Friday, October 28, 2005

Anxiety of Influence

I have long struggled with questions related to borrowing and imitation in writing, both as a writer and as a reader. I once took a poetry class in which one week I brought a poem to class for critique, and the next week, one of my classmates brought in a poem which was just a rearrangement of my poem, essentially the same lines in a different order. The professor thought this was brilliant. Clearly for him it was one of those spontaneous teaching moments of which professors dream. I was incensed. I continued to attend the class, but I was never really present there again. In retrospect I wish that I had been able to learn something from seeing my poem taken apart and put back together like that. But I couldn’t let go of a feeling of violation. It wasn’t so much the use that my classmate had made of my work that distressed me as the professor’s willingness to regard the rearranged poem as a brand new work authored by somebody else. I’m quite cagey now about sharing work in progress.

On the flip side, I’m careful about what I read when I’m writing. I have no doubt that much of what I’ve read in the past influences what and how I write now. This is a good thing; I fully embrace the idea that the best way for writers to improve their craft is to read good writing. But I try to make sure that I avoid reading work that's too close to what I’m trying to do while I’m actually in the midst of writing. For example, a lot of great novels and short story collections that feature teenaged protagonists have come out in the last couple of years. I haven’t yet read any of them because I didn’t want those teenage voices in my head while I was completing my latest collection of stories many of which are told through a first-person teenaged narrator. Now that my collection has gone off to the publisher, I’m looking forward to delving into those books.

As a reader, I’m a bit ambivalent about all of this. Based on the feelings I articulated above about having my own work borrowed, you would think I’d frown on the practice. Sometimes I do, but not always. For example, Laurie King’s Mary Russell series is one of my favourite mystery series and it’s founded on a wholesale borrowing of the character of Sherlock Holmes. King deals with Holmes in a way that makes him her own character but is nonetheless respectful of Conan Doyle’s creation. It’s a difficult line to walk but King walks it with grace. In a similar vein, I think that Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea – a re-telling of the story of Bertha, Rochester’s mad wife from Jane Eyre – is a brilliant novel.

Imitation is also a complex matter. At what point does homage tip into cheap knock-off? Several years ago, I read a well-reviewed first collection of short stories and was astonished by the extent to which the author mimicked Lorrie Moore’s distinctive style. I felt indignant, as if something had been taken from me as well as from Moore, and I haven't read anything by that author since.

This train of thought was triggered by a Theodore Roethke essay that I read on the subway on my way to work this morning. The essay is titled “How to Write Like Somebody Else” and it appears in On the Poet and His Craft: Selected Prose of Theodore Roethke (edited by Ralph J. Mills Jr.). In it, Roethke acknowledges how fraught the question of influence is for young writers:

In a shrewd justification of the referential poem, or less charitably, the poem which is an anthology of other men’s effects, Eliot said, “Bad poets imitate; good poets steal.” In other words, take what you will with authority and see that you give it another, or even better life, in the new context.

All true, but in some ways a terrifying remark for the beginning writer, who is often neither bad nor good, but simply, as yet unformed. He isn’t sure whether he is a thief or a fake.

But ultimately Roethke wholeheartedly endorses imitation:

Imitation, conscious imitation, is one of the great methods, perhaps the method of learning to write. The ancients, the Elizabethans, knew this, profited by it, and were not disturbed. As a son of Ben, Herrick more than once rewrote Jonson, who, in turn, drew heavily on the classics. And so on. The poems are not less good for this: the final triumph is what the language does, not what the poet can do, or display. The poet’s ultimate loyalty – the phrase belongs to Stanley Kunitz – is to the poem. […] The paradoxical thing, as R.P. Blackmur said of some of the young in the 'thirties, is that the most original poets are the most imitative. The remark is profound: if a writer has something to say, it will come through. The very fact that he has the support of a tradition, or an older writer, will enable him to be more himself – or more than himself.

In a time when the romantic notion of the inspired poet still has considerable credence, true “imitation” takes a certain courage. One dares to stand up to a great style, to compete with papa.

