Imitation of others work is said to be a form of flattery. That flattery can often be mistaken for plagiarism. However, when it comes to writing exercises, imitation can help expand your writing repertoire, especially if you’re attempting to imitate a writing style very different from yours.
By imitating sentences, punctuation, paragraph format, word flow, etc., you can improve your writing. You can take commercially successful works, literary works, and works that have survived throughout the ages and toil away on increasing your knowledge of varying writing styles.
By mimicking others’ works, you introduce yourself to different sentence patterns, expanding your vocabulary, and more, so that you avoid becoming repetitive in your work, whether it’s a short story or a novel.
Bring on the challenge!
I mimicked three different works: “Stoner” by John Williams, “Desert Breakdown, 1968” by Tobias Wolff, and “Atmospheric Disturbances” by Rivka Galchen.
I chose these three stories because of their wide-ranging writing styles. “Stoner” is written in a very factual format. The beginning of the novel starts with detailing information about Stoner’s life. The writing is detached and unbiased, and from the start there is a desolate atmosphere of disappointment.
“Desert Breakdown, 1968” is viewed through the eyes of a narrator, who falls short of his own moral measure, and the reader’s measure of him. The narrator has impulses toward abandoning his family in search of dreams that will most likely never come to fruition because of his self-defeating nature and his need to have someone else to blame for his failures.
“Atmospheric Disturbances” quickly questions narrator reliability, specifically bringing attention to close-up, first-person narrator unreliability.
I wanted to compare the same basic story through different writing styles to see how the various writing styles would change the tone of the story. I also wondered if the order you read the imitation pieces in would affect your impression of the story.
The basic premise I decided to use was about a friendship between two girls, Elizabeth Kendricks and Catie Abrams. I won’t go into any greater detail about them here, but will explore their story through the three imitation pieces.
“Stoner” Imitation (“William Stoner entered…by Stoner’s mother.” pp. 3-5):
Elizabeth Kendricks moved to the town of Wistburg as a child in the year 1997, at the age of six. A few years later, while playing soccer in her yard, she met Catie Abrams and recognized her as her new best friend and as a kindred soul, where they remained friends until the fall of 2010. She did not realize how much college would change her, and that she would discover how quickly her best friend would demote her to a pawn in some of her more fanciful games. When their friendship ended her ex-friend made no move to rectify what had happened between them. This lack of apology still effects Elizabeth Kendricks to this day, an emptiness within her: “I will never forget what transpired that fateful weekend, my memories will never fade, and I will never be the same. Forever void.”
Anyone who happens by what transpired may wonder why these two people were ever best friends, but no one digs too deeply beyond the surface. Elizabeth’s teammates, who held her as the most determined of collegiate athletes, think of her ex-friend vaguely now; to her old high school friends, that weekend is an admonition of the continual death of friendships, and to her newest friends it is nothing more than a story with which they wade through blankly and put aside.
She was born in 1991 in a hospital in Falls Church Virginia near the city of Arlington, some two hours from Wistburg, where she would ultimately meet Catie. Though she had happy early years in her childhood cul-de-sac—playing with other children, making her Barbie Dolls kiss—she found, when her father said he was leaving, happiness couldn’t last. At thirty-five her father left; taking his car, he looked at the horizon with the hope-filled eyes of a newly single man. Her mother stared at her three children, as if she were stuck with an impossible task to endure alone. Her eyes were red and her cheeks blotchy, and the yellow of her hair was beginning to give way to premature gray worn back with a hair clip at her neck.
With the earliest memories she possessed, Elizabeth Kendricks knew she was good. As a little girl she helped anyone who needed it, practiced ballet and soccer in the yard in front of her house, and worked hard to impress everyone she knew. And during her short stint in private school, she would, from the moment she woke to the moment she slept, do everything in her power to make people feel special. At thirteen the weight of the world was already weighing too heavily on her shoulders.
Being good was a solitary pursuit, of which she was sorely tempted from, and with Catie she felt tied together with a good sister she never had. In the mornings the two of them walked to middle school together as siblings often would, laughing with each other; many people believed they were sisters, the only times they were apart was at night when no one could see them and even then they’d spend hours whispering through their phones to each other under their bed sheets.
