I have a question about emulation (and apologies if this is a subject you've already covered, but I've missed).
As I understand it, the Old Masters were apprentices of the master painters who came before them, and they themselves had apprentices following in their footsteps who would practice increasingly difficult techniques for a long time before being considered masters themselves (if they got there at all).
Likewise, many of the Japanese arts follow a similar pattern to this day.
However, by comparison, this sort of emulation seems to be 'frowned upon' in writing. Is that your impression?
Do you think there is any value in (for example) writing a short stories 'in the style of' other writers, if the work of those writers truly resonates with us?
Or do you think emulation can only really work if the apprentice is actively being taught by the master?
Yes, thanks for this question.
Before I answer – I just wanted to say that, across the paywall, we are in the middle of a mind-blowing group discussion of Katherine Anne Porter’s great story, “The Jilting of Granny Wetherall.” Inspired by the story’s subject matter, I asked the group to reflect on death – their experience of it, their feelings about it, how the awareness of it might inflect the way they live – and the response has been wonderful, comforting, generous, and inspiringly open-hearted.
Also, I did this interview with the wonderful Jane Ratcliffe for her Substack “Beyond…”
So, on to the question….
I think emulation, though not formally practiced, is very much alive and well.
Almost every young writer goes through a period during which he, swept away by some established writer, steps right into that other writer’s voice (or tries to), sometimes without even realizing he’s doing it.
This is not only totally natural and unavoidable, it is, I think, necessary, even laudable.
The fact that the writer has the desire to imitate his hero indicates that he has a good ear: that is, he can discern between different voices and has shown a preference for that one voice over all others.
Imitating another writer is also good practice; through it, the young writer might first encounter the notion, “Hey, this needs work,” (i.e., revision), when what he writes in homage to his hero…doesn’t sound like that hero. Then the writer goes back in and tries to adjust what he’s done and – voila – he’s revising (revising as a form of training one’s ear.)
For me, that writer was Hemingway. I read “In Our Time” and had never been so deeply engaged as a reader. And my mind went, “This is not just one example of writing; this is THE ONLY KIND OF writing.”
And I set about recasting my experiences in Hemingway’s language.
(Actually, come to think of it, I’d had an earlier experience of this as a third-grader, when my teacher gave me a copy of Esther Forbes’ novel Johnny Tremaine, and I went around all that year thinking in Forbes’ distinctive voice.)
I’m guessing that I’m not alone in this.
So: who did you emulate, and why? And how did it help and/or hurt you, in the long run?
In the end, though, the young writer will find that, no matter how close she gets to recreating the voice of her hero, something’s missing.
What is it?
Well, it’s her (precious, hard-earned) lived experience.
Hemingway’s prose arrived in the world as an effect of his life experiences (and his neurology/mindset/karma); he sought and developed that voice in his quest for his prose to have a certain ring of truth.
Form and function were one and the same (as is the case for any great stylist).
When I fell into “his” voice, I was blocking my own truths (my own core sensibility) from getting in there. (This raises the interesting idea that style and view are inextricably linked; we can’t get to our own deep truths in someone else’s voice.)
Meanwhile, over here, my lived experiences were feeling sad and lonely and neglected. And when I read my prose during that period, deep down I had a disappointed, removed feeling, kind of like, “What does that have to do with me? Anyone could have written this. Where am I in all of this? Where is what’s unique about me?”
We might say, then, that our “true voice” is exactly equal to the voice that will let what is unique about us be most present on the page.
As we make the thousands of micro-choices presented to us over the course of our revision process, we are constantly infusing “more us” into the text. And somehow this pattern of choices causes the story to sort of “bend around,” or be formed by, our worldview – causes the story to pose certain questions hardwired into our psyches, for example.
It's hard to explain but I’m guessing many of you have had some version of this experience.
One diagnostic tool that can tell us whether we’re writing in a voice true to us is, I think, confidence. In “our” voice, we know what to do (to make it better, i.e., to make it sound more like us.)
Interestingly, another diagnostic tool that can tell us when we’re not getting it right, or are being too derivative, is our own frustration - that feeling of wearing the wrong clothing.
This frustration can cause us to abandon imitative aspirations and try to find a more amenable voice.
However, and maybe more often, it leads us off on a quest for a new hero, someone better-suited to us, someone whose vision and life are, we feel, more in-line with our own.
I went from Hemingway to Kerouac, sensing, correctly, that Kerouac was more akin to me in his class origins.
And, of course, Kerouac wore out too, soon enough, because he was not me and I was not him.
