Imitation: The Highest Form of Apprenticeship

I had the wonderful opportunity last week to lead the September meeting of my small-town writers’ group at the Write Cup coffee bar and art studio. In addition to all of us sharing our writing with the group, I wanted to offer some useful tips on the craft of writing. So, I dusted off my seminar notes from my MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College and found a particularly intriguing exercise from one of my last seminars in the program. I offer it now on my blog for anyone interested in stretching your writing in new directions.

The seminar, conducted by the very talented Nickole Brown, explored the idea of imitation in writing. While I’ve heard it said that imitation is the highest form of flattery, Brown recommended that writers think of imitation as a kind of apprenticeship. Reading is not enough when you want to be a writer. There has to be a way to metabolize what you read, and that’s where imitation comes in. Imitation honors the style of someone else and gives the imitator a chance to learn syntax, try on different styles, and–through the process–develop his or her own style.

To try our hand at imitation, my fellow MFA cohorts and I studied the beginning of Bluets by Maggie Nelson. Nelson’s intriguing piece starts with this passage (pay attention to such elements as her use of italics):


Taken from Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Our job in the class was then to follow Nelson’s lead, use her syntax, and imitate what she had done, relying on our own words and experiences. We had about five to 10 minutes in Brown’s seminar to see what we could do, and I came up with the following:

Suppose I were to begin by saying I was in love with a musical group. Suppose I were to speak this as my cheeks flushed bright red. Suppose I got a sheepish grin on my face. I first saw the ’60s TV show in 1996. The slapstick; the humor; the romps set to the band’s music. Then (gluing my eyes to the glow of the TV screen as the four boys’ faces appeared and the credits rolled) I became a believer.

I throughly enjoyed imitating Nelson’s style, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share the concept with my writing group. We ran out of time to try the exercise together at our September meeting, so I suggested we all try it at home as our prompt for the coming month. (And I encourage my blog readers to try it, too!) I’m now looking forward to our October writing group and all the imitating that might happen between now and then.

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