Imitation as Practice

It is true that Virginia Woolf is my very favorite author. It is possible that I knew her once, in a passing lifetime. Perhaps I was a stranger on a train next to her, or the very rocks she carried into the moving river of her undoing. No matter the case, her words have carried me through the brightest and darkest days of my life. She is even, in fact, the inspiration behind In Her Room, in a loose sort of way.

So it is no surprise to me, that when I wanted to share this writing exercise about voice and imitation, that her work came to mind immediately. A simple and yet complex task simultaneously, the practice of imitating a beloved author is a powerful tool for deepening our own experience of voice, and for developing skills of observation and listening.

For the exercise, choose a piece of writing by a beloved author. Someone you have read more than one thing from, so that you have a sense of their style and voice in your head. Note: this practice of imitation is not for creating work to be published, as it risks copyright infringement. But use these practices to push your own writing to new places.

Sit down and read this piece with new eyes: pay attention to the voice, the tonality, the sentence structure and special phrases used. Absorb the writing into your skin. Pull out your notebook or computer, and turn to a new page. Begin listing the characteristics of this writing -- the subject matter, any dialogue included, and the phrases or setting used. Turning to a new page (but keeping these notes close), begin writing a story from your own life that has a related theme or subject.

You're not copying the work you just read. You want to pay attention to the way your beloved author turns a phrase. How he or she describes certain things, or approaches a topic. Place yourself in their mind, and tell your story as you hear them speak to you.

I'll give you an example.

In 1942 (one year after her death), Virginia Woolf posthumously published an essay called "The Death of the Moth," the eponymous work for one of her last essay collections*. In this essay, she describes and relates the story of a day moth caught in the windowsill, aching to get outside, and the sense of inquiry about the fleeting nature of life.

In 1977, Annie Dillard published her memoir Holy the Firm*, a reflection on 14 months of living on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest. Early in the book, Dillard recollects a memory of camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains when a moth flies into the flame of a candle. This segment, often titled "The Death of the Moth," harkens the emotions and thoughts of Virginia Woolf's essay from over 30 years earlier.

Both authors use the subject of a moth to discuss profound and important themes of life, death, and process. While it is not true (by her own admission) that Dillard imitated Woolf, it is fair to say that Virginia Woolf's essay had an impact on the writing. So, too, can the practice of studying and imitating the effective tools of our favorite writer's help us learn the the important hooks and stylistic endeavors of our own personal voice.

When you've finished writing the first draft of your imitation, put it aside. For a week, or a month. When you return to the piece, read it first -- and then re-read the piece you are attempting to imitate. Notice the stylistic elements in your writing, and how they differ from the original author. These are the hooks and cues to discovering your authentic voice -- the way you write and speak that is uniquely, unequivocally, you.

I would love to hear about your experience with this exercise. What did you learn? Did anything surprise you about your own unique voice? leave a comment and let me know!