The following lesson is excerpted from Gregory Roper's excellent handbook, The Writer's Workshop, 2007.
Indulge me for a moment by using your historical imagination.
You live in Florence in the fifteenth century; you come from that burgeoning middle class of merchants and artisans and are training to be a painter. Your father has apprenticed you to one of the well-known painters of the day, and for years now, since you were quite a youngster, you have worked your way up in his workshop. First you merely swept the floors, cleaned up the dyes and tints and frames and such at the end of the day; then you learned to mix the paints. After years you were allowed to do fi ll-in work on small compositions; gradually your master gave you parts of compositions to complete.
More recently you’ve been learning the new art of single-point perspective; you’ve been learning your master’s style; his way of arranging figures and shading and color; the sorts of compositions, religious and, more recently, secular images from the Greek myths, that the master uses. At the same time, you’ve been learning the business of being a painter: the delicate and yet competitive process of securing commissions from patrons, the troubles of securing materials, of securing apprentices like yourself, of paying assistants to help in the largest projects. You have confidence that, if your master were to ask you to produce a crucifix for a new church, you could make one so good that few, if any, would know the difference between your work and your master’s. At the same time, you’ve begun to think that you might see things a bit differently, have your own styles you’d like to try—perhaps different subject matter, perhaps new ways of handling color and line and shading. Of course you don’t do these in your work for the master, but you’ve begun experimenting a bit on your own. He’s taught you well, and you feel ready to produce your Master Piece, that first piece of work that will show that you, too, can be a Master, open a workshop, obtain commissions, have apprentices and assistants of your own.
Or you are a jazz musician. You were first attracted to the music by its energy, style, artfulness, the freedom of improvising— of making it up as you went along, of the freedom to play whatever you wanted, rather than having to follow the notes on the page someone else had written. Of course that was years ago. Since then you’ve realized that to do that well, you have to know chords and scales and modulations and patterns—in fact, an enormous amount of musical theory—quite well, and you’ve memorized and practiced these over and over again. But not only that. As you met other jazz musicians, you found that you wanted to learn their phrasings, their “licks,” their snippets. And they told you they had learned these from others. So like many jazz musicians, you went back to study the greats—Charlie “Bird” Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis—writing out their most famous solos and memorizing them until you could play them in your sleep. Of course you soon realized that no one wanted to hear you play a copy of a Diz solo, but doing this gave you a closetful of resources, phrases, licks, out of which you began to construct your own distinctive style.
I give you these two vignettes because in them is bound up the central method of this book: imitation of the greats as a way to learn an art and develop into an accomplished artist oneself. It is, in fact, the way almost all crafts, all arts, have been learned throughout history, from blacksmithing to shoemaking to jazz to, yes, writing. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and countless others learned the art of writing in a school system that, in teaching Latin, forced these students to translate and imitate the great classical writers of antiquity, over and over again. It instilled in them a respect for these writers, for they knew intimately not just the things the writers said, but the rhythms and patterns of their prose, the meters and shadings of their poetry.
Like the jazz musicians, Milton could imitate effects from Virgil (and Homer, and the Bible, and more) in Paradise Lost because from the time he was quite young he had read, translated, and imitated the Aeneid over and over. And he could make a new kind of English poetry by discovering his own voice in adopting and adapting these masters.
Realize, too, that imitation is not just a matter of learning technical skills. Imitation can lead to deeper, further knowledge. A few years ago, my friend Keith Rhodes took up the electric bass. He thought that the way to do it would be to learn from one of the masters. So he got out all his old Beatles albums—I know, they are well before your time, and in fact a little before mine, but indulge me here for a minute—and started playing along with Paul McCartney’s bass work, from Help to Let It Be.
He learned so many of the “moves,” the riffs, the “tricks,” but he also, he told me, thinks he discovered something about the Beatles. The standard rock-critic opinion is that John Lennon was the real artist of the group, McCartney just a pop-song writer. But seeing the songs from McCartney’s viewpoint, because he was imitating him, Keith had an intimate knowledge of McCartney’s work in the group. He began to see how McCartney grew more as an artist than any other Beatle. Maybe the group broke up—that awful event for the ’60s generation!—because he just wanted to find musicians who would grow along with him, and he felt John, George, and Ringo were not going to grow musically. McCartney’s playing, his inventive writing, came forth to my friend in a new way, and Keith says he would never have seen this had he not played along with him—imitated him, learned from him—in a careful, systematic way.
Imitation is not going to trap you into doing what everyone else has always done. On the contrary, it frees you to find your own individual way of doing things, by giving you the grounding for writing as the champions have always done. As I said, musicians almost all learn by the method I have described—patterning themselves on the great ones, then branching out on their own. Writers do the same. If you don’t believe me, look at any short list of writers who were schooled in imitation and have developed some of the most distinctive works in all of literature: William Shakespeare, John Milton, Jane Austen, T. S. (and George) Eliot.
Gregory L. Roper is chair of the English department at the University of Dallas, has taught courses in composition, literature, and various genres of writing at several prominent schools, and has written poetry and prose for such magazines as First Things.