And when I “did” his voice, I didn’t do it as well as he did, and anyone reading it would sense the debt. There was, at heart, nothing at all new about it – just BeatnikLite, set in 1987 or whenever.
The questioner asks, “Do you think there is any value in (for example) writing a short stories 'in the style of' other writers, if the work of those writers truly resonates with us?” and I’d have to say: yes, sometimes. Trying to do the voice of a certain writer, and failing, can produce some new thing. That is, we might set out to imitate, or pay homage to, a certain writer and then find that we end up doing something else entirely.
That is, we find a new voice through the process of trying (and failing) to imitate.)
What finally drives a writer to originality? As mentioned: for me, it was the frustration caused by emulation; the sense that, for Lord’s sake, I knew some things about life, I really did, but there wasn’t any evidence of this showing up in my work.
Another way of saying this: my work wasn’t urgent; it was like fan fiction to whoever I was worshiping at that time. There was nothing, or not much, of the world I knew in it, not the moral-ethical essence of that world.
So….if our young emulating writer is lucky, she will experience a crisis, caused by the fact that her hard-earned wisdom about the world (her frustrations, questions, joys, obsessions) are not finding a home in her (derivative, emulative) prose. She will feel some combination of: lost, inept, unguided. For me, there was also a tendency to resort to “thinking” – cross-checking my stories with the stories of my hero, to see if I was “doing it right.”
Then came a rupture, which I’ve written about here before, during which I suddenly gave up on imitating anyone and just tried to be funny in the way I was funny in real life.
And what a relief that was.
I don’t think this always happens as catastrophically as it did for me; some people don’t struggle with this issue of voice as much as others; that is some people’s originality may not be grounded in voice (but in ethos, or structure, or subject matter).
And…it’s not as triumphant as I’m making it sound either; it can actually be bittersweet, because those early forays into one’s own voice are, by definition, not going to be as grand or perfect or polished as the work of the masters that we admire.
On the other hand, stumbling upon even a hint of one’s true voice is a big accomplishment and, in my experience, was one of the sweetest things that can ever happen to a writer: there I was on the page, suddenly, albeit in little flashes, and not only was “I” there, the appearance of “my” voice had the effect of opening the storytelling process open – revising was suddenly a more confidence-driven experience, filled with more import and mystery and a genuine sense of exploration.
The decisions that I was being asked to make – I suddenly felt I had the wherewithal to make them, unlike when I was in Hem-mode and would, whenever I got lost, open “In Our Time” and try to intuit what he’d done at a similar moment in one of his stories.
What a drag that was.
All of this to say that I think early emulation is a good and necessary thing – a form of training wheels, we might say.
One more thought: when I encounter a student who is noticeably in the throes of imitating another writer, I’ve found that one good strategy is to not “call” the writer on it at all, but just give him or her a really attentive line edit. Why? Well, say a student is imitating David Foster Wallace. There are going to be “tells” in the language – places where they can’t quite track DFW’s language and, so, makes errors. (This is especially true for a writer like Wallace who was, himself, such a stickler for precise syntax, and operated at a very high level of adherence to it, with the occasional deeply reasoned departure from it. Not many people can operate at that level, which means someone attempting to channel DFW is going to be prone to grammatical and syntactical mistakes.)
So, in this case, the line edits show where the text has fallen out of syntax; if the student comes back to these places, the result will tend to sound…more like the student. This “new” voice often comes as a discovery to the student; the sense can be, “Oh, so that’s how I am supposed to sound.”
The edits have, in other words, identified the precise moments when his sensibility and Wallace’s diverged. The student couldn’t “do” DFW’s language (in part because it wasn’t his own) and, when asked to rewrite that place, the student will often adopt a different, simpler, non-DFW syntax, i.e., one more like his own.
And this is true no matter who the student is imitating – there will always be a “tell,” and this is a place of what we might call “view-divergence”; the adopted syntax showing the strain, if you will.
Imagine you were teaching a young wide receiver in football and, to do so, had him shadow, in his route, a veteran player – step-for-step, gesture-for-gesture.
This might, at first, be helpful. The player would, no doubt, pick up a few things: the sharpness required in making the cuts in the route, maybe, the necessary speed, some head feints, or whatever.
But the effort of imitation would eventually impede his ability to be original – to create his own style, per his own strengths and weakness (his stride, his speed, his instincts, etc.)
The lovely moment would be when, in the heat of a game, trying to get open, he finds himself improvising in his own authentic, self-responsive, style, i.e., becoming himself.
Something like that is what we’re seeking in writing; that moment when some truth within us can’t be expressed in any language but our own.