Friday, April 24, 2009

Imitative Writing - The Highest Form of Learning & Flattery by Robert W. Walker

I would be thrilled to get notice from some young novice author that he or she read one or more of my books and decided as a result to sit down to attempt to write – not just anything but to write one page of Robert W. Walker-styled prose in order to see if it’s within the realm of possibility. In my creative writing classes over the years, taking such disparate authors as E.B. Whie, Erma Bombeck, John Steinbeck, Hemmingway, and dare I say it Janet Evanovich as examples of authors my students could and should imitate for their pathos, their humor, their themes but most of all their styles—to borrow if you will for a brief page or two, a scene, or a chapter to write in the style of one’s favorite author.

I have had students come through the door saying, “I want to be the next ___________ whomever, and that’s usually the current literary meteor going across our vision—Stephen King, Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, and sometimes a classical author as in Conan Doyle or Mark Twain or Edgar Allan Poe. I set up students to have them attempt to put one past me—as they read their imitative piece aloud and if the class cannot guess who it is, it falls to me. Remarkably, I typically get it right unless it is an author I have no idea of or have never heard of or read.

It’s an exercise well worth pursuing for anyone who aspires to write and is in search of a “style” – that most elusive of abstract notions so hard to define and which I define as a controlled, consistent authorial voice. By imitating the masters, by actually sitting down and doing what they do (learning happens in the doing of a thing), then a newbie can begin to see and understand the patterns of a given author—whether it is White or Twain, Patterson or King. It is a matter of close study of how Dean R. Koontz is “experimenting” here with the “feeling” of one’s deepest emotions as death take over consciousness or Mark Twain so belaboring a point as to make it hilarious.

I began my own writing career “borrowing” largely from Samuel Langhorne Clemens, I can tell you. My first novel, written over the years straddling my sophomore and junior year of high school at good old (H.G.) Wells High School in Chicago and partially at Screven High School, Screven, Georgia (where the story was initiated) started out as an experiment—to determine if I could fool a teacher into thinking I had come across a lost chapter from Mark Twain’s boys adventure tales. I had read (devoured) Tom Sawyer and then Huck Finn, and I needed a fix—another Twain boy’s adventure but there was none! Arrogant and angry, I sat down to write the sequel with the notion I’d do a few pages and be done with that nonsense. Instinctively, however, I knew after writing that first chapter that I had only jus begun, that the VOICE that I had created of Daniel Webster Jackson was not going to let me alone until I darn well finished what he had to say. In the original, Daniel opens by being upset with a Mr. Mark Twain for not including him in either Ton Sawyer or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – two boys that Daniel knew intimately. In a huff, Daniel’s decided to write his own book – Daniel Webster Jackson & The Wrongway Railway (1982 Oak Tree Publ.).

In short, what came of my imitative work (in praise of Twain) that began as an attempt merely to determine if I could pull off Twainian prose took on a life of its own. In my class more than one student did the same with her and his imitative pieces. They learned that imitation is not only the purest form of flattery but that learning the style and catching the voice of other authors is a legitimate and powerful learning tool. The truly smart ones took on the assignment with relish and they developed as writers in response to it. They took the orchestration well in other words.

When instructors say Write About What You Know About they limit you and you can limit yourself as a result; rather Write About What You CAN Know About. One of the elements every writer should work to know about aside from whatever substantive research is necessary for the plot and characterizations in a novel or short story is to study and research other authors—how they succeed and even how and why they fail elsewhere. Twain failed miserably with some of his attempts, trust me, as with his book on Joan of Arc and the terrible flawed endings he is famous for. Like Babe Ruth, he hit a lot of home runs, but he also struck out on more than one occasion as with his terribly chaotic autobiography which often read like dispatches from a lost journalist who’d not gotten enough sleep before filing a story, whereas the clarity and laugh out loud humor of his Roughing It – also autobiographical but chock full with exaggeration and storytelling is magnificent.

I have just collaborated with Mark Twain for a Mark Twain contest that has contestants finishing an unfinished short story. I can tell you that for me it was a great reunion, working again with my spiritual mentor and favorite author. “Together” we finished Interview with the Devil for the contest, and while I won’t hold my breath thinking I won, I did win as I reminded myself what so thoroughly is Mark’s style.

For a look at the style I have developed over a lifetime of “borrowing” from authors as far-flung as Ed McBain and Mark Twain, go to my website and download pages of my upcoming DEAD ON – a uniquely singular modern Noir set in Atlanta that pits two ex-marines against one another and one is “handicapped” due to a dog and a dame on his arm--or so he and Bogart believe. That’s found at

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Morgan Mandel said...

There's something to be said for analyzing books to see what works for popular writers.

Morgan Mandel

Kathryn said...

For anyone else interested, the "I Am the Next Mark Twain" writing contest can be found here (as well as a smorgasbord of other Twain-related things, called Twainia):

Anonymous said...

Nice post! Thanks! :)

God bless,
Taylor J. Beisler

Rob Wallker said...

Thanks everyone for weighing in. It is a subject close to me heart as you can tell, I'm sure. Ever write an Erma Bombeck column? Do you think Evanovich got her inspiration from Erma??
It would not surprise me in the least.


Anonymous said...

They say that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but you're quite right in stating that it is an excellent exercise for students to learn creative writing. The Greeks taught their students to write by imitating the great writers of their day. This method of teaching classical rhetoric was copied by the Romans. It remains effective today. We should learn from the best and then go about developing our own style.

Jacqueline Seewald
new release: THE DROWNING POOL, Five Star/Gale
THE INFERNO COLLECTION, Five Star hardcover, Wheeler large print