How Do Writers Balance Innovation with Imitation?
Alice Fulton, a mentor of mine who is a fantastic poet, told me something that I have found incredibly helpful and that I return to often.
She said, “We imitate when we think we innovate, and we innovate when we think we imitate.”
It’s something that has stuck with me because of the phrasing. I didn’t understand it when I first heard, the quote, but it’s something that I wanted to repeat myself. In some ways, it reminded me of poetry I enjoy in that I could like what it sounded like before I understood what it meant. Then, over time, I started unpacking it for myself. I did that with this phrase.
How can I be innovative as a writer?
“We imitate when we think we innovate.” For me, that meant if:
- I don’t know what traditions I’m writing,
- I don’t have an understanding of what’s happening in the political landscape, or
- What movements have come before that,
I might think that I’m doing something incredibly new and challenging and innovative. But someone else may have already done it. That doesn’t mean that I can’t follow that or add to it, but if I’m not aware of it, I might just be repeating something similar. Or I can’t complicate it any more, because I’m starting from an earlier point, when if I knew something already existed, I could take advantage of studying that and start at a different point.
When is it OK to imitate a writer?
The other part of, “We innovate when we think we imitate,” seems to mean that we shouldn’t be afraid of influences. Part of how we learn is through others, through their work. That doesn’t mean you end up copying them. You could try really hard to imitate a writer that you love and you’re never going to be that writer. You are your own writer.
Imitation is a really important part of learning and so is exercising writing muscles. But the other component of that is a fear of influence. I see this with younger writers who think, “If I read too much of this one thing, then I’m going to start writing like this person or like this group of writers.”
Part of that is true. What we read influences us and it’s good to read widely and have various influences. But I don’t think of influence in the same way.
I think of influence as when I read writers that I love, they do influence me in the sense that they teach me something in their work that is instructive. In that way, I wouldn’t be afraid of influence, because:
- If you are writing the poems that only you can write,
- If you are becoming more confident in your voice,
- If you’re working toward that, I don’t think that you can be lost in the influence of someone else, because you’re chasing your own voice.
It’s the difference between writing by yourself in a void, where you’re essentially just talking to yourself, versus understanding that you are part of a conversation. Instead of talking to yourself, it opens you up.
How lonely to think that you’re just writing on your own! It makes it so much harder versus understanding that being a writer is to be part of a community. That’s helpful because instead of thinking of other writers as influences, I like thinking in some ways that they’re like collaborators. They are helping me get to my work — helping you see what’s possible with the language.
The Alma College Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing offers the opportunity to enter an artistic community in which you will read deeply, study and hone your writing craft, and participate in energetic discussions that will help you see your poems, stories, essays, and memoirs in the context of current issues and events. Learn more at alma.edu/mfa.