The Art of Imitation

As you can probably guess from the title of this post, I’m not a believer in true originality. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that we have been telling the same twelve or so stories since that first, fateful circle around a campfire, and that all of them are essentially around what I like to think of as the big four: love, loss, longing, and fear.

So I don’t toss and turn over originality when I’m writing, for this reason, and also because I believe that each storyteller has a unique voice. This is what I’m after when I read — a story that speaks to lived experiences, micro insights that gather together to help me see through someone else’s window into the big four. And because there are as many windows as there are people in the world, I know each writer has within her the ability to make hers clear.

What never ceases to amaze me, though, is how helpful the practice of imitation can be. I think it’s probably because, at their core, our subject matters don’t vary wildly, and if you pick up a book and absolutely love it, chances are that the writer is speaking from a window that resembles your own in some way.

I thought the first creative writing teacher to suggest that we should copy out a short story by our favorite writer was either nuts or just not so concerned about plagiarism (a subject my eighth grade teacher enforced with so much gravitas she had more than a few of us in tears (I know, how can the pitfalls of plagiarism drive middle schoolers to tears? Well, you never met Mrs. Stewart.)).

Anyway, I tried the exercise out, and was amazed by how helpful it was. Ever since, I keep trying to roll it out in front of my own students, though I get lots of crazy looks, too. But here’s the thing: when you transcribe the words of someone whose writing you deeply admire, it’s like peering through their window so closely you start to see the grains of sand, the tones and turns and timing and choices that he or she employed to make this fabulous work of art. And there’s tremendous learning in giving yourself over to another voice like that — it shows you the intersections, the significant diversions, and it inspires the HECK out of you. Seriously.

In fact, you’ll probably wind up writing a few pages or stories in the tone of that writer afterward. And then you’ll feel a little sheepish, a little shamefaced, thinking you got your story by unethical means. But there’s really no way you can copy another’s voice, just as there’s no way to copy another person’s appearance, or laugh. And what your imitation will show you is how your voice resonates with another, which will give you great comfort, and the experience of typing blithely when you’re transcribing will leak into your own work, and altogether you’ll have used this writer’s work for exactly what she wanted you to use it: to be inspired, to love the art of language, to see how the intersections of stories both complicate and unite us.

So in these last few weeks of summer, maybe you can bring yourself or a writer you love to try this exercise. As usual, it helps to drop your high standards at the door like so many heavy backpacks full of textbooks no one wants to read. Instead, take a few pages into the room and play with them. Don’t worry about how great the work will be or how imitative or how original. You’ll know your own voice when you find it, and if you keep light on your feet while you’re looking, you might just learn to dance to it.

Why Writers Hate Writing

When I was younger, I thought the toe-curling reaction I had to a few hours of writing time stretching out before me made me abnormal. Either I had confused what I thought was a feverish passion for writing with some other fever – a delusional one, perhaps – or I didn’t have the chops to make it as a writer. In fact, I hate to admit this, but the truth is that I avoided writing for many, many years because I was sure that my desire to run quickly out of the room with my tail between my legs every time I faced a blank page was a sign that I had no hope of growing into the writer I so wanted to be.

I’ve since learned that (almost) all writers hate writing. Bear with me here. I’m not saying that all writers hate all writing all the time, or that writers are mentally and/or emotionally challenged individuals who compulsively indulge in self-destructive behavior just for kicks (though that has been said before, unfortunately, since it’s such a gross misinterpretation of authorial behavior). But I have learned that almost every writer I know experiences an excruciating amount of unwillingness to just sit down and write. Even writers I don’t know own up to this. Amy Tan has a wonderful story in her memoirs about getting stranded in a cabin after a flash flood – when a rescue team finally arrived, all she could think was that if she got out of there, she’d have to finish her novel. Ann Patchett also says that she would frequently rather do almost anything but write, even though she has known since she was a very small child that she would be a writer, and has pursued her craft to great success ever since.

So why do writers hate writing? I want to know your thoughts, but I have a few theories of my own. First, I think many writers are perfectionists, because a writer must be incredibly driven and incredibly detail oriented in order to wrassle (not a misspelling: think alligators and jello pits) her thoughts down into the medium of language. This perfectionism does not, however, prove very helpful when one needs to step into a creative space that courts risk and the unknown. So there’s that (which I’ve written about extensively already), but I think I’m ready to expand on that theory. I think another reason why so many writers hate writing is because AT FIRST – and this is critical, since the rewards of a writing practice are too numerous to begin to list — writing demands so much, yet it promises so little in return.

