January 6, 2011

Learning Through Imitation

I was at a talk given by Brad Watson a while back, and one of the things he said was that the best way to learn to write is to closely mimic the greats, to take an author you admire or feel inspired by and to try to write a story just like theirs. Use their rhythms and style and set up. Follow their paragraphing and tense and point of view. When they go to dialog, you go to dialog. Fill it with your ideas, but use their trappings.

This is what we did in the first workshop I ever took taught by the inestimable Alyson Hagy at the University of Wyoming. We tried to write like Heminway and Faulkner and Jean Toomer and others. In another online workshop (American Short Fiction, taught by the wonderful Jill Meyers), we took an actual excerpt of someone’s and changed it word by word into our own work. It was a wonderful exercise.

It’s not just an exercise for beginners. I keep going back to it. If I read something that I just love, I often will be inspired to imitate it. Or if I have a problem I’m trying to solve, I’ll often think of someone who does it well and try to infuse my work with the way they handle it. For example, right now I’m skipping around in time a lot in my work, and I think go back to Per Pettersen’s Out Stealing Horses (as I said yesterday).

It’s not the same as plagiarism. You’re not taking their words. You’re just using their work for inspiration. Some people even refuse to read great works when they’re writing because they say it influences them too much. My response to that is, I only hope that they would influence my work! Who better to be influenced by than the greats?

Questions of the Day: Have you ever done this? Has it helped?


K.A. Krantz said...

I took an MFA class on transliteration. Instead of translating characters from one alphabet to another, we translated stories from the published POV to that of another character.

The most memorable assignment was the tragedy of Medea. I retold it from her POV. A classmate chose the POV of her eldest son. Villain and victim.

When the emotional snare is missing from a scene I'm writing, I'll stop and rework it from the villain or victim's POV until I find the gem.

Tamara said...

That sounds like fun, KAK! Did you ever discover that the story was more interesting or a better story from the other character's point of view?

Medea would be challenging and wonderful and horrible. Didn't she serve her children up as revenge? Just thinking about the frame of mind that would take is horrifying.

Do you ever find you get lost in so many points of view it's hard to keep moving forward? Though complication and nuance is always good, I think!

Thanks so much for stopping by!

~ Tamara

Tamara said...

PS Great idea of going back and rework a scene from another point of view!

Sarah said...

It's similar when you're learning to paint. Many teachers will instruct their students to copy the masters before making their own paths.

I hadn't heard about this practice in relationship to writing, but it makes sense.

Pembroke Sinclair said...

I used to be one of those guys who refused to read while I was writing because I was afraid of the influence, but now I find it very helpful. If only I had more time to read AND write!

Tamara said...

Sarah, that does make sense - painting or writing. By the way, I love your blog entry on choreography! ( Thanks for dropping by here!

I agree, P. They should just pay us to read and write all the time! (I hope "they" are both rich and forgiving. :-)

Sarah said...

Glad you liked it!