Their houses were across the street from each other, and the brick stairs were a favorite hangout spot. The stairs had with so much teen gossip taken to crumbling into the front gardens—purple and rust red, streaked with yellow.
Between their houses was a smooth neighborhood road, lightly lined with trimmed trees and a few scraggly weeds, and a basketball hoop, where the girls spent most of their afternoons together. Behind their houses were two backyards, each with an outdoor lawn set, a pile of wood, and a fence, with a dent and paint streaks on it. The grass was a yellowing green, unsymmetrically grown and speckled with mud, up through which worms wriggled and were pulled apart each summer by the girls’ brothers.
“Desert Breakdown, 1968” Imitation: (“Krystal was asleep…was an opening.” pp. 119-120)
Elizabeth was dancing when they entered the auditorium. Catie had sworn to not shoot a video, but when they reached the stage she took out her phone and did so. Elizabeth’s face was pale from the brightness of the stage lights. Her hair, too unruly for a dancer, clung drenched to her body. Only an odd strand swung into the air. She had her arms raised above her and that made her seem much taller than she was.
The music rang across the cheap flooring of the auditorium. The seats swelled along both aisles, red as the rotting stage curtain. Catie saw the silhouette of Elizabeth on the curtain with each pirouette across the stage, and the glint of metal under the curtain. Then Elizabeth went still. Braggart, Catie thought, and for a moment she felt as fantastic as she had predicted to feel.
But it didn’t last. She had ignored her promise, and she was going to get a look for it when Elizabeth gave her some attention. Catie nearly threw her phone at Elizabeth. But she didn’t want to lose a phone, and fib to her parents, and watch Elizabeth scold her again. By now Elizabeth had hundreds of examples of Catie, Catie with rocks in her hands standing in front of Elizabeth and beside her and behind her and the three instances she’d bitten her since becoming friends.
Catie did not react well. For some reason she always exploded. But those tantrums gave the wrong impression. An old friend of Catie’s had expressed it right—“fun, wild, and self-serving.” Well, that was the perfect picture of Catie. All the world was waiting for her. All she needed was a cohort.
(“Krystal was awake…low anyway.” pp. 121 – 122)
Elizabeth was sitting now too. For a second she didn’t speak or do anything. Then she looked over at Catie out the corners of her eyes. “So tired,” she said. She tucked up her hair over her shoulder and turned to Catie. Catie kept her eyes on her feet. “Home from the dance,” Catie said. “Man, thought you’d never stop.”
“The video,” she said, “Catie, the video.”
“There was nothing I could do about that,” she said.
“But you swore.”
Catie glanced at her, then down at the floor. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I couldn’t help it.”
“I don’t want an apology,” Elizabeth said, and stood up. Catie could see that Elizabeth was biting her tongue. It made her feel happy. “Okay,” Catie said. “Do you want me to erase it?” She got out her phone to show she meant it. “If that’s want you want I’ll do it.”
Elizabeth let out a sigh.
Catie put her phone away.
Elizabeth started to walk down the middle of the aisle. Catie didn’t move anywhere. At least Elizabeth was mad at her and not another. “Hey, Elizabeth,” Catie said. “Look. I bet a chocolate bar that you’ll have forgiven me by ten o’clock.”
Elizabeth gave Catie a look that Catie felt all the way to her core. “A chocolate bar,” Catie said. “Think so?” She went after Elizabeth and saw her hands were fists. She tapped her shoulder. Elizabeth paused, then turned around and flexed her fingers, as Catie knew she would. Elizabeth was not one to stay mad. She wrapped her arms around her friend.
“A big chocolate bar,” Elizabeth said.
“It’s giant, I checked.”
“No YouTube,” she said. “This time don’t put me on YouTube.”
Catie stopped hugging. Then, without blinking, she puffed out her cheeks. Elizabeth snorted and rolled her eyes at Catie. Catie immediately started laughing and put her hands on her hips, where she tried to imitate Elizabeth.
“I have to go,” Elizabeth said. She rubbed her arm. “I have homework, a lot, to do tonight.”
Catie frowned. Elizabeth could study three times the amount of time Catie was willing to do homework, and when Elizabeth got straight As she liked to describe in supreme detail what she did to get there. It made Catie angry.
