March 18, 2013

The Trouble with Imitation

Back in September of last year - was it really that long ago? - I scribbled a post for myself and for others on writing as an art.  With so many blogs and self-help books inundating us with tips and keys and the essence(s) of story-telling (I think I saw two different essences in the same week), we can easily fall into the trap of looking at writing as a mechanical process.  Fuse this tricky piece called "a good plot" with this other piece called "good writing" and ta da! Bestseller!

This approach appeals to us because it seems at first blush to offer a quick path to perfection in our writing.  We all want to improve, and the idea that if we just follow three easy steps we'll attain to the literary heights is awfully tempting.  In my post, however, I talked about something we probably all know and must simply be reminded of: the fact that writing is not mechanics, but

a process of growing art.

This current post is something of an extension of that basic notion, for even after we're rooted in it, there is still the difficult issue of knowing how to encourage that growing art to grow. We get to the place where we realize, "Oh goodness.  My writing seriously needs help, doesn't it?"  Maybe the pieces we've written before aren't so bad, maybe they're total rubbish, but either way there ought to come a point sooner or later in time when we realize it is not the best that it can be.  We come to grips with the fact that there are writers out there who just frankly do it - or did it - better than we, and then we begin to wonder how to coax further growth out of our own writing.

"Learn from the best" ought, really and truly, to be trumpeted more often than it is.  Read the Greats.  Don't settle for mediocre writers, the ones who don't do it as well as you, or who write on the same level as you, or who are maybe a little better: digest those writers whose works amaze you, blow you away, and leave you inspired (and perhaps a little jealous) after you've picked yourself up and pieced yourself back together.  "A man of ability," wrote William G. T. Shedd, "for the chief of his reading, should select such works as he feels beyond his own power to have produced."  What ho, Mr. Shedd, you said it truly!

Unfortunately, even this excellent advice can be warped, and writers who do try to "learn from the best" frequently fall into another trap of believing that it is also necessary to copy the best.  I wouldn't say this is always conscious; perhaps the underlying reasoning is mere mistaken logic, where writers suppose that if this man writes this way, and is reckoned a Great, then to be great we must write this way as well.  We're told we are supposed to imitate these people, and to an extent - the extent of a child following in the footsteps of an adult, before that child has learned to walk and direct himself - that is true.  But we've got to be wary of taking the principle too far.

We learn from others, ones who have gone before and ones who are going along with us: true.  We glean ruses, tactics, and strategies from them: also true.  We are not, however, meant to piece together little bits and pieces of authors' styles into something we call "our own" (and if we do, it can only ever be a literary Frankenstein's monster - because no one can forge the original author's signature with the same flair).  Even less are we meant to pick one favorite author and imitate them in all things.  That is to say -

we should not try writing characters like Dickens

we should not try writing romance like Austen

we should not try writing emotion and description like Sutcliff

we should not try writing an allegory like Lewis

and we really, truly, for the love of peachy goodness shouldn't try writing fantasy like Tolkien.

For me, this meant a realization that I am not Jenny and should not try to write like her.  I do not share her poetry-prose flair, and to attempt it would appear forced.  I can certainly look up to her and try to write as well as she does, but always in my own style and what people call "voice."  I admire R.L. Stevenson's descriptions and the masterful plots of Dickens.  Austen's wit is positively hilarious.  Sutcliff can take your heart and wring it like a sponge.  Lewis and Tolkien were masters of their art.  We ought to read them, look up to them, learn from them (and never stop doing so!), but we must also find our own ground, plant our roots in it and say, "This is my place.  I'll gain nutrients from all the writers I come across, but I am confident enough in my own voice not to mimic that of others."

It's a growing art, this writing business.  But it is important to realize that it varies from one person to the next, and we're not meant to try to graft ourselves into some other writer's vine - so that when someone asks us, "Would you rather write like this author or this author?" our response should be, "Um, cake, please?"


  1. That's just what I've been needing to hear, Abigail! I know I can often feel the desire to too closely imitate the 'Greats', because - they got it right, right? But really, as you said our imitation should be like a very young child growing and imitating an adult but the older one gets in this whole confusing business of writing one has to be his or her own person in the style and methods we use and not as in your own words 'try to graft ourselves into some other writer's vine'. God has given each one of us a distinct voice and we ought to embrace that! True, we ought to learn and imbibe the wisdom of those who did it before us, and did a mighty fine job at it too, but also we can't be feeble black-and-white photocopies! But then some take the other extremes. I know a writing friend of mine who really doesn't read and doesn't really see the need to read fiction, though she writes fiction herself for fear it will influence her writing. Which though I think she has a valid point, she is also missing out on a whole great deal.

    1. Thank you for bringing up the opposite extreme, Joy - it isn't as common, but if you ask me, it's the more dangerous of the two. I'd go so far as to say it is impossible to truly write well when we hole ourselves up and, fearful of becoming mere imitators, refuse to learn the lessons of those who are better than we. At the very least, the process by which such a writer does learn to write well will be incredibly slow, and grueling, and frustrating. There is truth in the saying, "If I have seen far, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants." We can't simply discount those giants. They will influence us, yes - but that does not necessarily mean that their influence is a bad thing. In life we learn from the men and women who lived before us; in writing we learn from the writers who wrote before us.

    2. You hit the proverbial nail, Abigail. I wish my friend could read this little comment because you are so right; but I guess maybe I can try to convey your thoughts on to her and maybe recommend some good pieces of literature that will interest her as well; I guess she may have had a reaction to a lot of the modern Christian fiction genre.

      I know I would not be writing now, and loving to write, were it not for my initial love as a young girl for reading fiction and for the things I gleaned from 'The Greats'.

  2. Marvelous! I struggle with this (as I'm sure all authors do) but I feel like I'm beginning to "hear my voice" as they say. I'm starting to understand that I'm not going to be as great as a Great, so I should stop copying and start learning. And by learning, I mean learning the things that define my writing, and standing on my own plot of earth, instead of squeezing onto someone else's.

    Thank you for this encouragement along the way!

    1. I'm glad you found it encouraging! There is certainly a great deal to be learned from the Greats, and the mastery they had over words should always inspire us to excel; but you're right: we must also discover the defining elements of our own writing and work to refine them.

  3. Fantastic post! It's such a struggle, but it's really learning how to come to a balance. Haven't mastered it yet, probably never will. And love the last line! ;)


    1. At the risk of sounding as though I'm talking spiritual mumbo-jumbo, "balance" - not just in writing, but in all aspects of life - plays a greater role than we generally realize. Too often we swing to extremes, as Joy mentioned in her comment. But "all things in moderation"!

  4. I agree totally! This is something I've been struggling with a lot lately. I've kind of hit a rut with my writing and frankly I'm having a hard time not looking at you and Jenny and Rachel and saying "why can't I be like THEM?" Also cake is a good idea. Let's do cake.

    1. If it is any consolation - which it probably isn't, but I'll offer it up all the same - I sometimes have the exact same feeling. I suppose we would all be pretty self-absorbed people if we never did. (Which is not to say that we shouldn't strive for contentment, but the person who can't find anyone who inspires them with feelings of, "Why can't I be like them?" is probably either Sherlock Holmes or terribly egocentric!)

      But when all else fails, I do recommend the cake. It's double chocolate.


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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