- Aug 2021
I used to think copying was unseemly before one of my writing professors in college filled me in on the big, unkept secret. He handed us a small trove of writing samples from folks like Joan Didion, John McPhee, Barbara Kingsolver, and Ernest Hemingway. Essentially a Who's Who of New Yorker essayists. We had to copy out their work, then write our own pieces using the copied sentences as 'templates.'
This general thought goes back to antiquity (and possibly earlier). In writing about classic rhetoric Seneca the Younger wrote in Epistulae morales
"We should follow, men say, the example of the bees, who flit about and cull the flowers that are suitable for producing honey, and then arrange and assort in their cells all that they have brought in; these bees, as our Vergil says, 'pack close the flowering honey | And swell their cells with nectar sweet.' "
(Sound a bit like he's one of the original digital gardeners, but in an analog world?)
He's essentially saying, read the best, take their thoughts and ideas, consume them, make them your own."
Generations later in ~430 CE, Macrobius in his Saturnalia repeated the same idea and even analogy (he assuredly read Seneca, though he obviously didn't acknowledge him):
"You should not count it a fault if I shall set out the borrowings from a miscellaneous reading in the authors' own words... sometimes set out plainly in my own words and sometimes faithfully recorded in the actual words of the old writers... We ought in some sort to imitate bees; and just as they, in their wandering to and fro, sip the flowers, then arrange their spoil and distribute it among the honeycombs, and transform the various juices to a single flavor by some mixing with them a property of their own being, so I too shall put into writing all that I have acquired in the varied course of my reading... For not only does arrangement help the memory, but the actual process of arrangement, accompanied by a kind of mental fermentation which serves to season the whole, blends the diverse extracts to make a single flavor; with the result that, even if the sources are evident, what we get in the end is still something clearly different from those known sources."