As writers, we feel a huge amount of pressure to be original 24/7. Works derived from others are seen as being watered down, tasteless, and just plain rude. Why is this? As writers, we are constantly hyper-aware of other writers’ ideas and fearful of plagiarism – as we should be – but why do we feel equally guilty for taking writing pointers from the authors we love most?
When you think about it, it’s impossible to grow without mimicking someone else. The only reason we ever learned language is because we repeated whatever came out of our parents’ mouths. We decided whatever genre of music was the “coolest” based on what our older siblings played for us. We learned how to do our makeup by copying our mothers and sisters. If this is how we learn everything else, why can’t it be applied to writing?
This semester was the first time I ever took an English class in which I never had to write an analytical paper. Instead, my professor urged us to engage with each text in a creative way and put ourselves into the shoes of the writers (and even the characters!) themselves. This was an eye opener for me! It was so much fun to think about how Daisy Buchanan (The Great Gatsby) would fare if she were plopped into the prize fighter’s campsite (In Our Time, “The Battler”) or how differently Their Eyes Were Watching God would unfold had it been written from Janie’s first-person point of view. I had the chance to adopt the voice of Lorelei (Gentemen Prefer Blondes) and stage a scene in the town of North Dormer (Summer). Engaging with the works we’ve studied in this way allows us not only to gain a better understanding of the author’s intentions but also to expand our own writing techniques in ways we never imagined.
While I’m not encouraging you to republish the entire Game of Thrones series under different character names or to write about a cult of stay-at-home-moms who use all the same spells as Harry Potter, please don’t ever be shy to look at your work from another angle or borrow the techniques of others. If you’re stuck in a rut, try rewriting a scene in third person. Change your main character’s gender. Introduce the protagonist of one story to the antagonist of your favorite novel. Give one of your characters a thick southern accent. As long as these classics are on our reading lists, we might as well learn a thing or two from them!
Good luck and happy experimenting!
– Mary Wilson