The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Muscle memory

Rachael Conlin Levy
Photo from Duke University Archives, courtesy of Duke Yearlook.

Twyla Tharp, one of America’s greatest choreographers, offers real justification for copying another’s words, brush strokes or dance movements. “Traveling the paths of greatness, even in someone else’s footprints, is a vital means to acquiring skill,” she writes in “The Creative Habit: Learn it and use it for life.”

She calls it “muscle memory,” a skill learned through practice and repetition, which becomes embedded in our physical bodies and can be called upon decades later. It’s what allows the dancer and the musician to perform pieces that they haven’t thought about in years. It’s what allows any of us to hop on a bike and pedal away, even if we haven’t ridden one since childhood.

But how can muscle memory — the calling upon of an automatic, unconscious skill — be of use to the writer? Tharp argues that typing someone else’s words forces the writer to pause and study the craft, and points to Raymond Chandler as an example. Chandler considered Hemingway the greatest American novelist of his time, and so wrote imitations of Hemingway’s style to absorb what he loved about it.

“In this case, the exercise is less about muscle and more about perceiving structures and harmonies anew — from the vantage point of the author rather than the reader,” Tharp writes. “If there’s a lesson here it’s: get busy copying.”

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