Don’t ever imitate anybody?

Here’s an interesting post by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings: Oliver Sacks on the Three Essential Elements of Creativity

This caught my eye because I’ve read most of Oliver Sacks’ books. They are always interesting and thought-provoking and sometimes horrifying (Hallucinations).

Anyway, here is how this post begins:

“And don’t ever imitate anybody,” Hemingway cautioned in his advice to aspiring writers. But in this particular sentiment, the otherwise insightful Nobel laureate seems to have been blind to his own admonition against the dangers of ego, for only the ego can blind an artist to the recognition that all creative work begins with imitation before fermenting into originality under the dual forces of time and consecrating effort.

I was cheering, because I so vehemently agree — not that all creative work necessarily begins with imitation, but that a whole lot of it does. Thus we get all the literature that is an homage to some older work, in conversation with some older body of literature, or influenced by some particular older author, and so on.

Imitation, besides being the seedbed of empathy … is also … the seedbed of creativity — not only a poetic truth but a cognitive fact, as the late, great neurologist and poet of science Oliver Sacks argues in a spectacular essay titled “The Creative Self,” published in the posthumous treasure The River of Consciousness

Well, I haven’t read that, but I guess I will now. Here is Popova’s summary:

[W]e learn our own minds by finding out what we love; these models integrate into a sensibility; out of that sensibility arises the initial impulse for imitation, which, aided by the gradual acquisition of technical mastery, eventually ripens into original creation.

I like it. I think this one sentence captures a major truth about the creative development of a writer’s career.

If you have a moment, click through and read the whole thing.

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2 thoughts on “Don’t ever imitate anybody?”

  1. I know art students used to go to museums and copy the fine art there. My Teen gets copies of pictures to practice drawing like. And got the right voice for a short fanfic after reading Dunsany.
    It does seem to be that you need to have a foundation before you try to be original.

  2. Yes, exactly. Copying is a great idea. I don’t worry about “finding your own voice” — maybe because I’m not a good enough mimic myself for that to matter. That’s one reason I’ve never tried to write, for example, a Star Trek tie-in novel. I wouldn’t be able to do it.

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