“In poetry courses, students may be asked to write “in the manner of”so-and-so,or to use a stanza or cadence from a published poet as a model, but teachers of prose writing seem to shun the very idea of imitating. I think conscious, deliberate imitation of a piece of prose one admires can be good training, a means towards finding one’s own voice as a narrative writer.” Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula’s Steering the Craft is a helpful writing guide that I stumbled upon and have come to treasure. It’s a clear, concise, no-nonsense look at writing that often takes a thought-provoking stance on the art of putting words on a page.
Imitation, for instance, does seemed to be frowned upon because of its supposedly dmging impact on originality. And yet, as Ursula points out so well, it can be a useful tool – one that supports instead of subverts the process of finding our voice.
I had a wonderful playwrighting coach who used to advise his students to pick one play they really loved and just spend time reading it over and over until they absorbed, not just the themes and content, but the language itself. He said that we could learn more from studying one play intensively than we could from scanning a large number of works by many different authors. He also suggested that we take chunks of dialogue that really worked for us and copy them by hand to get a feeling for the way a playwright constructed a compelling interchange.
He and Ursula were on the same page. “Conscious, deliberate imitation” helps us begin to understand – and ultimately, to gain skill – as writers by making us more acutely aware of:
- the sound of language
- the construction of sentences and paragraphs
- rhythm and the use of repetition
- adjective and adverb choices
- verb tense and person
- voice and point of view
- focus and intention
So, one day when you’re feeling a little jaded, a little at a loss for words, why not borrow a few from a writer you love temporarily by imitating a selection from one of their works that really speaks to you? Sometimes, just getting into someone else’s rhythm for a while can help you rediscover your own, or unlock a literary logjam. Have you ever tried this? If so, I’d love to hear about it as we all write on.