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Practicing the Art of Imitation

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In a post some months ago, I wrote about Nicholas Delbanco’s great ideas concerning imitation of the fiction masters. In his essay, Delbanco argues that copying the greats can be an incredibly educational experience.

I recently came across the same concept, this time in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Despite the lengthy title, this book also provides tips on how imitation can be used in writing exercises.

“Students of composition and painting deliberately imitate great works of music and art as part of their training, but students of writing often seem afraid of imitation,” Le Guin writes. “Don’t worry, it’s not plagiarism to write a paragraph ‘in the style of’ Austen or Dickens or Woolf. If you write it not as parody or pastiche but seriously, it can be a demanding and revealing exercise.”

Later in the text, Le Guin picks up this argument a second time. “A rational fear of plagiarizing, and an individualistic valuation of originality, have stopped many prose writers from using deliberate imitation as a learning tool… I think conscious, deliberate imitation of a piece of prose one admires can be good training, a means toward finding one’s own voice as a narrative writer… When imitating, it’s necessary to remember the work, however successful, is practice, not an end in itself, but a means towards the end of writing with skill and freedom in one’s own voice.”

Just don’t try to sell your imitation exercises or else you’ll end up on the witness stand in a courtroom somewhere.