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Tip: Imitation Teaches Originality

Nicholas Delbanco has a wonderful essay entitled From Echoes Emerge Original Voices in which he outlines an interesting idea for teaching creative writing. For his class at the University of Michigan, he actually encourages his students to imitate the greats. Delbanco argues, very persuasively, that “to engage in imitation is to begin to understand what originality means.”

And sometimes, they alter the picture slightly. “We’ll alter intonation, so that Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus will hail from the Deep South; we’ll give Faulkner’s Anse Bundren the Irish Accent of Leopold Bloom… Much of this results in parody, of course, and it requires a tongue lodged in cheek, but I want to release young writers from the fore-doomed expectation that their work must prove original. I want them to focus on manner, not matter, to study our great predecessors in an attempt to analyze not so much subject as style.”

This idea makes great sense to me. All too often, beginning writers handicap themselves with worries over originality. I constantly hear people who may have only written one story talk about their “voice” or their “style” and they render themselves paralyzed with the inability to write because their worried about their lofty goals. Delbanco points out “in other forms of performance we take repetition for granted, and personal expressiveness may even be a mistake. The members of a dance troupe must follow their choreographer’s lead. moving in trained unision, and woe betide that member of the string section of an orchestra who chooses an exotic bowing.”

Through this process, through this apprenticeship, through this repetition, Delbanco argues that our true voices begin to appear. Over time. But as a tool for learning and exercise, imitating the greats might be something you want to try now and then.