I came full circle this afternoon when I attended a panel discussion on “Feminist Approaches to Law and Economy.” One of the panelists, Carys Craig, presented a feminist critique of copyright law. She argued for a copyright law founded on a relational theory of authorship which protects creative expression as communication rather than as private property.

After a day’s ruminations bookended by Roethke and a feminist theory of copyright, I’m left wondering if I’m attached to the idea of creative ownership in a way that compromises both my writing and my politics.


patricia said...

I know I should comment on the main theme of this post, but the line "Now that my collection has gone off to the publisher, I’m looking forward to delving into those books" is screaming out at me.

Care to share a little more about this???

Kate S. said...


Thanks for asking! My second collection of short stories has been accepted for publication by Thistledown Press. It's not due out until 2007, so I didn't think there was any point in going public with the news until closer to the time. I'm very happy about it though!

Quillhill said...

One would suspect there is some virtue if not benefit from sounding like another writer--publishers are always touting their new books by comparing them to previous books by more famous people.

Perhaps your experience was a case of one writer trying to show up another, not steal--a sort of challenge. Didn't Shakespeare constantly take old plots and stories and say I can turn this into something better?

I once began (though never quite finished) transcribing The Great Gatsby word for word in the hopes that some of the style and cadence would rub off on me. I think nearly all writers have to begin with something they greatly admire, and then build their own style from that foundation, adding a way of dialogue from, say, Hemingway, and a sense of rhythym from Hardy, and so on--it can take a long time to become comfortable with one's own writing.

sfp said...

Congrats on your second story collection! And where may we find your first?

And I too noticed an evident Lorrie Moore imitator a few years back. I've ignored her work since then.

Kate S. said...


My first story collection is out of print. I have seen the odd second-hand copy for sale through online booksellers like amazon and abebooks though. It was a Thistledown book also. You can find the details here.

sfp said...


dj sciz said...

Kate, I am put in mind of some kids I know. Sometimes I struggle with feeling hopelessly uncreative. My imagination feels a bit (a lot) dead. And I hang out with my young friends, and they are in a frenzy of creation. They draw pictures all the time, they make up stories all the time, they perform, they play let's pretend, and they work on projects. ("Beth, I'm designing the biggest shopping mall in the Universe. Do you want to put a store in it?") And they constantly draw from the world around them. They described an extremely elaborate theme park to me last August, and once I recovered from stunned marvel, I started to hear the influence of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I'm sure you get my point and I'm commenting way too much. They aren't stealing, or even imitating. These kids are, in a word, inspired. I try to let myself be like them.

Stefanie said...

I enjoyed your thoughtful post. I would have been nonplussed if a classmate used my poem and merely rearranged it too. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all that, doesn't mean the imitator is any good. Borrowing a character like Sherlock Holmes or Bertha and writing something entirely new from that can be exciting or a huge disappointment depending on the skills of the author. I think such borrowings and inspirations have produced some gems that instead of taking away from the original add to it be extending the conversation.

Congrats on your second story collection!

Kate S. said...


I agree that my classmate didn’t set out to steal my work, but the professor responded in such a way that that was the result. Despite the fact that my lines were still recognizably part of his rewrite, everyone in the class left with the impression that it would be fine for him to send the new version off for publication without so much as mentioning my name. My role was erased.

DJ Sciz,

I think that you’re really on to something. The version of creativity that you describe is, I think, very much in line with the relational theory of authorship stressed by Carys in her panel presentation. She spoke about how our current private property approach to copyright depends on an outdated model of the author as lone genius. We’ve moved a long way from there in literary theory (though I would argue not so much in the public imagination given our penchant for celebrity in the literary world as well as elsewhere) and our copyright law should reflect a more complex understanding of creativity which includes, among other things, working collaboratively, drawing from a vast array of inspirations, and incorporating whatever raw material is to hand.


I like your characterization of successful borrowings and imitations as “extending the conversation,” products of a creative dialogue. I think this too is in line with the relational theory of authorship. Though I should probably ask Carys if I can read the paper on which her panel presentation was based before I spout off about it any further.

Julie said...

Really interesting post, Kate. I found myself thinking about visual art. Don't people learn to draw by copying the Old Masters, and so forth?

What your professor did was unconscionable, in my opinion.