and blogged about it here. This, on the other hand, is pretending to have had the experience someone else had in the poem. Hicok wrote about Michigan because it meant something to him. You're writing about Halifax, or whatever else you substituted for Michigan, because your tutor told you to. And it will show in the writing – there's a name for this barren, tick-box process, "ghosting", which strikes me as most appropriate for a pallid, insubstantial imitation of someone else's reality.

And it goes further. You are not just appropriating Mr Hicok's experience, you are copying the mechanics of how he chose to write about it – the syntax, the rhythms, the use of images. "Another image for how your place looks – comparison that spills over onto next line" advises the book helpfully, in case you should have accidentally done something original. The implication of "if you feel it is still very closely related to the original" is that it might not be; the student might somehow, out of this sterile parroting, create an actual new poem. But even Ms Sellers seems to recognise the danger that it will indeed still be very closely related to the original, in everything save originality, hence the advice to include the epigraph "After Bob Hicok". Here's my advice: putting "After Fred Bloggs" on a flagrant imitation of that gentleman's work will not stop Mr Bloggs objecting, and if he happens to be an irritable man, books or noses may get pulped as a result. The term "after" in an epigraph properly means that one has been inspired by a poet's work to produce something somehow related, but of one's own. It might be a parody; it might be a whole different take on his material; what it is not is a reproduction of his poem with some of his words crossed out and replaced by yours.

Some people who use this technique, of course, omit the stage of "tinker with your lines". They also omit the attribution "after" and publish their ghosts of others' efforts as their own original work. We call them plagiarists, and rightly scorn them, but being taught in this lazy way is arguably one reason they think such conduct acceptable.

Here's some alternative advice:

1. Imitate (or better, emulate) the how, not the what. This means working out not just what it is you admire in a poem but also how the poet achieved it. Thomas Wyatt, in the line "That now are wild, and do not remember", heightens the emotion of the word "remember" by throwing enormous stress on it. He does this by means of tinkering with his rhythms: leaving out a stressed syllable before the word in a basically iambic line. Don't waste time trying to do this exact same thing with a different set of words: just note for future reference that stress rules, like most others, can be broken to great effect.

2. Work out what you want to write, not what somebody else wanted to write. This is the heart of the exercise I've linked to above: the students had first to identify an experience of their own and only then look at how others might have used similar material. Then they wrote about their material; all they had brought from the poets we read was how that might be done by identifying what it was about this material that stuck in their minds.

3. Don't be constantly looking for lazy short cuts. That's all "ghosting" is – letting someone else have the experience, process it in his mind, work out the best techniques for expressing it…

4. If you honestly can't think of anything you want to write about, or any way of doing it, without borrowing from others, consider that maybe you're not cut out to be any kind of a writer. Being handy with words doesn't matter if you've nothing of your own to say.
entropy_houseentropy_house on September 30th, 2016 02:48 pm (UTC)
Basically, this has not only stolen the poetry, it's stolen a party game called 'Mad Libs'. In the party version, you fill in the blanks with specified parts of speech and then read aloud the completed storylet.

As a game it's amusing, but no one who ever played it would call it an exercise in learning creativity. I found a spinoff website with an interactive version and had a go at it. (Pity they put it's where its should have been... *sigh*.)


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