Mostly what I try to do lately is emulate the compassion, wisdom and grace that George exhibits in his posts and interviews. And from the comments sections over the past year or so, and very much over the past week, I think I'm not the only one... Writing? Sure, I'm trying to get better, deeper, smarter. But life.... I am getting so much better at life through Story Club. Who woulda thunk it? What a gift and surprise. Thank you George and thank Story Clubbers.
In 1949, a British magazine ran a contest for stories written in the style of Graham Greene, which the author himself entered under the name of N. Wilkinson. He came second.
Emulating can also be a lot of fun! I'm in an online writing group that ran an event about a year ago aptly called "Frankenstories." We were asked to do things like write a romance in the style of Dr. Seuss, a western in the style of Poe, horror a la Terry Pratchett, etc. Challenges like these can flex muscles you didn't know you had. And sure, the results are probably not publishable in a reputable journal, but you never know. Treat the silliest assignments seriously, and sometimes you stumble onto the sublime.
I was a journalist at Women's Wear Daily for years. Every new reporter was deeply encouraged to read Hemingway (especially The Old Man and the Sea) in hopes of that this would be the result! I remember early days in college I would actually just rewrite articles both new and old by Didion, Capote, and Suzy Menkes, among others, to inhabit their techniques. Such a valuable exercise to learning the craft from the inside out and refining your voice, too.
I’m still on the road and without my trusty computer, so please excuse any inarticulateness or typos. But this subject is not one I wanted to skip over. I used to teach a writing course on imitation. But my idea of “imitation” was not to emulate another writer’s style, but to steal other aspects of a writer’s oeuvre. To me, giving students something to imitate meant giving them the opportunity to face the blank page with more confidence. So, for instance, there was stealing from Joe Brainard, as many have done, by writing a story using the format “I remember” to begin each sentence. (Brainard wrote an entire book this way.) Or, we would read a short story and steal its structure. Or, we would read a short story and steal the transition words used. Or, we’d read a short story and steal its plot. All of these (and more) are forms of imitation and excellent exercises. Forms are fun to imitate. Perhaps we would read a short story that had been written in the form of a letter to the editor. We’d write our own stories using such a form, but changing the plot entirely, etc. I think you get the point. As far as copying a writer’s “style,” by which I think the questioner means “voice,” well, that is problematic for all of the reasons George has already written. You can’t be anyone else but yourself. Okay, I’ve had it with this tiny keyboard. I’m out.
As George suggested, many writers do the emulation unconsciously, and it seems part of a word-farmer's winnowing. But sometimes it's simple fun to do it deliberately. Here was me a ways back playing Albert Camus starting a blog:
My blog was born today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be bothered. After the first few lines of the post, I felt exceedingly tired, and I put to rest. I answered the postman’s knock, and when he handed me a few fliers, I felt his look contained a judgment. I thought he was accusing me of something, perhaps even something indecent. I blurted out, “Yes, the blog, I’ll finish it. There is time!” But I closed the door on him without needing to see his reaction. Later, I felt poorly for having done it.
I forgave Albert and he forgave me.
Emulating another writer can also be a very handy tool in revision, in that trying out the story in the style of someone else, can sometimes open something up that you couldn't see before. Plus, it's always good to stretch some of those less-used craft muscles.
I've tried writing Hemingway but for me it took my tendency towards somewhat passive characters and muted so much that the result was less iceberg and more ice cube. Then I experimented a little with Rick Moody's long sentences, which helped me gain some variety in my rhythm. I've also tried writing a story modelled after a particular TC Boyle story and what I discovered is that the structure in that story is much, much harder to pull off than it seems.
It’s an old practice, and writers as varied as Robert L Stevenson, Ben Franklin, and Hunter Thompson have spoken of doing it. It’s a great way to make a start and every(or almost every) artist in every medium does it. Bob Dylan spent his first few years personating Woody Guthrie and Ramblin Jack Elliott. Ray Charles was trying to sound like Nat King Cole. When I was in high school, I used to write out song lyrics of songs that I knew, I think it helped me a lot. But over the long haul, as has been said, it’s not really sustainable.
I remember Jon Stewart making a comment that for the first couple years he was a comic , he was just impersonating a standup comedian. And that was how he finally learned how to be one. That resonated with me.
I think the first writer I emulated was Vonnegut. I got caught up with the way he was able to merge the funny with the sad with the beautiful while keeping his prose extremely accessible. The jokey way his stories unfolded like they were being read aloud on a porch somewhere in Indiana was great, but as much as I enjoyed it and wanted my writing to have a similar quality, I’ve realized with time that my response was to the worldview, not necessarily the method.
That being said, I’ve been reading Jamel Brinkley’s newest book Witness (which is a banger so far), and seeing the way he unveils a plot point in one of his stories broke open one of my own stories. I think there are levels to emulation. There’s the whole cloth, “I want to be X” version, and the revelation of certain rhetorical moves that maybe a writer could have eventually figured out on their own, but are easier to glean from a master. If we’re going with George’s sports metaphor, this might be a team watching tape of another team.
Bernard Malamud was who I tried to emulate. I thought, absolutely nobody is writing in this wonderful, powerful style these days. Although I did a reasonable facsimile of Malamud’s style, needless to say the result wasn’t stories of great caliber because duh, I’m not Bernard Malamud. I had to find my own voice, which is an ongoing process.
