Imitation Precedes . . . Everything
“Imitation precedes creation” is a great saying that I picked up from Stephen King’s book “On Writing.” William James and Thomas Jefferson both called humans the “imitative animal.” I believe there may be a secret here that I’m missing and I need to learn.
The recent experiments with string pulling bees show some interesting things about imitation, and skill acquisition. Here are some links if you want to dig deep.
I noticed that the bees are able to acquire the string pulling skill in two ways. The skill can be broken down into its constituent parts by humans, pieces can be trained, and then slowly expanded upon. Or, the bees can watch another bee do the skill and try to copy them. But, the bees don’t really copy each other. They just spend more time hanging around the same area that the first bee was in; they are spending more time in the right area, focusing on the right things. But, if you change the situation then they have almost no hope of succeeding. Can I use any of this? I think so.
Humans are extremely imitative, feral children prove that. We can imitate the general or the particular, but it has to be concrete. Variation is always a part of it as well, but it can be purposeful or not purposeful.
Florence had a golden age in the Renaissance, why? They had a special system of apprenticeships in the arts that allowed a lot of cooperation and imitation. Years of training, building up basic skills into advanced skills. This is utilizing both the breaking down of a skill into its parts and training it separately as well as imitation. That’s what I need to do.
Sometimes the Bronte sisters are talked about like they were some girls from the country that started writing one day and, lo and behold, they were good at it. In reality they trained their entire lives. Them, and their brother, wrote series of books together as children for fun. Those books weren’t of the highest caliber, in fact they were very imitative of what they were reading. Imitation precedes creation.
Ben Franklin gives examples of writing exercises to conduct in his autobiography. They include taking a piece of prose, turning it into poetry, and then turning that back into prose. Or, eliminating every third word and replacing it with your own. Imitation combined with innovation.
Writing is a unique skill, a hard skill because it is so varied. If you were writing the same thing all of the time you could just memorize it, or package it into a formula. To some extent that is done, but purposefully doing that fails a lot, because the people doing that usually don’t have the skills and are looking for a shortcut. Breaking down skills, keeping those in my attention, recognizing them, imitating them, and innovating them are the keys to success. The Brontes’ and Franklin give us some idea of how this can be done. I’m wondering if I have another way.
What if I take some of my favorite works, such as: “Replay” by Ken Grimwood, “Fevre Dream” by George R. R. Martin, “Elantris” by Brandon Sanderson, “Harry Potter,” “Poldark,” “Candide,” “Zorba the Greek,” “Siddhartha,” “Heart of Darkness,” “The Dice Man,” and “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” I break them down while being attentive, recognizing what I like, what I don’t, and why, imitating them, and innovating on them. My instructors will be the greatest writers of all time. It sounds like a good plan to me. I’m going to try it.
You are welcome to join me and see what happens at JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com