Again, a moment to clarify: the act of writing can be thrilling and centering and inspiring, all at once. But more often than not, it’s just a slog, and the more you write, the more slogging you must do. Moreover, you must come into the slogosphere with your most heightened sensitivities tuned to their highest frequencies, and you must keep your heart open and either leave your assumptions and baggage at the door or find a way to authentically shape them into something that doesn’t resemble the tear-and-ink-stained rant of a diary you kept under your bed when you were fourteen. In other words, most of the time, writing feels a bit like working up the courage to share the contents of your heart with the crush of your life who has barely ever noticed you, or, I don’t know, showing up to middle school naked.

No matter what answer we come up with, though, I will say that I think it’s pretty amazing that writers write anyway. I think it takes real courage to enter the lion’s den with nothing more than a magic wand with iffy batteries. I like that in a person, and I try to remember that when I get hard on myself about avoiding my writing. It’s not always about how well you do what you do; I think it’s also about how well you manage to keep your head held high even when you’re constantly tripping.

Finding Your Words

I had many pet peeves when I was a writing teacher, and almost none of them came directly from the students themselves. They came, instead, from the students’ warped sense of what writing should look like, both in practice and in execution, and it still gets my knickers in a twist to think of them. Among the more disturbing habits I encountered was the compulsion to use words that students thought belonged in an essay but had never actually been uttered in their life experiences. For example, the word deinstitutionalization. Who wants to read that word, I ask you? Unless, of course, you’re doing a report on Boston’s homeless in the 1980s – otherwise, why? Just why?

In my estimation, great writing comes from that magical intersection of language and authentic human experience. It can be found in newspapers and novels and graffiti. Moreover, it can stem from anyone who has ever had an idea worth expressing. What really busts my buttons is when students – of any age, to be frank – say they ‘can’t’ write. It’s part of why I stopped teaching compositional writing, because it has such narrow expectations of the mind – and while it works for some, it most certainly is not a one-size-fits-all form of linguistic expression.

It took me a while to find my own words. I’ve been young for most of my life, and for most of my life I thought it was my business to sound young. I tried short sentences. I tried slang. I tried nearly everything I could to shut out those parts of my mind that used words that didn’t seem hip or urgent or sexy. But with the exception of the ability to swear like a sailor (which is every Bostonian’s birthright), I regularly use words like – well, let’s check above: uttered, knickers, and busts (I promise that was not contrived.) Some part of me seems never to have gotten over her past life as a Victorian spinster, and as unsexy as that is, it’s just me. I like elegant and lyrical words; I like big ideas; I regularly avoid small talk and then dive into deep philosophical questions peppered with stupid puns and offbeat humor because that’s just who I am. Slang and I don’t get along. And as if that’s not challenging enough in the modern world, I’m also, on the other hand, not a fan of diving deep into the language for esoteric words to trot out in an academic fervor. True confessions: I regularly have to look up words in the Douglas Preston and Lee Child Pendergast series because I stopped paying attention to developing my vocabulary in English class once the stories got really good. (My former English teachers are preemptively trying to enter their graves right now just so they can roll over in them.)

The point is, great writing comes from a passion for language, not necessarily a mastery of it, and language can take on as many personalities as it has speakers. It’s a crime to rob someone of their language, especially if that someone is you. So please, if you’ve been trying to pound your language into some narrow idea of what you think it needs to look like, loosen your lips a little and trust in your words. If you’re writing for approval, you’ll get very little of it anyway, and will probably just wind up tying yourself into knots. But if you write because you seek new ways to resonate with the world and some of the amazing people in it, you’ll have a lot more fun, and you might just find that unlocking what you have to say unlocks how you think and feel and see. Plus, it’s free. Isn’t that just a kicker? We have within ourselves the ability to grow and expand and express on our own terms. We have the ability to encourage our children to do the same. It sort of boggles the mind, doesn’t it? Imagine how many more voices might get into the world if we just learn to get out of their way.

Are You Writing?