“Next commercial break,” Catie said, “I’m bored anyway.”
“Atmospheric Disturbances” Imitation: (“Last December a woman…puppy trembled.” pp. 3-4)
This morning a girl walked into the dorm room who looked precisely like my best friend. The girl slammed shut the door after her. In a pair of glittering midnight purple heels—Catie’s heels—she was dangling a flabby condom. I did not know she had condoms. And the real Catie, she didn’t let condoms hang out in the open, she didn’t have sex at all. The lemoncrustedly skunk odor of Catie’s ganja was swarming the room and through that audacity I peered at this girl, and at that condom, admitting to myself simply that Catie was exceptionally bad.
She, the girl, the likely condom user, reached up to de-dress. Her arms concealed her eyes slightly, and my tongue choked the end of my throat, but yet, I could watch: identical yanking off crumpled dress, identical pushing up of same dark purple bra with spilling peach breasts. Identical brows lined thick across like on caterpillars with all those innate stripes that fail their singular purpose to become winged beings flying up in the blue sky around the plants. Identical female, but not my Catie. It was a new awareness, that’s why I noticed. Like the instant at the end of a movie where I can hardly say to myself, “I was deceived.” I recall thrice standing up from a movie where the girl, hidden now for ten-some years, was snorting popcorn in her reclined seat, jabbing her finger at the guy on which there was a sticker “I Spit, I Suck, Fisted in Many States.” I would attempt to remove the sticker from the back of the guy, but the girl kept swatting my arm, re-snorting, throwing popcorn, a noise like a burst of tinfoil crunching on the ground. When I would leave I looked all about the theater for the guy, and around the parking lot as well, but I never spotted him.
“Hey!” the fraudulent said loudly, appearing to ignore the stifled air. “I’m still drunk.” She duplicated Catie’s subtle lisp thoroughly, the words slipping over each other. “You are awake this early?” She pressed those sparkly purple heels against her thigh; the condom wiggled.
Wow! Okay, so that exercise demanded more intellectual awareness than I thought it would. I had to consciously focus on the core elements of each sentence. Doing so helped me become more aware of structure, both in terms of punctuation and style. Not only did I look at where the commas, semi-colons, and periods were, I examined word order, flow, syllable count, sentence length, parallel structure, and more.
Reading over my imitation pieces, I know I succeeded in some areas and failed in others. When I began this exercise, I had thought to use the same section of story for each imitation piece. I quickly realized that was something I couldn’t do, so I switched tactics and used each piece to express something different about Elizabeth and Catie’s friendship, or more accurately, their relationship, as well as different periods within their relationship. “Stoner” is the overarching summary of their association, while “Desert Breakdown, 1968” shows a glimpse of them during high school, and “Atmospheric Disturbances” shows them in college, near the end of their friendship.
With the “Stoner” imitation, I was able to get an accounting of when Elizabeth and Catie became friends and was able to give some background into Elizabeth’s personality and life without getting too subjective. For “Desert Breakdown, 1968” I found that using Elizabeth as the protagonist didn’t fit, so I switched to Catie as the protagonist. This time you get a sense of who Catie is, and that she may not be the best of people.
In the “Atmospheric Disturbances” imitation, I was able to shed a different light on Elizabeth and Catie’s relationship. One part of that was due to the story being in first person, while the other two pieces were in third person. This gave a zoomed in view of Elizabeth rather than a wider angle because everything readers were seeing was through Elizabeth’s eyes.
I also didn’t want to follow Galchen’s (“Atmospheric Disturbances” author) narrator unreliability so much as give the impression that something occurred the previous night between Elizabeth and Catie, something that Catie doesn’t yet know about, something that Elizabeth discovered about Catie, which has changed her perspective of her best friend so much that she doesn’t recognize her. I’m not sure if I was successful in that endeavor, but I hope I was at least in part.
Overall, it was very difficult to create a different story from the ones John Williams, Tobias Wolff, and Rivka Galchen were telling, while still keeping true to their stylistic elements.
As for whether or not the order the imitation pieces are read in alter a reader’s impression of the basic premise, I believe they do, especially if you read the “Atmospheric Disturbances” imitation before either of the other two pieces.
Have you ever done imitation pieces? How’d it go?
(Photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk.)