I’ve been writing for well over a decade, and I’ve gone through various writing phases–angsty poetry, melodramatic memoir, dry essays, etc. I usually read a writer, admire their work, and try my own hand at their style. Sometimes the results are pleasing–I’ll post some of my new work based on a poem I read–and sometimes the results are downright embarrassing and just, well, awful. But it’s a good exercise to flex writing muscles I didn’t know I had. I like to venture into new, unknown writing territory every now and then and break out of my mundane habit of prose poetry and essay. I have a style, and I happen to like my style, but the inspiration of other writers gives me a chance to branch out, take a risk and try my hand at something new.
But some people think that’s the wrong approach. I read an article on NPR about “harmful” reads to aspiring writers (http://www.npr.org/2012/04/19/150973750/from-kerouac-to-rand-harmful-reads-for-writers). My reaction was indignant and incredulous. I have had some wonderful creative writing professors, and two who stick out most in my memory had us read writers whose styles we should try to emulate, just for one piece, not to adopt forever, just to do something outside our comfort zone. Our reading assignments provide different avenues for writing that we may not have been aware of. There’s a reason why art students go to art museums to sketch famous works, to learn about the curve of the artist’s brush. Art students mimic great artists not to copy but to understand new techniques to improve their own art. Emulating other artists is like adding tools to a tool box, or expanding the palette, if you will. For a writer, it’s add pens and ink to the desk, adding paper and pencils.
Crawford Killian states, that the ” readable styles [of some famous works] look so easy that they might seduce a young writer into imitating them.” When an aspiring writer does imitate a difficult style, it will not take the writer to realize the masterwork of craft that went into developing that seemingly effortless style. For example, I once read Sloane Crosley for a creative nonfiction workshop. A lot of my class wanted to imitate her dry, witty, humorous style, but they soon found that hours of effort went into creating those jokes that come off the page as smart and funny rather than reaching and dry.
Most aspiring writers aren’t looking to publish right away, and Killian argues that when a writer imitates another’s style, he or she will produce something that the public does not need to see. Well, the public may not need to see it, but chances are the piece will never venture much further beyond a writer’s workshop or small publishing distribution. It’s not about copying the writer and trying to get published; it’s about learning a new style and challenging yourself beyond the mundanity and rut that writers often fall into. By all means, never plagiarize and find your own voice and unique style, but do not think for a second that it’s a waste of time to mimic great works as a way to practice new styles. Even if you fail, the risk was worth it.