Editor’s Note: This post has been written by Tonya Peterson, an English major at Lewis University. Tonya is interning with the Jet Fuel Review this semester and will be contributing blog posts periodically.
“Imitation, conscious imitation, is one of the great methods, perhaps the method of learning to write. The ancients, the Elizabethans, knew this, profited by it, and were not disturbed. As a son of Ben [Jonson], Herrick more than once rewrote Jonson, who, in turn, drew heavily on the classics. And so on.”—Theodore Roethke, “How to Write Like Somebody Else”
As a creative writer, I have found myself facing the dreadful writer’s block syndrome. I was dumbfounded by how I was going to create unique and interesting works for my writing portfolio until my son came home with a middle school poem exercise. He was tasked with an assignment to re-write a nursery rhyme. I immediately recalled the imitation exercises that I did in my writing workshops at Lewis University and he and I knocked that assignment out in no time. That prompted me to start flipping through some poetry books to find a poem to emulate.
Imitation or copying has a connotation that implies something bad. However, as a writer, I needed to remember that my inspiration to write has often times come from other writer’s works. It is not copying an author when you cite their work, so think of imitation as the most direct route to mastering a skill. You just follow the master step by step and you’re bound to get it. Is that not how we learn to do pretty much everything in life? It is not just found in writing either. In actuality there is a long tradition of this in the arts. Go to a museum and you’re likely to find a student tracing someone else’s moves.
Imitation is a means by which we can take past traditions into account and build upon, develop, and change the past tradition all the while finding our contribution to the fine arts. It is a method that will help hone the craft of creation. By imitating the writing styles of the greats, one can feel the process of putting the words on the paper and will eventually learn to branch out into their own creative and unique style.
So give it a try and let’s see who you want to imitate. The first thing is find a poem that “speaks” to you. Then start by exchanging noun for noun, verb for verb and so on. After you get a piece of work that you are happy with, start the revision process. When I revised one of my earlier imitation poems, I found that I started to distance myself from the original poem. I did however keep the exoskeleton of the original piece, so I made sure to make mention of my inspiration. Remember the author you emulated worked just as hard creating their poem, so remember to thank them.
My favorite imitation poem that has been published in the 2011 Windows Magazine is:
Skeletons in my pillowcase
Exoskeleton of Karyna McGlynn’s ‘A Girl Bellycrawls into My Room in Weeds’
he creeps in like smoldering smoke when I’m covering my eyes
but something above me, left tucked under the ceiling fan
flanked by and rolled up like dark pomegranate seeds
but from his neck down it’s the same melody
his fingers: always course, yet never cold and the way he
turns sideways with a sangria-colored tie
starts spinning webs, then leans backwards
skating an indifferent palm through my dusty album
and when he reaches down to trace, his eyes get snared
he can only take three shallow twitched steps
I mean he’s up under my pillowcase
and notches 2 slits on my vellum background, which is discarded
like a thing, a scorpion and he’s some starving anthropologist.
— Tonya Peterson