When I was in art school, I had a professor look at one of my figure drawings. He stopped and considered it and asked me if I understand what I was doing because I was creating a quite spectacular composition. I was flabbergasted. I stammered that I was just drawing. He frowned at me and after that to pass his course I had my own individual assignment to copy two master works per week for the rest of the semester. Not only did I have to copy those drawings and paintings, I had to analyze them and understand them and be able to explain why they worked as they did.
My favorite painting is a lesser known work by Paul Gauguin titled "The White Horse." It was originally commissioned by an apothecary who refused to pay for it because the horse is not white. The horse is tones of green and peach among other colours. I have done numerous colour studies of this painting and a giclee of it is in my living room. I never tire of this painting and it continues to offer up information about colour and composition.
Recently I read the novella "Breakfast at Tiffany's" by Truman Capote. The novella is inspiration. The complex character of Holly Golightly is deftly created and from her decisions the plot of the story unfolds. The writing seems effortless and accomplishes a great deal in a short space. The narrator's persona is consistent and authentic and through his eyes the truly over the top character of Holly can be seen. If Capote had written "Breakfast at Tiffany's" from the third person perspective following Holly, much of the subtlety of the story would have been lost and Holly Golightly would not have been as sympathetic of character as she is portrayed. Much of the ambiguity in the novella would have been lost as well and it would not have been as interesting.
When I read the poetry of great poets, I consider not only the words, but also the line spacing and the way this is used to influence how the poem is read and the meaning created. I think about how they are creating a poetic form with muscle from an economy of words and what choices they have made to make this successful. Poetry is about choices because not every word can be on the page to pull forth the imagery and meaning. I think about what the poet choose and what they left behind and the possible why's.
Some authors I read to revel in the turns of phrase that they create. True great authors choose their words with care so that the words build their stories and not detract. When I am reading a novel or short story, I consider if the point of view character is the best one to tell the story and if the main character is the best choice. I analyze whether or not the structure of the novel was the best way to begin the story, build tension, and if the resolution is satisfying. I notice if the writing is gripping without being melodramatic in terms of plot or purple in terms of prose or bombastic in terms of subject. Some of what is considered "literary" fiction I feel earns this title and the qualification of being quality based not on compelling writing but rather on melodrama, highly perfumed prose, or bombastically moralistic subject matter. In the past I don't think there was such a distinction between literature or literary fiction and the more general category of fiction. Further, some fiction that was written in the early twentieth century was written as popular fiction and it has stood the test of time and been canonized and accepted into the category of being literature. "Rebecca" by Daphne DuMaurier comes to mind as an example.
In my opinion, if someone is going to write or create art, they need to study the work of previous authors and artists so that they can think through for themselves what is working and what is not and why. By struggling with these issues, the would be artist or writer develops their own sensibilities. They have a place to start from to experiment in their own work and begin to develop their own skills and sensibilities. From this they can build on the past work-- reverberations that can be initiated in the mind of a reader or one appreciating their artwork created by referencing but not copying what has come before--and something truly creative, original, and unique can come about.