Imitation in Writing

A long time ago–1981 to be exact–I discovered the writing of Raymond Carver. I was in a creative writing class at Shippensburg University. The professor encouraged us to find a writer we wanted to imitate. I’ll speak about imitation later in the blog. For now let’s stay with Carver.

I got myself a copy of his collection of short stories titled Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? I found many of the stories enjoyable. But some of them absolutely delighted me. I found myself startled by Carver’s precision at moments in these stories. Moments which I read aloud to others as proudly as if I had written the words myself. I had a bond with Carver’s stuff I hadn’t had with most other writers. You’ve found your guy, my prof told me.

The twenty page introduction of my master’s thesis detailed Carver’s influence on my own short stories which followed (don’t worry, I’m not going to throw out quotes from something I wrote thirty-five years ago). However, I will mention one of the footnotes I used. It came from Carver’s essay “On Writing.” He wrote, “The World According to Garp is, of course, the marvelous world according to John Irving.” After mentioning several other writers who created their own worlds, Carver stated, “Every great or even every very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications.”

That made sense to me then, and it makes sense to me now. To paraphrase Carver, if a writer can find a way of looking at things and can give artistic expression to it, he might be around for a time.

Which brings me to imitation. If a writer needs to find his own world, how is imitation going to come into play? In 1981 I hadn’t read T.S. Eliot’s quote about imitation: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Or George Bernard Shaw: “Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery–it’s the sincerest form of learning.” Of course my professor knew that imitation doesn’t consist only of what most people think of as copying or mimicking. It also consists of learning.

So I’ll repeat my professor’s advice: beginning writers should find themselves a writer they wish to imitate. It comes down to reading. Sorry, but that’s the consensus. Read others, and you’ll find yourself. If a writer can focus on objects or moments so clarity, accuracy, and of course truth follow, that’s a positive outcome. If a writer sees clearly how another writer achieves those things, that’s a positive outcome.

The pathway will not be new. Countless others have walked it before. The trick is to find precision in your own steps.

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