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Imitating the Greats … Helpful or Harmful?

When my daughter was nine years old, she gave me a Picasso. Not the one pictured above. This one:

I love my daughter’s rooster. It sits in my kitchen, propped against the wall over the cooktop. Sometimes it gets hit by spaghetti sauce splatter. Bacon grease too. And the rooster’s wandering eyeballs remind me of how I often feel: a bit “on the edge.”

But when my girl gave me this painting (made in an art class that focused on replicating “the masters”), I wondered, Did this exercise teach her new skills, or did it teach her to be a copycat? 

Then I remembered 11th grade AP English. My teacher, Mrs. Deluca, was a wonderfully wise and elegantly ancient woman, always dressed in the fashion of the 1940s: sheer stockings, square-toed pumps, wool pencil skirts, airy silk blouses. Her hair always looked straight-from-the-beauty-parlor prim, her soft, pink face powered, then rouge’d. I loved her. 

When I walked into her class on the first day of school, I had no idea that I had no idea how to write.

My 9th grade English teacher had done a fantastic job teaching me how to diagram sentences. My 10th grade English teacher had done an equally fantastic job making me dislike Dickens. Neither of them had taught me a single thing about writing an essay.

But I loved writing and I loved reading so AP English had seemed a good idea.

It was not a good idea. Each time I earned a “C” on an essay, I thought I just wasn’t smart, and I was too embarrassed and self-conscious to seek help from Mrs. Deluca. If I did, she might see me for what I was: a dum-dum.

Fortunately, around that time, my mom literally handed me a gift: a manilla folder containing every essay my friend, Susan, had written in Mrs. Deluca’s class the year before. Somehow my mom had gotten the essays from Susan’s mom.

I know. It’s pretty sketchy.

At the time though, it was pretty fabulous; my friend, Susan, one year later, would go on to Stanford. In other words, Susan wrote real good essays.

But I did not copy those essays, at least not the words or the ideas. I did study the structure and the architecture of them–just as my daughter studied the arrangement and the frenetic colors of the Picasso. And then I did my best to replicate those essays, just as my daughter had replicated those crazy rooster eyeballs.

Does that make us cheaters? Plagiarists? Copycats? I certainly did not end any of my AP English essays with this attribution: This essay is inspired by the work of Susan.

Thirty-one years later, I still feel some guilt.

I do know that many authors claim it’s OK to study the pros. More than OK! That if, for example, I want to write more like Hemingway, it’s perfectly acceptable to pick up The Old Man and the Sea, grab some paper and a nice pen, and copy Hemingway’s sentences by hand. And then, voila! 

The teenage boy came into the room where the mother was plagiarizing copying writing sentences on a piece of paper.

“Hello,” the boy said. In his hand was a bag of Doritos, Doritos the mother had not purchased for him. “You are writing?”

The mother did not answer because she was thinking about the Doritos. The boy often ate food he had purchased with the money from his job washing dishes at a country club and while the boy sometimes bought Pringles or Ruffles or the french fries that could be purchased from the place called McDonald’s, it was usually Doritos because those were the boy’s favorite.

Sometimes the mother found half-eaten bags of Doritos on the boy’s bedroom floor which left orange stains and the stains made the mother sad but the boy did not feel sad.

The mother knew this because once, when she asked the boy how he felt about the orange stains on the rug the boy had said, “I do not feel sad about the orange stains from the Doritos. I can ignore things like orange stains on the floor, and I can ignore wet bath towels on the floor and also my orchestra tuxedo that is still on the floor from the concert in October.”

“And it is now December.”

“Yes,” the boy had agreed. “The days are short and sunless and for this reason it is easy to ignore things on the floor.”

On this day, the mother nodded at the bag in the boy’s hands. “Where did you get those Doritos?”

The boy shrugged. “At the store.”

“The store down the street or the store just beyond the one down the street?”

The teenage boy pointed in the way to show it was the store just beyond the store down the street.

“If you buy Doritos in college and leave them on the floor your roommate will be angry.”

“I can find a roommate who does not mind the Doritos.”

The mother of the boy knew he was right but she could not admit that. There were other things to admit and there were other times to admit them, but this was not one of those things and this was not one of those times so she kept herself quiet and still except for motion of her hand copying writing the words written by this man called Hemingway.

Honestly, if I were to write a story or a novel in Hemingway’s style, I’d feel like an unoriginal fraud, the opposite of an entrepreneur, as creative and clever as the bath robe I’ve been wearing since 2001.

On the other hand.

After a 17-year break from teaching English, I returned to the classroom last fall to find that using “mentor texts [1]” (poems and stories that students study and model as a way to improve their style, experiment with syntax, and play with poetry), is a Big Thing in education.

I’m often wary of big things in education in the same way that I’m wary of big things in fashion. Are mentor texts any different than crop tops and high-waisted mom jeans? 

But feeling curious, I used Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street as a mentor text in my 8th grade English class. With Cisneros’ inspiration, my students wrote the most beautiful vignettes about their names and others about where they were from, pieces of art as beautiful as a Picasso painted by a nine-year-old. And just last week, I used Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions as a mentor text in my 7th grade English class. The poem-questions my students produced were whimsical and haunting, condensed gems of wonder and curiosity. Marvelously Rooster-esque.

Still, my students are imitating, copying, mimicking the form and the structure of these writers. They could not produce such lovely work without Cisneros, Picasso, and Neruda as their models. Does this mean their work is flimsy and hollow?

Billie Holiday said, “You can’t copy anybody and end with anything. If you copy, it means you’re working without any real feeling.”

Holiday would likely have fallen in the “flimsy and hollow” camp.

Then again, famous, self-proclaimed copiers like Ben Franklin, Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, and Billy Collins insist that copying others’ work helped them–and can help us–build soul-filled stories and poetry.

I ask you, dear WU-ers: Is it bad form to teach young writers to imitate the structure or syntax of another writer? Can we use others as mentors and models without being copycats? Where is the line between inspiration and imitation? When have you found inspiration in others’ writing, and what did you learn?

I can’t wait to hear your opinions. Thank you, as always, for reading and sharing. 

Picasso Rooster art compliments of Wikiart [2].

About Sarah Callender [3]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.