Clark Terry, one of most recorded trumpeters in history, had three words to describe how the creative process works: imitate, assimilate, innovate. Though he was a famed jazz improviser, the same three phases hold true for a creative writer. In this article, we’ll take a look at how they apply to your creative writing, offering a number of creative writing tips.
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
When creative writers first start out, they usually do so because they’ve been inspired by an author that they idolize. It is only natural to want to emulate the work of those we admire, and we often do so because something in their work resonated with us. Therefore, it follows suit that we’d like to take on these characteristics to begin our creative writing journey. And so, we write…
And we write some more. These early works are usually flattering imitations, but they lack an individual voice. For some, this may be the “cringe-worthy” phase, but our ideas are still hampered by our abilities. In other words, our ambitions exceed our capabilities. At least, in the beginning they do.
Essentially, these first works are karaoke—you may sing a mean “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but no one sings it better than Freddie Mercury. The best you can be is second best. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be second-banana when I can be… ummm… some other fruit-based winner.
But let’s go one step deeper into imitation and see how we can apply it to our creative writing. For instance, Hunter S. Thompson’s famous example of pure imitation is how he—in order to form a good basis for his own writing—typed out the Great Gatsby word-for-word. At 70,000 words, Gatsby would take you at least 19 1/2 hours if your typing speed reaches 60 words per minute.
That’s quite an investment, and that’s probably why he was such a manic, drug-fueled persona, but I digress. Now, I’m not suggesting you need to do the same—I personally transcribed Chekhov’s comparatively shorter short stories—but there’s something valuable in directly following along to the mechanics of writing that can be incredibly demonstrative to your own writing process.
Give it a try. Find a story that you like and copy it verbatim. You’ll find that you’ll eventually start to notice minute details of your chosen author’s style that you would have otherwise missed. Vocabulary, sentence structure, pacing—even the frequency of punctuation will start to reveal itself. Just how many commas do the pros actually need? (Semicolons for Vonnegut? NONE.)
Best of all? You get a new way to enjoy an old story by seeing the inner workings first-hand. You can’t beat that.
Creative Writing Tips, Number 1: Assimilate
The next phase is assimilation.
By practicing your writing over and over again, you should begin seeing patterns in your own work that you want to foster and avoid. For instance, I’ve always enjoyed throwing in italics to emphasize certain words after reading Tom Wolfe’s stuff—he’s great! On the other side of the coin, J.D. Salinger’s Glass Family books (Franny and Zooey; Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters; and so on) really put me off (I think) adding (unnecessary) parenthesis and internal monologues that (naturally) interrupt the flow of my intended (or unintended) meaning.
(Phew, that was hard to read…)
The point I’m trying to make is that you must assimilate your preferences into your writing for a “Kill Daddy” phase. No longer can you rely on those training wheels to help you along, nor should you strive to create deliberately derivative works that showcase a lack of originality. Trust me, there are enough readers out there that would love for the opportunity to out a “hack” writer. Plus, you’ll never reach your true potential and discover your own voice that can create compelling and unique prose. That’s our goal, isn’t it?
My advice during this phase is to use the process of forgetting. That’s right; once you’ve learned all the mechanics of creative writing, forget them. This period is characterized by purposely ignoring your influences. In fact, you may even develop contempt for the writers you once held in high esteem. Though he’s a pretty good read, it’s hard to ignore how needlessly repetitive Charles Bukowski’s writing was.
Creative Writing Tips, Number 2: Innovate
Okay, you’ve committed the literary equivalent of fratricide. We commend you and hopefully God/Allah/Buddha will forgive you—nevertheless, welcome to the innovation stage.
I find that “innovate” is something of a misnomer for this final phase of writing. Your writing may not be on the cutting-edge of the newest writing styles or in vogue with the zeitgeist. However, in your own personal journey of becoming a creative writer (and a good one at that), it certainly helps to see how far you’ve come from your origins of coming to grips with your innate and unique talent, to naturally joining the pantheon of those who dared author the written word.
Think of this innovation phase similar to how a surgeon would: do they have to practice their stitching anymore? I certainly hope not—no, they’re beyond the early rudiments and can now view their occupation in a more broad sense.
The same goes for writers: once you’ve attained the skill and the words can flow from your fingertips (or mouth), it’s time to take a step away and analyze the deeper concepts: Are the characters compelling and believable? Does this story hold the reader’s interest? Are there literary devices that I can implement? Or, should I edit this story down to its most potent passages? THESE are the concerns of professional writers, though you’ll certainly find rudimentary mistakes when you edit. And editing is a whole ‘nother topic altogether.
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As an afterward, I think it’s crucial to take an honest look at your writing and determine just where you are at. You may be further along than you thought, or you may be wondering just how long the plateau of your current phase will last. To answer that last worry, the only advice I can give is this: keep writing. And then write some more.