Learning by Imitating

1 0 1,183

Today, we welcome guest blogger Annalise Mabe!  

Annalise Mabe was a student in the creative writing pedagogy practicum I teach at the University of South Florida. She assisted with the revision of The Practice of Creative Writing.  She is currently a graduate student in the MFA program at USF, finishing her thesis. She teaches creative writing, composition, and is coordinator for the university's Writing Studio.  Her work has been featured many places, including Brevity, The Rumpus, and The Offing.  - Heather Sellers

How do we teach our students, and ourselves, how to write something new and compelling? We know there is no formula or simple-step process to follow to get the output we desire: the fresh take, the perfect hook, the narrative that many will want to read.

            But we can and must look closely at what others are doing. When I began writing more intensively in my college courses, I remember staring at the blank white document page on my laptop computer, the vertical bar blinking at me, waiting for me to type something brilliant, a knock-it-out-of-the-park piece, the envy of Oliver Sacks, Diane Ackerman, and John McPhee combined. And the more I stared, the more the pressure mounted. The more I sat idly, the more I felt like I couldn’t write anything well, or anything at all, and so I often closed my laptop and took to reading in bed.

            Then, when I was in graduate school, I read “Swimming,” by Joel Peckham, a braided essay that pivoted and turned quickly, using section breakers between parts to weave research and personal narratives. I realized that if I wanted to learn to write like that, I had to try the form on in my own style.

            At first I felt like this wasn’t allowed, the trying on of another writer’s style, but I realized that sometimes the only way to learn how to do something new is by imitating. Sometimes, imitating is the only way we can see what the writer was thinking, what they were seeing from their place on the page as they wrote and drafted their work. I broke down “Swimming,” annotating the essay, inking up the margins in red. I identified the variances in syntax: short and choppy? Or long-winded and ranting? I noticed when Peckham used statistics, when he used a personal story, and when he wove both together. How could he do it so seamlessly? How could I do it too? And importantly, how could I teach my students to do it?

            In the Introductory Creative Writing course I taught last spring at the University of South Florida, I assigned my students the short essay “After the Hysterectomy,” by Ira Sukrungruang. Their homework was to read the piece once for enjoyment, starring or underlining their favorite parts along the way, and then to read the piece again, this time reading slowly through the piece and looking more closely at their favorite parts in order to investigate what tools were working well. I asked my students to look at the items they had marked and ask themselves explicitly: Why did I like this part? If the answer was “it was poignant,” or “it was just really good,” I asked them to examine what the writer was doing more closely. What point of view is the writer using? Is he using commands in the piece? Are certain phrases or lines repeated? What sensory details can you detect, make you feel as though you are there? I wanted them to identify the tools (litany, second-person point of view, and lyrical language). Then they got to practice.

            Because Sukrungruang’s piece was strictly second person, addressing a “you” throughout the piece, I asked my students to do the same in 750 words or less. I allowed them to stick with the same topic (relationships that end) or to take it somewhere entirely new; the choice was up to them as long as they adhered to the previous guidelines. And what followed was a collection of classroom essays so vivid in detail, so compelling in their litanies of lost loves, of waning light, I was surprised the work had come from mere freshmen and sophomores. However, there were a few students with essays that hit too closely to our model to be called their own, which was fine for practice but not for publishing. When teaching my students to identify and break down the work of others before emulating it themselves, I tell them that if their modeled work is too similar, they must employ an after” which lets readers know the idea or form did not come from the student but from the author of inspiration. Another option is to cite, possibly with an asterisk, that explains where some of the material originated. As writers, we have the option to pay homage with an “after” to our inspirations, which means under the title we can write “After Joan Didion,” (usually in italics) to signify that something has been borrowed from the original author—nothing quotable, but maybe the style or the form, maybe your product or your student’s product was inspired by her. We can cite our sources, or we can take on another’s form purely for practice, but we must never plagiarize.

            Through these imitations, my students have learned to play on the page, eliminating the pressure of getting the word down perfectly because they are in the space, the mindset, of following another person, another writer who has been there before. There is something about watching a coach or an older sibling run the drill first. There is safety in the teacher’s instruction and in the guidelines and parameters set out for students by the author’s piece and the assignment details that let them discover, on their own, new ways to write. Under the assignments instructions, students are able to replicate the new moves, empowering themselves while keeping the play in practice. Watching my students read and imitate work by current professional writers and come away with new sets of tools and writing techniques has empowered me as an instructor in seeing their progress, and has opened them up to the constant conversation these writers are having in the real world through their work.

About the Author
Heather Sellers (PhD, Florida State University) is professor of English at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate creative writing in children's literature, poetry, and non-fiction. She won the student-chosen professor of the year award at Hope College, where she gave the commencement address. Her textbook for the multi-genre course is The Practice of Creative Writing, which will appear next year in its third edition. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Fiction, she's published two books on creating an inspiring and happy writing life, Page after Page and Chapter after Chapter, as well as a children's book, two books of poetry and three chapbooks, along with Georgia Under Water, a collection of short stories. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The London Daily Telegraph, Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping, O,the Oprah Magazine, and The Sun, as well as Prairie Schooner and Alaska Quarterly Review. She's currently at work on a new manuscript of poems and a novel for younger readers, set in Florida, her home state. She’s an avid cyclist and kayaker.