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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.