October 4, 2021

Copywork - A Writing Technique

Woman writing and reading

Since the dawn of time, people have learned their craft through apprenticeships, learning to immitate the craftsman or artist they were tied to, and helping them in their works in exchange for that knowledge. Then, as their own skills improved, they would diverge and start experimenting new things, finding their own style, and sometimes even outshone their master.

This is true of any of the great artists whose works have transcended time--Michaelangelo was apprenticed to painter Ghirlandaio who was himself known for his murals, while Da Vinci himself apprenticed in the workshop of Andrea del Verrochio. 

Even if they hadn't apprenticed directly with someone, they still learned through immitation of others' works. Mozart, praised as a genius in his time already, one as "such people come into the world once in a hundred years"(1), started off by mimicking what was in vogue at the time, and worked extremely hard all his life to continue to improve and innovate. "Quite a bit of the music is reassuringly routine; Hermann Abert writes, in his massive biography, that Mozart 'evolved along sound lines, without any supernatural leaps and bounds.'"(2)

Nowadays, artists still learn from the greats--imitating their works, from their composition and color choices, to their gestures and proportions, before applying bits and pieces of what they've learned from various artists to figure out their own style. Picasso's early work shows how he worked on his fundamentals, favoring a much more realist style, before he diverged to the more "modernistic easthetic"(3) for which he is known.

Plaster Male Torso
Picasso, 1893

"Good artists copy; great artists steal." ~

Steve Jobs (mis)quoting Picasso, referring to Stravinsky, derived from T.S. Eliot, influenced by W.H. Davenport Adams (4)

It is therefore surprising to me that copywriting is often ignored when teaching writing.  Sure, the Great Literary Works are taught in school, where students have to dissect meaning, themes, and historical impacts of the original texts. And, yes, we were always told to read as much as possible (advice repeated ad infinitum by any current author). But that, I find, is not enough to truly improve one's writing. It's still too...passive. 

Ron Friedman explained what copywriting entailed in his book Decoding Greatness: How the Best in the World Reverse Engineer Success: 

"Both King and Hill were utilizing forms of copywork, a technique popularized by Benjamin Franklin and practiced by literary greats F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack London, and Hunter Thompson. It involves studying an exceptional piece of writing, setting it aside, and then re-creating it word for word from memory. (...) What makes copywork so effective is that it forces an artist or writer to do more than simply recall content. Reproducing a piece demands that he or she pay careful attention to the organizational decisions and stylistic tendencies reflected in an original work. It is an exercise that enables novices to relive the creative journey and invites them to compare their instinctive inclinations against the choices of a master."

Quill pen

Yes, it can seem tedious. Yes, it is hard work. Yes, the struggle is real for me too. 

But I believe that it's through continuous hard work and proper application of our newly learned skills that we will improve our writing.

Sources and Resources:

(1) Prince Kaunitz, Emperor Joseph II's chief minister, as reported in The New Yorker's article The Storm of Style - Listening to the complete Mozart, by Alex Ross

(2) The Storm of Style - Listening to the complete Mozart, by Alex Ross, The New Yorker

(3) Picassos' Incredible Childhood Paintains Reveal a Different Side of the Modern Artist, by Kelly Richman-Abdou, My Modern Met

(4) Quote investigator for "Good artists copy; great artists steal"

(5) 25 quotes to help you steal like an artist, by Austin Kleon

(6) Great Artists Steal, UVU School of the Arts

September 27, 2021

On This 28th of September 1943...


Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz

This excerpt is taken from Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman, which I highly recommend to all and everyone.

   In the headquarters of the Workers Assembly Building on 24 Romersgade in Copenhagen, [Denmark,] the Social Democratic Party leaders have all convened. A visitor in a Nazi uniform stands before them. They are staring at him in shock.

   'The disaster is at hand,' the man is saying. 'Everything is planned in detail. Ships will anchor at the mooring off Copenhagen. Those of your poor Jewish countrymen who get caught by the Gestapo will forcibly be brought on board the ships and transported to an unknown fate.'

   The speaker is trembling and pale. Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz is his name. He will go down in history as 'the converted Nazi,' and his warning will work a miracle.

   The raid was set to take place on Friday 1 October 1943, following detailed plans drawn up by the SS. At the stroke of  8 p.m., hundreds of German troops would begin knocking on doors up and down the country to round up all the Danish Jews. They would be taken to the harbor and boarded onto a ship equipped to hold six thousand prisoners.

   (...) Up until this moment there had been no discriminatory laws, no mandatory yellow badges, no confiscation of Jewish property. Danish Jews would find themselves being deported to Polish concentration camps before they knew what had hit them.

   That, at least, was the plan.

   On the appointed night, (...) the Germans discovered that the Jews had been forewarned of the raid and that most had already fled. In fact, thanks to that warning, almost 99 percent of Denmark's Jews survived the war.

(...) 'The answer is undeniable,' writes historian Bo Lidegaard. 'The Danish Jews were protected by their compatriots' consistent engagement.'

