Writing Exercise: Mimicry, Part 2

My last post was an introduction to the use of mimicry in writing as a tool for developing a writer’s voice. In this second half of the posted exercise, we’re going to try our hands at being copycats…for the sake of art.

If you’ve never done an imitation writing exercise before, granting yourself permission to be a hack may prove to be the first challenge. That fear of God that rises inside of a writer in near brushes with plagiarism is real—it serves the practical purposes of safeguarding work and respecting territory—and it can get in the way of allowing yourself the freedom to experiment. So, repeat with me: “I’m going to copy. I’m going to steal from talented writers.” You’re also not going to pass off a floundering word substitution exercise as a submission for The Atlantic (or for a class, unless your professor understands and agrees with your method!), so rest assured that you’re just flexing some underused muscles and testing your limits for the purposes of an exercise.

There are multiple approaches to imitation or mimicry exercises—you can substitute clauses while retaining punctuation, you can swap out words, and some writers even find value in transcribing text word-for-word to get a feel for the motion and rhythm of the original work. I’m going to select a passage and do my best to adhere to a rough sentence structure and theme. Feel free to play along with this passage or one of your own choosing.

  1. I’m giving myself a real humdinger of a complex and beautiful passage from Olga Grushin’s novel The Dream Life of Sukhanov:

“And slowly, as more recollections claimed him, all the accidentally intercepted glances and bitten lips and bright, insincere intonations slid into place, all the uncertainties were made certain, all the blank spots colored—and by the time Belkin turned to him with a new glass of colorless tea, he finally knew the truth, and his whole young past with Nina, with its sleepless rambles through the city, its flights of happiness, its ecstatic dreams, shifted, changed in time, became dimmer, sadder, more transparent, and at the same time more real” (2005).

Seriously. Isn’t that an incredible sentence?

  1. My second step is to identify the highlights of the passage, and I encourage you to do the same for a passage that you’ve selected. Here’s what I love about the excerpt from above and its author: Grushin is a pro at dragging the reader through her characters’ critical emotional crossroads, especially the ones where the unexpected barrels through and blindsides characters. Here, the anxiety is mounting as the main character of the novel sorts through memories of his wife and best friend, each recollection being tinted with a new sense of loss and betrayal in light of a freshly uncovered, disturbing truth about an enduring, clandestine love. The passage has a dizzying motion to it due to the movement from present to past to present to past to present, all while memories and reality are shifting. In the context of the story, the dizziness mirrors the physical and mental state of the unsteady main character, Sukhanov.
  1. Now for the hard part. Mimicking. Here’s my very basic shot at it (try your own, as well!):

Steadily, with a stream of regrets flooding her, all the paths she could’ve walked and canvases left untouched became rising, swift waters, all the wasted moments were droplets, all her talents were wind—and by the time Anna looked to her reflection, a pallid wash crossed with fine, worn tributaries, she realized that her youth, with its tired excuses, its manic spurts of partial paintings, its sullen dry spells, was lost, starkly barren, a fossilized, unchangeable history of inertia.

My aim for the exercise was to get a feel for Grushin’s structure, so I copied that as best as I could. I also wanted to fluctuate between past and present and stick with the themes of discovery and loss. The outcome is vastly different from anything that I would ordinarily write, and it’s refreshing and challenging to grapple with a complex structure when I gravitate toward a more straightforward, conversational style. What did I learn? This type of structure is really effective for engaging a reader in something that is typically boring to witness in real life: picturing a person untangling thoughts. The structure allows you to both see the person and experience revelations with that person. That’s one of the greatest beauties of writing, isn’t it?

I encourage you to test out a new style to see what can be learned and to push yourself out of the comfort zone. The process might bring about new themes for your work as well as adding variety to tired sentence structures, and it will certainly add dimension to your voice.

Writing Exercise: Mimicry, Part I

A writer’s voice is an ever-changing product of practice and exposure to others’ work. Much in the same way that we carry with us a gesture, a mannerism, a charm from each person who has influenced us in life, writers absorb structures, themes, cadences, and lyricism from authors. These essential adoptions in daily reading and writing practices add dimension to the timbre of writers’ voices and invite us to revisit classics and seek out new authors as part of our growth.

