As writers, finding inspiration to write can be a problem. Perhaps we have a piece we’ve been working on for some time and it’s hit a wall. We find ourselves at a loss for how to climb over that wall. The very act of sitting down and staring at the paper (or screen, as these things go) can feel like the last thing we would ever want to do—no matter how many writers in the past have advised us to do precisely that. My usual tactic to punch through such “blocks” is to turn to other creative projects, to work on something else for a while and get the creative juices flowing. This can help with the wall-breaching process for the first project. And when it doesn’t, at least I’ve been productive on another project. If you don’t have another project ready at hand (or even if you do) you might consider another technique: inspiration by imitation.
This is the point where many of you will be put off if not horrified by the idea of imitating the work of another writer as inspiration for your own work; writers often bristle at the notion that they are anything less than completely original in all output. This is, of course, the fecal byproduct of a horse. We learn through imitation in all aspects of life, but particularly in writing. Don’t believe me? Go back and have a gander at your earliest output and you’ll likely find a pale version of Janet Evanovich staring back at you (or, for me, Douglas Adams). As the writer Voltaire once said, though: “Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed from one another. The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbors, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.” Even in the face of the words of a learned master, we resist the notion. Plagiarism is, after all, a truly vulgar crime, and writing something that another person might point a finger at and say “that’s someone else’s idea” can fill us with dread. Plagiarism is also not what I’m talking about. I'm talking about imitation, not theft.
In the creative writing classes I regularly teach, imitation is part of the curriculum. I direct my students to pieces of writing that contain, at their core, a universal concept that can be applied not only to the original author’s life, but to the lives of each and every person walking the planet. The concept can be rewritten, customized to the life and experiences of a new writer and will produce an outcome that is completely different from the original, yet retain the basic format.
For instance, there’s a wonderful prose piece called “The Things I’ve Lost” by writer Brian Arundel. It’s one that is included in the text book I use for my class, The Practice of Creative Writing by Heather Sellers. (Full disclosure, Ms. Sellers is the one who hipped me to the Voltaire quote above. Hers is an excellent text on writing.)
Please go now and read “The Things I’ve Lost” online.
Pretty awesome, wasn’t it? In fact, it’s the sort of piece that should make you mad that you didn’t think of it first, because it’s so simple and perfect in concept, yet easily lends itself to nuance. Mr. Arundel does a fine job of listing off actual physical items he has misplaced throughout his life, alongside observations of beliefs, ideals, illusions, and opportunities he’s similarly “lost” or abandoned along the way. It becomes an autobiographical sketch of major aspects of his life in six paragraphs. And I found it to be the kind of piece that, when I first read it, I wanted to get to the end of it quickly so I could rush away and start my own version because it just seemed like it would be fun to do so. My students almost always choose to write their own versions too. And because I’m generally a positive person, I also invite them to try their hand at a similar topic called “The Things I’ve Found.” Both produce impressive results. Each is completely original while at the same time using Arundel’s basic format as its basis.
There are thousands of other pieces of writing out there that this technique be applied to as well. You may find you start to see such opportunities without even looking for them. However, another that Heather Sellers specifically cites for this treatment is the poem “Genealogy” by Betsy Sholl. It’s another concept that we can each plug our own details into, re-configuring the format as we see fit.
Imitation is, if nothing else, a great technique for writing warm-ups. You may find it can help in breaking through your creative blocks as well. And, if not, you have at least been productive.
Sellers' book includes other techniques for imitation games, such as using poems as scaffolding for producing new work. I have not found this to be effective in my own writing, but your mileage may vary.
Now, if you still feel at odds with borrowing the format and ideas of another writer, you’re always welcome to credit them. Poets and writers often include an (after…) parenthetical in their title to indicate the work they’re responding to, or by which they were inspired.
I wish you impressive results.