February 28, 2018 by bradcharlesbeals
The athlete doesn’t train to get good at training. He doesn’t ride a stationary bike or spend time in the weight room to get good at lifting weights or riding in place. He does those things because there is a playing field to compete on.
In the same way, I don’t imitate Cormac McCarthy to write like McCarthy, but I train there (hard, I like to think) in order to perform better in my own sport.
It’s easy to see in this analogy (even if we don’t understand the science behind it) the physical benefits of athletic training, but what about writing? What is it that imitation actually accomplishes for the writer?
I see 3 things….
- Imitation removes inhibitions. It has the same buffering effect of wearing a mask or playing a character on a stage. I don’t feel like I’m putting myself at risk when I write in another voice since it’s not really me, afterall. And yet it is me. It’s me in training. It just feels like I’m sitting in someone else’s chair.
- Imitation works different muscles. To write in a different voice pushes me out of my own ruts. It forces me to quiet some sensibilities that I may lean on too heavily and to draw on others that I might be less familiar with. Working in another voice for a hundred thousand words never fails to work wonders on my own voice. [More on working out the writing muscles here.]
- Imitation makes me smarter. It requires close study of a master’s work. Not a deliberate, cognitive study (though it could involve that) but a familiarity with another’s work that runs deep enough that I can use it as though it were my own. If I were to add up every word of fiction that I’ve read in the last twenty years, I’d guess a third of them belong to four writers: Annie Dillard, Patrick O’brian, Charles Frazier, and Cormac McCarthy At different times and in different forms, I’ve imitated each one, but only after I’d become fluent in his or her work.
The cumulative effect of these three things is changed writing. Because when we return from a long jaunt of imitation, we will be changed writers. We’ll find ourselves drawn to new styles and structures and devices, or we’ll be drawn to old things in new ways. The question will then be, have we become better writers? That, of course, depends on the writers you imitate, so choose wisely.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery (and I like to think I’ve flattered the very best; more on those objects of imitation here), but it’s also been the most productive way for me to develop my own voice.
“He who walks with the wise will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” (Proverbs 13:20)