Some of my most memorable, and thus powerful, learning experiences in languages and humanities have come from imitation. In a college literature class on the English Metaphysical Poets, I had the opportunity to write a poem imitating John Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” and reflect on my process, defending how it was an imitation, instead of writing a standard seminar research paper. That was nine years ago, and I still feel a deeper connection to Donne’s work and cosmology than to most other poets I’ve studied. I also understand his style better.
Imitate more than innovate to learn your craft
There is a long history of imitation denigrated as “mere,” uncreative, derivative. Even if we recognize that poets’, painters’ and composers’ juvenalia often consist in imitations—and thus that imitation is part of learning one’s craft—they are considered juvenile: immature, less worthy of our study. Mere preludes to creation.
There is perhaps equally long history of imitation as a core part of humanistic education, whether to learn a language itself (say, Latin) or the style of its literary authors. Jacobus Pontanus, a Renaissance humanist who wrote *colloquia—*mostly fictional dialogues between students—to aid advanced students in learning Latin, is one among many, from antiquity through his own time, to suggest taking well-known fables from Aesop or a letter from some famous author and imitating it as closely as possible, sometimes following set rules of composition, occasionally taking more liberties. Expansion and summary, transposition into a new context, paraphrases, changing genres, adding meter to prose or turning verse into dialogue—all of these were common exercises designed not only to exercise the language itself, but also for students to achieve an intimate knowledge of what and how excellent ancient and contemporary writers thought.
Diligent teachers often take up the argument or the whole content of some learned man’s letter and propose it to their students, then, by comparing their students’ letters with the original, teach them what one should do and how one should write.Jacobus Pontanus, Progymnasma 98
Pontanus even suggests keeping the theme and content of the original exactly the same, changing only words and form: treating hackneyed themes frees one from the need to make novel arguments and wrestle with style all at once. I have found this to be true in my own imitations: when I wrote a pseudo-Platonic dialogue in Ancient Greek, I tried—with less success than I’d imagined—to riff off and add a modern spin Plato’s ideas on pedagogy while I was imitating his style to better my Greek. I’m proud of the result, but I might have refined my sense of Greek prose style more had I stuck to a worn-out theme.
Fuel your originality with what you love
It’s not only the Latinists who accept and even encourage imitation—though, in modern times, often as a beginning phase that will naturally fade. In her essay “Oliver Sacks on the Three Essential Elements of Creativity,” Maria Popova, after quoting Susan Sontag on voracious reading feeding writing and neurologist Oliver Sacks on imitation as apprenticeship, summarizes the process of artistic becoming:
We learn our own minds by finding out what we love; these models integrate into a sensibility; out of that sensibility arises the initial impulse for imitation, which, aided by the gradual acquisition of technical mastery, eventually ripens into original creation.Maria Popova of BrainPickings
John McPhee, a most dedicated craftsman-writer-researcher and, in his essay collection “Draft No. 4” a generous advice-giver, recalls his exchange with a young writer anxious about being original:
She said, “My style is always that of what I am reading at the time—or overwhelmingly self-conscious and strained.” I said, “How unfortunate that would be if you were fifty-four. At twenty-three, it is not only natural; it is important. The developing writer reacts to excellence as it is discovered—wherever and whenever—and of course does some imitating (unavoidably) in the process of drawing from the admired fabric things to make one’s own. Rapidly, the components of imitation fade. What remains is a new element in your own voice, which is not in any way an imitation. Your manner as a writer takes form in this way, a fragment at a time.John McPhee, “Draft No. 4,” p. 161
Grounding ourselves in others is the best way to our own way. And it’s a natural, even necessary, part of our creativity (modern neuroscientists and psychologists agree).
Follow echoes to your creative self—and follow yourself
Though imitation is important even for experts, we might worry, like McPhee’s young writer did, that we won’t grow beyond it. But centuries of artists’ practice, of the “Mature Works” that follow juvenalia in anthologies, suggests that we will and they do. I treasure the Collected Works editions of poets, where one sees the writer’s lifelong creative arc(s) and shifting preoccupations. Best of all, these authors seem to learn to follow themselves and to trust the ground ahead. This self-trust is hard won, and never complete (and shouldn’t be): just enough to keep on going. Recombination within and expansion of our web of ideas is part of creativity at any stage, but it seems to me something to look forward to more as I continue creating. As McPhee reflects in another essay in his collection,
New pieces can shoot up from other pieces, pursuing connections that run through the ground like rhizomes. Set one of these progressions in motion, and it will skein out in surprising ways, finally ending in some unexpected place.John McPhee, “Draft No. 4,” p. 11
It’s not, then, so much about growing out—of imitation or anything else—but of growing up to our hopes, growing into ourselves, growing through each other.