Imitation as Inspiration: An Exercise for Writers

by Guest Contributor

Two halves of one self looking at each other

Today’s post is written by Sarah Baughman, a semi-finalist in the Write It Sideways regular contributor search. Thanks, Sarah!

What is it you love most about your favorite writers?

Lush descriptions, startling metaphors, characters so real you can imagine inviting them over for coffee? I’ve often wished that, just for a day, I could borrow a beloved author’s brain and use it to scrawl a few sentences.

As it turns out, trying someone else’s style on for size is not only an excellent cure for writers’ block, but also a viable way to nurture your own creative voice.

As a high school English teacher, I searched for ways to help students both appreciate the literature we read and develop more confidence and structure for their own creative writing.

When I taught Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, I created an assignment that asked students first to identify the stylistic features that distinguished the author’s writing, and then to write about a topic of their choice using those features.

I wrote along with the students and felt appropriately challenged by the exercise, but even students who were self-professed “non-writers” ended up having a lot to say; using Steinbeck’s style as a springboard, they launched into their own entirely original pieces.

How it works

Here’s a breakdown of how the ‘imitation as inspiration’ exercise works:

  1. Identify a sentence or short paragraph from a favorite work that, for whatever reason, strikes you as particularly powerful.
  2. Read the short excerpt several times, generating a list of stylistic features that characterize the writer’s voice.
  3. Create a blank template of the sentence(s), leaving articles, conjunctions, and prepositions intact (the template functions much like a well-informed ad-lib).
  4. Put the writer’s work away—don’t look at it again, or else it might interfere with your own original creative process.
  5. Select a topic that fits well with the stylistic features you pinpointed in Step 2. Freewrite or brainstorm about the topic, generating as many specific details as you can.
  6. Use the blank template from Step 3 to launch your own ultimately unique, piece of writing. If the template feels too restrictive, consider the stylistic features from Step 2 and write freely, incorporating as many as you can.

Worried about plagiarism?

Obviously, literary integrity is of utmost importance. However, as long as you stick to the above steps—choosing just a small excerpt, working from a blank template, and selecting your own topic—you’ll be left with a valuable exercise that stretches your writing brain and inspires a work-in-progress or future piece.

A Sample Exercise

Want to test the process for yourself? Here’s an exercise based on one excerpt from Cannery Row.

Excerpt (John Steinbeck, Cannery Row)

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses…

Stylistic Devices to Note

  • A syntax that rambles, lists, and “piles” word upon word using commas and “ands,” giving a sense of how much is contained in a place
  • Diction that juxtaposes shorter words with longer words to adjust the pace of the sentence, (“a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light”); that gives an exceptionally specific sense of detail (“sardine canneries of corrugated iron”), that show the complexity and contradictory nature of places and people  (“gathered and scattered”)
  • Alliteration (“canneries of corrugated iron”)

Getting Started

Think of a place you know very well.

Ideally, it is a place you have visited recently enough to recall plenty of concrete details.

Brainstorm about the place: how it looks at different times of day, how it smells, what objects can be found in it. Think about why the place is meaningful to you and what memories you have associated with it: especially, how your five senses are awakened when you are there.

Alternatively, you may work with a setting for a short story or novel-in-progress; this is a great way to make sure you know your setting well!

Blank Template

(Place) in (City) in (State/Country) is a (noun), a (noun), a (adjective + noun), a (2-word noun),  a (noun), a (noun),  a (noun), a (noun). (Place) is the (past tense verb) and (past tense verb), (noun) and (noun) and (noun) and (2-word noun), (adjective + noun) and (adjective + noun)  and (2-word noun), (noun) of (noun expressing materials the previous noun is made of), (noun), (noun) and (noun), and (2 adjectives + noun), and (noun) and (noun)…

Once you’ve written from the template, you’ll be surprised at how quickly words continue to flow.

Happy writing!

Sarah Baughman is a writer and trained teacher who has published articles in print and online publications. Her collection of creative non-fiction essays won the Michigan Writers Cooperative Press 2010 Chapbook Contest. You can follow her on Twitter and check out her blog, A Line At A Time.

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