Sincerest Form of Flattery

My absolute favorite creative writing class was actually during my undergrad years. We got to read a number of contemporary books including The Virgin Suicides, The Namesake, Jazz, U.S.!, Flying Leap, Jesus’ Son, I am Not Sidney Pointier, and The Road. And unlike most literature courses, we didn’t look at these stories from a lit critic’s point of view. Instead, we had the opportunity to evaluate these novels and collections for how they were written and why it was effective. It’s rare that you have an opportunity to take a class like this and I wish I hadn’t had to wait till my last semester of senior year to take it.

Fun Fact: my professor for this class was the author of The Nighttime Novelist, pictured to the right.

Aside from the fantastic reading list, the assignments were really interesting as well. We had to turn in two SFoF (Sincerest Form of Flattery) papers which required us to pick the style of one of the writers we read and mimic it in a short 1-2 page story. This is a helpful assignment because we were able to see what it is about a specific writer that makes his or her work unique and effective.

People often have mixed feelings on imitating other writers. Some people love to be told they sound like Hemingway or Faulkner, while others want to stand out and have their own voice and style that isn’t comparable to anyone. Some consider it a form of plagiarism, and others look at it as a good study in craft or style. The funny thing about imitating other writers is that you don’t even know you’re doing it half the time.

Any time you’re reading a book, your writing will in some way reflect what you’re reading. It may not be a drastic effect, but little bits of it will seep in. This is part of how our style evolves and changes, always in conversation with the styles around us. You’ll also see this in a lot of workshops where people are studying a specific author. Suddenly, every story submitted in that workshop sounds like that author.  This can be a big issues in graduate programs because you’ll go in sounding very unique and come out as sort of a cookie-cutter writer whose work sounds just like everyone else you graduated with. This is not always the case, but it’s something to be aware of when choosing a program.

This sort of happened to me a few years ago in a workshop where we were reading Raymond Carver and it seemed like the more Carver we read, the more stories we got to critique that sounded like Carver. But this workshop had an interesting effect on me. The effect of Carver’s distinct style eventually faded, but the techniques I learned from imitating his style stuck with me.

The important thing here to remember is that imitation is good if you’re using it to develop your own voice and style, but imitation is bad if you’re just piggy-backing off someone’s success (because more than likely you won’t be able to do it as well as them).

If you want to use imitation as a practice in craft, try doing something like Yelping with Cormac, a tumblr of Yelp reviews in the style of Cormac McCarthy. Sometimes tricking someone into thinking something you wrote was written by someone else (and someone well-known) can be quite the accomplishment.

Doing NaNoWriMo? Try writing a chapter in the style of a different author. See if you can keep it going for 1000-2000 words, if nothing else for the challenge of it. You never know, maybe it will enlighten you to how you want to tell the rest of the story!

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