Thanks so much for this — I’m a student and just turned in a story for workshop that was a clear emulation of Cormac McCarthy. I’ve found it a very effective way to learn as a writer: to try on all of the voices I revere, and then discern at which points moments of myself stick out, and then attempt to pay close attention to those moments and what they reveal about my own voice. I talk to many writers who have just started who are very concerned about “finding their voice,” and I think it’s helpful to remember that human beings are inherently imitative — it’s how we learn practically everything, including speech and language when we are young. Where emulation goes wrong is when the writer becomes confined, thinking “this is the only way to do it” or is consumed in doubt that they will never have anything “original” to say. I’m also reminded of Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School, in which the narrator plagiarizes to win an audience with his hero, Hemingway — it disheartens me when this competitive attitude rears its head in the workshop, as if the point is to impress everyone instead of aid in development.
I believe I emulate on the level of the paragraph -I pay close attention to the paragraphing of a writer whose pacing and subject matter and voice I find particularly compelling and then try to sketch over it with my own thing.
I want to kind of absorb, not the quality of the writer’s voice, but how they roll out information on the micro-level that makes me want to keep reading. My books have marginal notes all down the pages that I later make into lists in a
Word doc after I’m done reading - short bursts of summary like:
1. Description of the old barn
2. Thoughts on wife’s suicide
3. Son riding tractor, waving
4. Remembering Great Flood of ‘86
5. Description of wife’s funeral dress
Then, from a story I already have the characters and plot somewhat worked out, I’ll make a paragraph-level list of what the first draft could contain, like:
1. Description of haunted house facade
2. Thoughts on first Halloween
3. Old man with hook hand mowing lawn, waving.
4. Remembering car crash
5. Description of driver’s ninja turtle costume.
-this seems to get me going on a first draft. I often just open George’s Swim in the Pond book to where I have his “shot lists” of stories listed and just stare at them for inspiration for a minute as well. I like to think of my story just starting as an informal list of things.
Joan Didion claims she “learned” how to write by literally typing out great swaths of Hemingway’s prose. Hemingway seems particularly susceptible to imitation and influence. His effect on 20th Century prose is perhaps unrivaled. Perhaps because it seems so simple and within reach of anyone.
When I started out my prose god was Nabokov; and you can almost predict the car wreck that ensued. Like DFW, the great Russian is near impossible to imitate. I spent years embarrassing myself all over the landscape with blatantly overwritten prose thinking I was channeling Pale Fire. It took a kind editor to point out that I was showing off or as Foster Wallace would put it, mostly stunt pilotry.
That said, I’d not change that embarrassment for anything. It was an expression of sheer love of language and the written word. And that’s why any of us write.
The first things I ever wrote of any length at all were the answers to essay test questions in my undergrad history classes, My Western Civ prof only gave these sorts of tests, usually two or three questions per exam, and this sort of set task was and is my forte - I had no problem quickly scrawling out seven or eight page answers per question (back in the 70s when writing meant handwriting.) I was rather proud of this minor ability of mine - until the day that, across the face of my little blue, graded exam book, the prof had scrawled very large, leaning, seemingly angry red letters that said, "LEARN TO WRITE!". Jeez, that hurt, and stayed with me a long time - it felt like a slap in response to honest effort. I'm sure she was just exasperated (she was quite young, new to the job), having to read untold reams of truly wretched undergrad prose. More to the point at hand - beginning in my senior year of high school, I had become an avid reader, mainly inspired by reading Tolkien and C.S. Lewis fictions through and through. Reading these two fine stylists gave me my first inklings of how good writing might be distinguished from bad, pun intended. But this new appreciation of good writing was not connected in my mind as applicable to the sort of writing I found in textbooks and other scholarly works - entirely different modes, I assumed. Until, a few years later, I bought a used copy of C.S. Lewis's contribution to the Oxford History of English Literature, "English Literature in the Sixteenth Century". I was gob-smacked - this book did not read like any other scholarly work in my memory. Lewis was his usual self: direct, pithy, brilliant, clear as a bell, amusing, and even a bit sassy in places. No descents into academic jargon or vagaries or theory-speak. This was a revelation to me of sorts - I realized that, in writing those old college essays, I had actually been emulating (poorly I'm sure) the (non-Lewisian) academic language I was immersed in as a liberal arts major. All to say, I found out how one can be in emulation mode and not aware of it. It took the writing of an academic who was in many ways a misfit in academia to bring me this understanding. A silent moment of thanks to those authors who give us the clarity and satisfactions of truly great styles that, at rare times in our lives, strike like miraculous light.
To quote, echo, EMULATE a very fine band: YOU CAN GO YOUR OWN WAY (GO YOUR OWN WAY) -- or not, or both, as the case may be. We're all magpies, are we not?
Unconscious emulation of a writing prop:
Roald Dahl is played by Ralph Fiennes (Fiennes also acts the part of other characters, mainly The Rat Catcher,) in a series of films of some Dahl short stories. Dahl is portrayed in his writing cottage sitting in his writing chair writing on a special type of custom-made writing prop. Several years ago, when designing the perfect writing position for me, I made the exact same prop. (You may have done the same.) It is a large board that sits across the arms of your writing chair, (in my case a Lazy-Boy recliner which stretches out at the perfect angle for relaxed writing,) and has a deep semi-circle cut out of the edge of one side to encompass one's gut. The outer edge of Dahls Board is raised slightly by the insertion of what looks like a cylinder of the type bolts of cloth are wrapped around, giving a rake to the board. I rake my board up by raising my knees and have a couple of ribs screwed on its surface to stop my pens, books, journal, laptop, snack plate, sliding down. I write like an astronaut plying with switches and dials in her capsule. It is now with pure delight that I write on a board identical to Dahls.
The Films are on netflix. Here's a link to "The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar." which begins with Fiennes as Dahl in his writing chair: