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.