Tuesday, October 6, 2015

"Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery"

Do you ever find yourself losing your own voice and unintentionally imitating your favorite or omnipresent authors?  Did you ever have to read a little too much Immanuel Kant and end up writing with a tone mirroring a bad eighteenth century translation?  There is a famous quote, which you’ve probably heard, coined by English writer and cleric, Charles Caleb Colton: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”  Oscar Wilde, ever the witty wordsmith, suggested the addendum: “...that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”  And it’s true; consciously or not, we try to be as good as our role models, or those to whom we are most exposed.  It’s almost a survival instinct--copy the best, and you will not only curry favor, but also be have aspirations of being just as good.

I don’t know whose style mine resembles.  At times I can be long-winded and pedantic, resembling J.R.R. Tolkien’s unattractive pedagogical tone of The Hobbit.  Then I try to be wittier and more forward thinking, a la Margaret Atwood or Kurt Vonnegut.  And yet none of these styles really suit me, in the sense that I feel I am trying to imitate “greatness.”  At my worst failures, I feel most the constant drive to imitate, and to live through the success of other authors.  As a shameless lover of pop culture, I constantly lament the fact that I feel the need to buy a bunch of books and special edition DVDs (not to mention the secret LEGO collection); I don’t want to be a dependent on someone else’s mythos; I want to be the “creator.”  Writing, whether creative or academic, is always a risky endeavor.  It’s easy to think that I will never be as successful as J.K. Rowling or...James Patterson.  And it’s true, of course I won’t be.  Yet, as tacky as it may be, we have to work hard to “be ourselves.”

What does this have to do with the Writing Center?  Well, there’s nothing wrong with first imitating our favorites.  As I said above, it seems to be a natural instinct.  But when you bring a work of writing to the Center, whatever the genre, it’s always more interesting if the world has never seen it before.  No one in the world is exactly the same, and each set of life experiences allows us to view the world (first through the eyes, then through the written word).  I’m not talking about plagiarism, here; this is much more subtle and pervasive, not to mention frustrating.  All writers should certainly acknowledge debt to other writers, even if in the case of an in-joke or dedication.  At the same time, a good exercise might be to be aware of the debt which they acknowledge.  Janet Burroway calls it “stealing like an artist.”  But even the most skilled stealth has its basis in real skill.  Simply parroting the life’s work of an intrepid author will hardly give you their renown, especially if you don’t bring your own truth to it.  Everyone has a unique truth, as I stated above, but few (myself included) ever seem to capitalize on it by writing.  It might be time for us to change that!

--Peter the Blogcrafter

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