It’s no secret that writers have a hard time being nice to themselves. I don’t know why this is. Maybe the only people driven to regularly put lots of words down on paper are already a wee bit touched to begin with. And maybe the resulting madness of trying to shape words into experience makes some of us spiral into a horrible questioning of choices. Or maybe, to paraphrase Anne Lamott, our minds are the bad neighborhoods we should try never to go into alone. No matter what the reason (or reasons) why, I can’t help but notice that many of us writers and our fellow perfectionists could use a little shoring up every now and then.

When I was pretending to be a normal human being and designing a research project for my dissertation, I naturally gravitated toward studying the outliers. This should have been a MAJOR clue that I had no real business in research. I’ve always loved the person who faces away from the crowd, the one salmon who swims with the current, the story that stands out but somehow ends up showing us the whole picture. A researcher recognizes patterns; a writer tries to pull them apart.

God bless my sainted dissertation committees’ souls. Somehow, they helped me to shape my artist self into a respectable looking academic’s suit, and I did wind up writing about poets and the poetic process, though as you might imagine, all I was able to unearth and systemize came out in very broad, fuzzy strokes. One of those Impressionist strokes in particular, though, has stuck with me ever since. It was the idea of gestation, or the writers’ need to poke around in the creative realm without actually writing.

I’ve written about this before. But it’s worth revisiting on an endless loop, given how hard it is for many writers to grasp. Not because the idea is anything but basic, but because accepting it would mean releasing ourselves from the more socially acceptable habits of self-loathing and avoidance. In other words, because we’re so very, very good at punishing ourselves, it’s extremely hard to face down the barrel of a few or several hours of writing time and find ourselves doing nothing more than staring out the window for the first half hour (or, you know, hypothetically, the first three of three hours of three hours plus a five minute grace period).

And truth be told, I am still sometimes SO mean to myself when this happens, as it did yesterday. Instead of actually sitting down to write as I had planned to do in the morning, I decided instead to organize and categorize my unreasonably large collection of beads, most of which I plan to tie up into jewelry but actually enjoy the most loose, as textures and colors that click together in my hands. And while I know that makes me sound like I’m mentally challenged, that’s only because I really am quite mentally challenged; but the good news is that I’ve developed lots of handy coping mechanisms to get me through this bumpy ride.

My favorite one is the internal check in, a sort of rundown of gentle questions to ask myself when not writing. Simple enough, but hard to remember when in the throes of writerly angst. I did something like this when my kids were infants and I started to notice how those really bad crying jags threatened to unravel my already loosely woven wits. So I put a little check list on the refrigerator: food, diaper, sleep, pain, overstimulation (aka Daddy came home late from work and decided playing roll about with the baby right up until his bed time sounded like a fun idea. But I digress).

Anyway, I know it might sound ridiculous, but those of you who’ve experienced the harrowing early years of someone you love up close and personal probably know how essential a few simple roadmaps can become. And a similar map proves to be useful when I want to be smartly punching out thousands of words a week but somehow, don’t.

I start by stepping carefully away from the driver’s seat by asking myself to take a look at what I am doing. Is the beading or sketching or researching or wandering somehow keeping me in touch with my project? Is it giving the project space to gestate and work toward its next iteration, to work out a problem I don’t want to just write through, to recognize a problem in the story or a character or (gack) the plot that my intuition is telling me to pay attention to before I write the next scene or otherwise plunge ahead? Is the work, in other words, cooking, and it’s too early to open the oven?

Or am I simply terrified of taking a risk? Of putting yet more of myself out there for others to judge as impersonally as print marks on paper? Of trying that next, great idea, only to find that, like a fantastic crush who turns out to be a sloppy, wet kisser, it’s going to go nowhere fast? Because while these fears are great signs, too – signs that I’m actually hovering on the edge of incompetence and risking more than a little so I can find my best work – they are also indications that I might not be gestating – I might just be running as fast as I possibly can away from the truth I’ve chosen to embrace. The one I really want to stand up for, unsteady though I might be.
It takes a lot of time and trial and error to recognize the difference.

