Creating Perspective With Imitation
by And Schuster
We, as humans, like to think of events as having a beginning, a middle and an end--things we can pack up neatly and put away, perhaps to take out to examine when we feel so called. The truth is, though, that many human experiences are not singular or finite. Certain patterns or events originating in the past, such as abuse or chronic illness, can persist into the present, perhaps never being fully over. Sometimes it feels impossible to get the distance required not to have a visceral emotional response. Other experiences, like living with racism or homophobia or misogyny, are continual, and while of course we can expect that a writer affected by these issues might gain a certain degree of perspective, expecting distance from something so pervasive just isn’t realistic.
During my first formal foray into creative nonfiction, I encountered this piece of advice in the textbook assigned by my mentor: “If you’re crying while crafting a piece of nonfiction, the tears will smudge the ink, making your work ultimately unreadable. If your hand shakes with anger as you write, your words will veer wildly across the page with no sense of control or design” (Tell It Slant, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, p. 44).
The authors were encouraging their students to use discernment in deciding when they’re ready to write about something, and to leave it until later if it was something that still brought them to tears.
The thing is, I write about things that are intense for me. I write about things that make me cry. In the face of Miller and Paoloa’s words, I found myself asking: should I even be writing about the things I most want to write about right now? Am I relegated to writing only about things that don’t have a charge for me? Or can I find a way around it?
I really didn’t know what to do.
On the one hand, I understand the author's point about the need for perspective to create a work that can connect with a reader in a meaningful way. A myopic rant is not going to connect with a reader in the same way as a measured, carefully crafted portrayal of a situation. At the same time, I couldn’t accept staying away from work that was too emotionally charged, because I believe there are some things — some very important things — from which humans may never have distance.
For myself, queerness and being queer from a conservative background is one situation from which I’ll never have total distance. However, it’s a vital issue to write about, for me personally, and for society at large. When I first started trying to write on this topic, I was bleeding onto the page. Not only was it incredibly uncomfortable to share my work with others, but my writing was unstructured and full of abstraction, and just wouldn’t connect to a reader in the way I wanted it to.
That’s where imitation came in.
I don’t remember where I first picked up the idea of imitation (yes, it is ok to sound like your favorite author, and it’s not to be confused with plagiarism), but it’s a common tool writers use to break into their writing, and has also been taught to me in workshops at the Mile High MFA program where I’m currently a student. To use this practice, a writer chooses a piece of work they want to imitate, and sticks to the form--rhyme scheme, parts of speech, etc.--as closely as possible, but with a unique topic of their own choice.
I was reading a lot of Mary Szybist during this time, and her piece “Entrances and Exits” from her book Incarnadine moved me deeply--it is so full of concrete details and no abstraction, yet still deals up close with the immediate, emotional experiences of looking death in the face in ways both big and small.
So, I chose to use her work as a template for form, using the practice of imitation as a tool to develop my skill with detail, as well as to force myself to channel strong emotion into vivid imagery and ideally something that would convey my experiences in a way that would connect with rather than isolate a reader.
A few examples of lines from her work that I used as a structure for my own:
Duccio’s Annunciation sits open on my desk becomes Alanis Morissette’s Under Rug Swept plays on my computer.
I think of honeybees becomes I think of skin cells
until it is empty, Olivia drinks becomes until it is silent, I breathe.
The pieces are similar in structure, but entirely different in tone and meaning. Not only did I find a way into my writing that allows for strong emotion and lack of distance, it was excellent practice for developing the particular craft skills that I need. After doing this a few times, I tried to write my own piece without imitating; it wasn’t perfect, but it was much improved on my previous, pre-imitation work, with detail instead of abstraction and much more appeal to a reader.
Through this experience, I found that forcing a charged topic into structure the perfect way to create some perspective when distance in time or emotion just isn’t possible. I still cried a little when writing my imitation pieces--the topics I am writing about affect me deeply and presently, and will continue to do so for some time--but the strict form helped keep me focused. As a result, my work became (I was told) more accessible to the reader and, hopefully, began to exhibit a sense of composure and design.
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