Imitation: The Sincerest Form of…Art?

Each day this week I’m going to post a quote from a book on writing and then a few questions. If you have any thoughts regarding the quote or the questions, leave them in the comments. On Saturday I’ll highlight some of my favorite responses made throughout the week.

“Hemingway studied, as models, the novels of Knut Hamsun and Ivan Turgenev…Ralph Ellison studied Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Thoreau loved Homer; Eudora Welty loved Chekhov. Faulkner described his debt to Sherwood Anderson and Joyce; E.M. Forster, his debt to Jane Austen and Proust. By contrast, if you ask a twenty-one-year-old poet whose poetry he likes, he might say, unblushing, ‘Nobody’s.’ In his youth, he has not yet discovered that poets like poetry, and novelists like novels; he himself likes only the role…” (Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life)

What do you think about imitation? A helpful tool for aspiring artists? A poor excuse for plagiarism? Which writers or artists or musicians do you like to learn from?

13 Replies to “Imitation: The Sincerest Form of…Art?”

  1. “Every artist is a cannibal. Every poet is a thief. All kill their inspiration and sing about their grief.” – Bono

    Art is part imitation, and part cannibalism, most definitely. :)

    And Annie Dillard is amazing. “The Writing Life” is something from another world altogether. How she births those alien word-babies I will never know, but they shimmer and glow and influence me. I will happily attempt – and with clunky clip-clopping, clacking sounds on the keyboard – to imitate her. She is worth imitating.

    1. Love the Bono quote. Imitating you, I will leave a quote by another favorite C.S. Lewis:

      “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

  2. There is a body of knowledge for every field. While it is important to be original, we need to learn from the masters of our craft. Some of the best modern artists I know can still paint like Rembrandt when they choose to do so. It’s not necessarily about imitating as much as learning from the best and build upon that base.

  3. I default assumption when a “writer” tells me they don’t really like to read much is that they are kidding themselves about being writers. You love words and stories both as consumption and as expression or you don’t like they either way.

    When I was 11 years old I found my high school sister’s diary and thought her poetry was amazing. It was awful, in fact, but it inspired me at the time. I started taking her rhyme schemes and writing my own words to them while keeping some of her lines and putting these ripoffs in love letters to my crushes who, also being 11, thought they were amazing too. Blatant plagiarism? Yes. The first steps in my love of writing? Yes. Successful 6th grade romantic tactic? Absolutely.

  4. In my field, imitation is unavoidable. With thousands upon thousands of photographers taking photos of the exact same thing.. every single day how can it be avoided… Literally millions of photographs every day of VERY similar subjects. To find something truly unique is so hard and those that do discover something are immediately ripped off within days of sharing their work, but then again, our industry is very trend based. I know that my photographic style is partially based on a few non-wedding photographers who inspire me as I try to discover a style that works for my business.

    1. Great point John. I’m reading a book right now, “The Art of Fiction,” and he puts forth the argument that all great fiction engages in some sort of “genre-blending.”

  5. I read a book about culture making that said if someone wants to be truly creative, they must master the things that already exist. If you want to be a creative piano player, you need to understand the piano: scales, chords, structure. And you need to know Motzart and Beethoven and Chopin.

    I think the best stuff comes from those who love the ones that came before. The Lord of the Rings movies were awesome because Peter Jackson loved the books.

    Star Wars is a great movie because George Lucas studied the great stories of the past and put the best things from them into the movie.

    The way Dillard puts it, it seems like the new generation is very unaware of their connection to the past. That seems sad.

  6. There is also a reality that without knowing it we may be saying something that someone already said. It is not necessarily plagiarism but bumping up against the same human truth. I guess it’s important to know the classics but speaking what one experiences and what one sees when they are looking with fresh eyes, can be just as original and just as much imitation.

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