Inspiration or Imitation?

One of the most common interview questions asked to writers and artists of all kinds is: "Who is your inspiration?" Although some say it's overdone, I think it's a great question. It's fun to get a glimpse of how the writer's mind works, and potentially be able to see trace elements of another person within their work. But for writers just starting out, sometimes the line between inspiration and imitation gets a bit blurred. At what point are you no longer inspired, but are instead actually trying to emulate someone else? This is an extremely important distinction, as the latter can have undesirable impacts on your writing.

Inspiration is the appreciation of someone else’s work, or can also be an idea of your own that came into being by analyzing someone else’s work. As a personal example, I have always been inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’ extremely expansive thinking in his stories. His concepts are massive and highly cerebral, and I find myself drawn to his commitment to exploring them as fully as he possibly can. His writing has encouraged me to see multiple angles and pathways for my stories and characters, to get out of my own ruts, and to keep in mind that there is always another combination, another variant, another ending, another addition, etc., and that these infinite possibilities can enhance a story in an unexpected way. I enjoy the idea of cultivating something strange and wonderful, and perhaps adding a slight touch of the abnormal to pique interest. I also admire his bravery, in that he published stories that most people wouldn’t “get” and he didn’t care to change his writing to cater to a wider audience. In these ways, he has inspired me. But as much as I admire Borges, I would never attempt to write the way he does, or to create concepts that rival his. Why? Because I’m not him. I don’t pretend to think like he did, nor write like he did. This is the line between inspiration and imitation.

Imitation is enjoying someone else’s technique or style so much that you attempt to duplicate it, even if it’s not an attempt to match the style perfectly. Even duplicating individual elements like plot structure, prose style or tone, characterizations, etc. are imitation. With surprising frequency, I hear authors say that they are purposefully reading books that have extremely similar elements to their own works in progress, and that they want to “see how someone else wrote it” in an attempt to find a solution to a problem they’ve encountered. Frankly, this is not a search for inspiration – this is a search for answers. Rather than delving into their own manuscript to analyze it and identify the root of the problem, they are looking outward, and are hoping to duplicate a method that worked previously for someone else. Also, I occasionally receive a query comment that says the manuscript was “written in the style of So-and-So.” This is often a red flag for me when considering if I will agree to edit someone’s manuscript or not.

What’s the actual problem with imitation? Apart from obvious legal issues such as potential plagiarism, the largest problem I find is that you lose your own individual voice when you try and channel someone else’s. Trying to work within the confines of your perception of someone else’s mind can severely limit your creativity. Not only that, but you’re also working within the confines of ideas and methods that were crafted to fit a particular story unrelated to your own. Without your own complete voice, your individuality is diluted and the writing will be rigid or forced. In addition, you should be thinking of your story as an individual entity, and a completely unique work. You must own your own writing, and rely on your own ideas, instincts, and style. You should always be the largest influence on your work.

So what drives people to imitate? The most common cause I see is a lack of self-confidence. For many people, they imitate another author because they have subconsciously acquiesced to a feeling of inadequacy. The writer may believe that his or her ideas are not “good enough,” therefore they essentially abandon large portions of their own style and glom onto someone else’s. They become intellectual remoras due to insecurity, or a fear of failure. Another common cause is impatience. Writing is a long, arduous process – you can get lucky sometimes, but there are no shortcuts. But that doesn’t seem to deter some writers from trying to cut corners and get to the finish line more quickly. Many writers consider their manuscript “done” when they have given up and are sick of it, not when they’re actually satisfied with its condition. Many writers are unwilling to make large changes in editing (or sometimes any changes at all) because they know the amount of time it will take to make the necessary rewrites. And of course, some impatient writers imitate, assuming it will chop off a good amount of crafting and writing time if they can just “copy/paste” an answer from someone else’s work.

No matter where you get your ideas from or who you consider to have been your most important influence, your writing has to come from you and you alone, untainted by the voice of someone else. When I am reading someone’s manuscript, it’s very easy to see where the true author ends and someone else begins. Editors and publishers can see where elements have been shoehorned in, come out unnaturally, or are incongruent with what the original intent of the book was. Sometimes a character will do something wildly out of character, the structure of the prose or syntax will wobble a bit, or the story will take a sudden turn in tone or mood. These changes read like a record scratch in the middle of a beautiful song, and they are quite obvious (even if you think you’ve tied them in subtly). I often say “I can see the author’s fingerprints” all over the story when I come across this kind of interruption – it’s a distinct kind of deliberateness and outside influence that’s easy to see in contrast with the author’s true voice. Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but flattery doesn’t get you very far in most places, including literature.

Writing requires an intense amount of thinking – more than you might assume. I’m known to frequently offer the advice of “think harder!” It seems like hilariously unhelpful advice, but it is often actually the key that opens things up. Sometimes “thinking harder” means deepening characters, finding a new way to restructure something large, or really coming to terms with cutting a segment you love because you know it just doesn’t work. It’s often tempting to alleviate some of that burden and try to find a shortcut or a solution without really analyzing the issues in our work. But the great writers we might want to emulate had a different voice and purpose for their writing, and any puzzle pieces we steal from them will most likely not fit into the hole you need to fill. So while we’re not greats yet, if you continue to engage your mind and think through the issues in your manuscript from your own perspective alone, you could be well on your way to that greatness. You must discover what works and does not work for you. You must discover which kinds of things you can write well and which ones you can’t (you will find more of the latter, and that’s ok). These abilities and downfalls and idiosyncrasies are what define you as an author and are what shape your voice – they are unavoidable and you must come to terms with them. So the next time you begin to explain that your story was “inspired by” something or someone, take a moment to consider the reach of that inspiration.

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