What did Willa Cather do when she wanted to become a great writer? She took Henry James’ books and she copied entire sections, entire sentences from them. She felt the music of each sentence, and its richness, and the fall of the words. Then, Willa Cather wrote many stories in Henry James’ literary style. And then she wrote her own stories and novels.
First, you copy.
Alex Ross describes Mozart’s early work in music in this issue of the New Yorker in an article called “The Storm of Style.” Between the ages of eight and ten, Ross writes, “Young Mozart shows an uncanny ability to mimic the styles and forms of the day: Baroque sacred music, opera buffa, and opera seria, Gluckian reform opera, Haydn’s classicism, the Mannhein symphonic school, Strum und Drang agitation, and so on.”
This is the 10,000 hours of practice, practice, practice (some of which is copy, copy, copy) that I mentioned here.
Ross continues, “Hearing so many premonitions of future masterpieces, I got the feeling that Mozartâ€™s brain contained an array of musical archetypes that were connected to particular dramatic situations or emotional statesâ€”figures connoting vengeance, reconciliation, longing, and so on. One example appears in â€œLa Finta Semplice,â€ the merry little opera buffa that Mozart wrote when he was twelve. In the finale, when all misunderstandings are resolved, there is a passage marked â€œun poco Adagio,â€ in which Giacinta and her maid Ninetta ask forgiveness for an elaborate ruse that they have pulled on Giacintaâ€™s brothers. â€œPerdono,â€ they singâ€”â€œForgive.â€ Not just the words but the music prefigures the tremendous final scene of â€œThe Marriage of Figaro,â€ in which the wayward Count asks the Countessâ€™s forgivenessâ€”â€œContessa, perdono!â€â€”and she grants it, in a half-hopeful, half-heartbroken phrase. I looked at the New Mozart Edition scores side by side, and noticed that the two passages not only waver between the same happy-sad chords (G major and E minor) but pivot on the same rising bass line (B-C-D-E). It is unlikely that Mozart thought back to â€œLa Finta Sempliceâ€ when he composed â€œFigaro,â€ but the idea of forgiveness apparently triggered certain sounds in his mind.”
Programmer and writer Paul Graham says, don’t copy things mindlessly: copy what you like. He points out that it’s very important to copy those things that you like and not those in fashion to copy or those that it may be useful or good for you to copy. Plus, he says, when you copy, copy the good things about the item, not the bad things (such as when artists used to draw with a brownish haze to copy Rembrant’s colorings that just made paintings look a little muddier).