Fleeing Denmark for Sweden

   When news of the raid spread, resistance sprang up from every quarter. From churches, universities and the business community, from the royal family, the Lawyers Council and the Danish Women's National Council--all voiced their objection. Almost immediately, a network of escape routes was organized, even with no centralized planning and no attempt to coordinate the hundreds of individual efforts. There simply wasn't time. Thousands of Danes, rich and poor, young and old, understood that now was the time to act, and that to look away would be a betrayal of their country.

   'Even where the request came from the Jews themselves," historian Leni Yahil noted, 'these were never refused.' Schools and hospitals threw open their doors. Small fishing villages took in hundreds of refugees. The Danish police also assisted where they could and refused to cooperate with the Nazis. 'We Danes don't barter with our Constitution,' stormed Dansk Maanedspost, a resistance newspaper, 'and least of all in the matter of citizens' equality.'

   Where mighty Germany was doped up on years of racist propaganda, modest Denmark was steeped in humanist spirit. Danish leaders had always insisted on the sanctity of the democratic rule of law. Anybody who sought to pit people against each other was not considered worthy to be called a Dane. There could be no such thing as a 'Jewish question.' There were only countrymen.

Denmark at Liberation
   In a few short days, more than seven thousand Danish Jews were ferried in small fishing boats across the Sound separating Denmark from Sweden. Their rescue was a small but radiant point of light in a time of utter darkness. It was a triumph of humanity and courage. 'The Danish exception shows that the mobilization of civil society's humanism [...] is not only a theoretical possibility," writes Lidegaard. 'It can be done. We know because it happened.'


   In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt makes a fascinating observation about the rescue of the Danish Jews. 'It is the only case we know,' she wrote, 'in which the Nazis met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds. They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had met resistance based on principle, and their "toughness" had melted like butter in the sun...'

The Oresund Bridge that now links Copenhagen, Denmark, to Malmo, Sweden, was built in 1999

September 20, 2021

The Shapes Of Stories: Kurt Vonnegut's Story Structure Exposition

"Somebody gets into trouble, then gets out of it again. People love that story. They never get tired of it." ~Kurt Vonnegut. 

Kurt Vonnegut, most famously known for his Slaugherhouse-Five anti-war sci-fi novel, wrote a thesis on storytelling, stating that they could all be brought down to the same elements, plotted prettily on a graph: 

Main characters having continuous changes in fortunes (good and bad), and these changes in fortunes can be graphed, from beginning to end.

Shapes of Story by Kurt Vonnegut

Using this principle, researchers have found that our most popular stories tend to follow one of six shapes along this plot line:

  1. Rags to riches, or the Upward Journey - from ill fate to good fate. Examples of this story structure include Oliver Twist, the Karate Kid, Rocky.

  2. Riches to rags, or the Downward Journey - from good fate to ill. Examples include The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street, Raging Bull

  3. Man in a Hole, or the Fall then Upward Journey - Easily the most popular story (and the one that brings in the most $$$), as it follows a main character getting into trouble, then figuring out how to overcome its challenges. Examples include any boy meets girl story, like romcoms, where the guy meets the girl, loses her, then they get together again at the end. But also includes stories such as the Godfather.

  4. Icarus, or the Rise then Fall Journey - The heroine moves from an ill fate, rises to great heights...only to fall again. Examples include East of Eden (GREAT book and movie, btw), Breaking Bad.

  5. Cinderella, or the Rise, Fall, Rise Journey - The heroine starts off in a really bad place (ex: orphan), starts to get out of her hell hole (ex: meets prince), falls again (the clock strikes 12 and she's locked up by horrid step-mother), then rises again to get her happily ever after. This is another super famous (and super profitable) plot line. Examples include Cinderella (obvs), the New Testament (humankind gets lots of presents from God, only to get punished/ousted from paradise, but can gain unlimited bliss in the very end), Harry Potter, plenty, if not most, of the Grimm's fairy tales.

  6. Oedipus, or the Fall, Rise, Fall Journey - The ultimate tragedies. You start with someone who seemingly has it all, like a prince, who then loses it all (banished, lost war, etc.), tries to change his fate, and it looks like it's going to happen (defeats bad guys, marries princess,...), only to have a worse calamity befall him. Examples include the original Little Mermaid, and All About my Mother

Illustration of all story types in one "life line": Dayton O’Donnell

As you can see, each of these Story Shapes has a distinct emotional arc for the main character, depending on how their fortunes shift. This is also known as the "dramatic curve." 

To be clear, though, although most stories fall into one of these categories, the devil's always in the details. Meaning that, even if the overarching story arc is the same, each story is different because we each bring our own, individual visions, words and craft to the board. 

But knowing about these dramatic curves can help if one's stuck in terms of what needs to happen next.

Other Resources:

1. The Six Basic Plots and the Dramatic Curve - this goes into a lot more details when explaining each of the points above

2. Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories and Why Uncertainty is The Crucible of Creativity

3. The formula for box office success: Scientists checked 6,147 movie scripts and discovered the emotional arc in The Godfather is the most financially successful

4. To Tell Your Story, Take a Page from Kurt Vonnegut