The Law of Imitation
Imitation is a powerful tool to help a writer find their voice when used appropriately.
Mar 06, 2020
Most of what we have learned has been copied from those around us. Every single phoneme of language to the way that we get angry when someone tells us not to get angry has been passed down to us from memorable and unmemorable people in our life. A craft, like writing, is learned through mimicry. By reading and loving and wanting to be the authors we love and admire, whose lines are so beautiful they knock the wind out of us. So, we imitate.
Imitation isn’t stealing. It’s using another person’s voice and perspective to help us get to the crevasse that is our own. We imitate in the hopes we’ll be imitated because it means that people are soaking us up and in return we help them see a piece of themselves a little different. My writing is constructed from the beauty of every storyteller I’ve ever loved before—Carmen Maria Machado, Ada Limon, Kaveh Akhbar, my grandmother, my dad and my cousin. Every person who let me touch a little bit of them and their world disguised as words, breath and paper. I happily consumed them, and they helped me feel a little more whole, confident and vulnerable.
The world teaches us how to see the world, and writers and artists are this constant mirror. But, imitating has a limit. Once we’ve sucked up every ounce of life from the words we can muster, we have to let them come through us, by us, for us. We have to take all the tools we’ve absorbed from those before us and channel them to find ourselves. The writing will be horrendous. And, this truth will hurt. But, the search for the written self could never be beautiful. So, we have to write and write and craft its beauty. We’ll know it’s beautiful when we look at the words on the page and say, “That’s me.” Finally, we will have the self that is truly ours, one that we can finally fully share with others.
There is nothing more beautiful than being able to communicate our authentic self. Still, people will misunderstand and misinterpret and misunderstand and misinterpret us as sure as dusk and night and dawn and noon. But, we won’t care because the words are ours. The words formed from the love of all those who shared themselves before will hold our writing up like the flaming swords of the cherubim at the garden of Eden. People may even be mad because how dare we love ourself and all the beautiful ghosts before us so much. And, it will hurt because beauty should be revered, but the reality is beauty and seeing beauty and writing beauty will confuse people who see beauty as white light because they’ve never been shown a prism.
Then, we will care. We’ll be afraid that people won’t like us for what we wrote, and, really, who we are. We’ll be afraid that people will hate us. And, sometimes, they will both dislike us and hate us, but we will remember the story our grandmother told us about the devil counting the hairs on the tip of a cat’s tail and realize we may not have nine lives but even something like a flick of a tail can be a super power and give us a few more lives.
We’re lucky we’re writing in some of the most diversely recognized moments in history, but we shouldn’t settle. We’re lucky the ghosts before us had the magic to see that’s what we needed and the retrospection to name what was missing from the world and demand it. It means our ghosts are more complete and truer. Sometimes I think ghosts who haunt have found the wrong person but don’t know it. Writing ghosts who don’t look like us will haunt us in the same way. They aren’t for us. But, we don’t know how to get rid of them or properly use them to find ourselves.
There are some voices we aren’t meant to keep. We can get caught in the infinite treasures of imitation that ends up being plagiarism and cultural appropriation. And, sometimes, no one has the courage or care to tell us that our written self is hollow. What was once imitation becomes stolen. To fill a gap or a hole or any metaphor for insecurity that our own story is not enough or the fear of revealing our self is much too much. No one will tell us how bland our words are, but they don’t have to because we’ll have already felt that blandness and deny it exists with more and more writing that is straw.
One of the most gracious gifts that artists give us is the ability to see ourselves better. It is a privilege we have to respect and keep from taking advantage. When imitation is used rightly, it is a tool that helps shape our voice into the unique cadence and form that is us.