But the good news is that both conditions respond to the same approach. Which is to sit quietly and lower your expectations drastically and develop some varsity level patience with how slow and hard it becomes to move forward when you’re choosing to take on a really hard and long and steep climb. To just hydrate and fuel up and relocate your sense of humor and take extra good care of yourself, maybe put a list on the refrigerator of the five things you get most fussy without, and maybe intentionally invest in some productive daydreaming. Writing never looks like it should, anyway, so it’s best to stop fighting yourself and the work and just remake the world. It could use a little revisioning, anyway.

Meditative Jogging

About eight years ago, shortly after the birth of my third child, I realized I needed to renegotiate my relationship to myself. I wasn’t just tired and burned out, I was on a slippery slope to the kind of martyrdom that doesn’t work in the best of cases, and can bring a family down when it comes to motherhood. My mother is fond of the ‘airplane’ analogy when it comes to this behavior: put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others with theirs. It’s a great principle to live by, but putting it into practice when you’re low on sleep and you’re hanging around all day with three people who don’t read is another story entirely. In order to even remember that oxygen masks were available to any of us, I began to realize, I needed to get out of the house.

My husband carefully suggested an exercise class. Not because I wasn’t beautiful, of course, he said in the exact same breath, but he’d noticed, in the past, how much more relaxed and happy I was when I got to run around a bit. This is true for any animal, incidentally. I dare you to spend time in a stable with a horse who hasn’t been allowed to run about for a few days. We just forget that mothers are living animals, too.

But no regular exercise class responds to the head-snapping speed at which young kids’ needs change on a daily basis. Also, gyms smell like middle school and a few minutes sweating on a machine that goes nowhere makes me want to go lie in the street. The most obvious choice seemed to be to take up running, something I could sneak in at any time of day and begin the moment I walked out my front door. The only problem was I didn’t know how to run.
I know what you’re thinking. Who doesn’t know how to run? I promise you, I did not. I was thirty-one years old and simply hastening my speed while crossing the street resembled nothing so much as Lurch trying to slog his way through quicksand. Also, my hips hurt and my boobs moved in several different directions and my feet asserted their newly found and desperate love affair with gravity.

It defies all logic, I know. I was a medium-sized woman in very good health, but my body simply refused to run. It kind of always had. I always wanted to run, but even in elementary school I would take off with the pack and bliss out in a few minutes of flat out running, sure I was near the head of the crowd, only to find out I was several paces behind the girl who was still recovering from an improbable case of childhood polio.

So maybe it was my desperation, maybe it was the unreasonable mindset of chronic exhaustion, but I decided to give it a go anyway. I downloaded a learn-to-run program from the internet, and slowly but surely, Lurch graduated from quicksand-slogging to peppy Frankenstein, an achievement I took no less pride in than an Olympian does a sub-four-minute mile (Is that a thing? I think that’s a thing.).

My husband was mystified. A high school athlete, the first time I came home to glowingly report that I had achieved a fifteen-minute mile (no, that’s not a typo), he stared at me, uncharacteristically dumbfounded. But it didn’t matter, not really. Because you know what? I absolutely, unequivocally LOVED IT.

In the years since, I’ve continued to ‘run’, though now I call it what it is: meditative jogging. Speed walkers still pass me on occasion, but no one walking a stroller passes me anymore. And though I’m probably more graceful than I once was, the truth is that I sweat like a pig and have to wear an enormous amount of sunscreen to protect my Irish-bookish-Jewish skin, and that I rarely traverse more than three miles at a time. But I still LOVE IT. Because it’s fun, and it’s one of the only things I do for no other reason than to get outside and let go a little. I know I could do speed training and research form a little more and hire a coach, but that’s not the point. The point is to enjoy a steady and rewarding relationship with my imperfect self.

And the side effects are incredible. I truly believed it’s made me a better person, and a better writer. Doing something you’re really bad at regularly and in public does astonishing things for the judgey parts of you that want you to always look like you’re in control and doing the best you can and in every other way towing the mores of social acceptability like Marley’s chains. If you try, instead, your own equivalent of my middle-aged sweaty mommy grinning jogs that make runners coming in the other direction either act as if I don’t exist or grin back at me in disbelieving but good-natured bafflement, you might also be amazed at the personal joy and creative juices it can unleash. Because at the end of the day, I think writing and living both respond really well to daily practice that maybe isn’t so elegant, that prioritizes what is true and life-affirming without imposing any of our ideas on it.