For novice writers, developing a voice is a critical challenge; some novices shift rapidly through styles and avoid cultivating a unique and mature voice while others stick with what they know and remain underdeveloped, firmly situated in a comfort zone. It can be hard for young poets, for example, to land confidently in a new verse structure. (If couplets are your cup of tea, why switch and brew up misery?) And it can be easy to write off a style without trying it out. Some fit like gloves while others seem to be shoes on the wrong feet. Growth. It’s a necessary, painful, and experimental stretch that can be eased through intentional development of voice. Enter the art of mimicry. Tell us all about it, T.S. Eliot:

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. Chapman borrowed from Seneca; Shakespeare and Webster from Montaigne. (“The Sacred Wood,” 1921)

According to Eliot, it isn’t so much about whether or not a writer will take from the masters (that’s a given, and you’re likely doing it to a degree without noticing); his test of a writer’s worth hinges on the quality and uniqueness of the resulting work. It takes exposure to great work and experience to develop into the “good poet,” and a writing practice that centers on absorption can take writers from the immature imitator to the master with a unique voice.

The first step of absorbing great work is analysis. All writers benefit from analyzing the work of influential authors—it doesn’t matter if you’re a poet looking to a novelist or a journalist looking to a screenwriter. Here’s an exercise to encourage you to seek out those who inspire you, and then I hope you’ll take some time to reflect on their work.

  • Identify a favorite author and one work from that author.
  • Identify what appeals to you about the author’s writing. Theme? Sentence structure? Narrative arc? Character development? Explore what is appealing about the handling of the identified elements.
  • Identify what doesn’t appeal to you or something that rings untrue in the work. What’s going on in the work at those turns?

Eventually, you’ll want to identify a sentence or paragraph that is particularly striking to you. Bookmark that page! We’re going to need that excerpt for the exercise that will be in my next post, “Writing Exercise: Mimicry, Part II.”

A Late Night Quandary about APA Abstracts

It’s midnight. Your paper is due tomorrow at 9 a.m. With coffee at your side, you’ve just settled into your chair, powered up your laptop, and pulled up the professor’s prompt on Canvas. And then it happens. You’ve just discovered a gray area in the assignment that seems like it might require an answer from your professor: Is an abstract needed for short papers when using APA style?

Now what? The first instinct is to go…

To the internet! The results of a Google search indicate that there isn’t a clear-cut answer to this question, unfortunately. You can often find incredibly helpful answers on APA style on the APA Style Blog or the Purdue OWL, but you’re not finding any answers this time around. You could spend another hour poking around for opinions online, or you could consult the actual APA manual, which you had the foresight to purchase at the start of your studies. Right? No? Okay. Never fear! Kindle is here. Instant information.

To the APA manual! It’s the go-to for students and editors alike. Section 2.04 of the sixth edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2010) describes the purpose of an abstract and states that “most scholarly journals require an abstract” (pp. 25-26). Well, you’re not planning to submit to a journal, so that isn’t terribly helpful in this scenario, and there doesn’t seem to be any mention of papers anywhere else in this section. The Kindle download wasn’t wasted money—you’ll be glad to have it when you’re working on your References page at 4 a.m.

Here’s the tough news: Your professor really is the only one who can answer the question of whether or not an abstract is needed for a short paper (unless you’ve got a buddy who already asked and can tell you the answer). Some style rules really are open to interpretation. The best course of action would be to err on the side of including an abstract rather than skipping it. Writing an abstract (which is best done *after* the paper is finished) is actually a pretty great way to test if your paper is cohesive, and it’s a chance to exercise concise writing (not to mention, it’s an opportunity to prep yourself for submitting to scholarly journals). It only requires between 150 to 250 words, so it truly won’t tack on much more work. Going the extra mile on a paper rarely has negative consequences, and the process will help you improve as a writer. As for the next time, thoroughly reviewing paper prompts on the first day that they’re accessible will allow ample time for questions and answers and avoid wild goose chases at midnight.