I was reading about J.M. Coetzee‘s latest novel called El Polaco, which he has published first in Spanish, not English, in August 2022, and came upon these lines by the article’s author, Colin Marshall:

“The result is global English but one without the imprecision and solecism implied by that label. Out of a desire to better understand the peculiar strengths of Coetzee’s prose—which makes an impact of a kind seldom felt in the writing of native speakers—I’ve spent the past two years retyping the entirety of his autobiographical trilogy, “Boyhood,” “Youth,” and “Summertime.”

In South Korea, where I now live, this practice is called pilsa, and its many practitioners use it to improve their writing skills, not only in Korean but also foreign languages, most popularly English. Coetzee would surely grumble at that, but I like to think he’d approve of my own pilsa routine, which also involves retyping the collected works of Borges—in the original, of course.”

J.M. Coetzee’s War Against Global English, by Colin Marshall, in The New Yorker , Dec. 8, 2022, retrieved Dec. 10, 2022

So. That’s the most interesting bit I’ve read about in quite a while: “pilsa”. I had no idea it is a Thing. Copying out someone else’s text by typing or writing it by hand, is of course one way of learning and memorizing it, as well as mastering the language in which it was written. The process means that for you to reproduce the text, you have to understand it. To understand it, you have to think about what you’re reading. In the 19th century, that’s what children did in school – they copied and memorized large swathes of texts of history, literature, philosophy, and so on. I remember reading about it in the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Awfully clever animated header illustration by Illustration by Luis Mazón in the New Yorker article.

Quite a few of the music instructors on MasterClass have said that it’s good practice to copy – and in the process take apart – your favourite music pieces.

In an article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Marshall writes that Hunter S. Thompson actually did this:

“As Thompson himself later put it to Charlie Rose, ‘If you type out somebody’s work, you learn a lot about it. Amazingly, it’s like music.’ In Hunter S. Thompson: Fear, Loathing, and the Birth of Gonzo, biographer Kevin T. McEneaney writes of how Thompson began to re-type [The Great] Gatsby while working as a copy boy at — and making use of the typewriters, ribbons, and paper that were property of — Time magazine.”

In Praise of Pilsa, the Highly Uncreative Korean Method of Learning to Write, by Colin Marshall, in The Los Angeles Review of Books, 06/21/2020, retrieved Dec. 10, 2022

I realized that have in fact been doing pilsa all of my adult life. I have copied and studied large amounts of poetry and sections of novels (the latter have mostly been quotations). This has been particularly useful to help me understand William Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter. Also, it really helps when you want to write a haiku if you start by copying out someone’s else haikus. You kind of develop an ear for it.

As Thompson said, it’s like music. When you take a favourite piece of music, and you try to re-create (or copy) it by writing it in a DAW like Logic or Ableton, you understand after a while what the composer meant, and how they did what they did. On the one hand, it does take some of the magic out of the music. On the other hand, learning these kinds of lessons is really useful. Of course, this only works if you try to make sense of what you are recreating.

It just proves again that there are many different names for things that we humans have in common, regardless of whether we are separated by cultures and continents.

PS – As for J.M. Coetzee’s novel in Spanish…

I’ll just have to wait to read it when it has been published (back?!) in English. I do think though that there are more English readers in the world than Spanish ones. But he has this issue about English taking over the world, so it’s his choice of market, I guess.

1 comment on “Today I learned about “pilsa”

  1. Nice piece. Im not much for life hacks generally – but the historic underpinning to this was informative.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: