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.

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