Here is an excerpt from an article I wrote for the July, 2007 issue of the English Journal.
The Art of Imitation
The first year of teaching is always a challenge. This is especially true if-as is often the case with brand-new teachers-you are asked to teach a subject with which you have little or no experience. Like many prospective educators, I left college with my English degree in hand, eager to make a difference. I enthusiastically accepted a position teaching ninth- and tenth-grade English in a growing suburban school district. There was just one catch; to get the job, I had to teach two sections of photography as well. Fortunately, a good friend of mine has a photography degree, and he walked me through the essential skills I needed to know to survive in the classroom. I taught those photography classes for three years, but as an English teacher with a heart for writing and literature, the most important lesson I gained from the experience was a familiarity with an instructional technique that is often used in art classes: learning through imitation.
In my photography classes, I figured out right away that the least-productive strategy for teaching photo composition is simply telling the students to go take pictures of anything they want-with the results being scores of cheesy, yearbook-style snapshots featuring friends who are all standing neatly in a row. However, if we spent time studying famous photographs by respected photographers and then had the students imitate the same styles and techniques, the results were infinitely better. For example, we would look at close-up photos by Edward Weston and talk about his careful use of shadow and texture to help the viewer see ordinary objects, such as seashells or peppers, in totally new ways. I would then have the students select an object of their choice and, using the same techniques as Weston, come up with their own versions of his photos. The resulting images were original and creative, even though they were directly imitating another artist’s work. In fact, the more restrictions I placed on the compositional elements within a given photo project, the more creative the students became.
I have discovered that the same principles apply to writing. One way to guarantee poor writing-especially among low-performing students-is to give an open-ended assignment with little structure, such as, “Write a short story about something that interests you.” If a teacher makes the mistake of assigning a topic such as this, which I did my first year, he or she spends countless hours reading bad romance and horror tales that have no point and often include gimmicky, predictable endings. Yet, if a teacher lays out specific criteria and sets limitations on what may or may not be included in a given narrative, the stories are much more effective and creative.
The Value of Imitation
Although I stumbled on this approach to writing instruction by accident, others have been promoting the value of imitation for centuries. The ancient Romans taught writing through a seven-step process of imitation, believing that this method provided students with the tools necessary to develop their independent compositional style. Central to the Roman approach was the belief that “free composition must be based on knowledge of the options available to the writer-and this knowledge comes only from imitation” (Murphy 53). In the Roman system, students began by listening to, analyzing, and memorizing texts. Once this was accomplished, they progressed to developing paraphrases, transliterations, and recitations of those paraphrases. The final step was learning to self-correct their paraphrases and transliterations (Murphy 46-52). Students began with easy-to-understand fables and tales, and as they grew older and their skills grew more sophisticated, they tackled increasingly complex material. The purpose of this was to provide students with quality linguistic models whereby they could express their ideas clearly and precisely, because Roman teachers felt that the “writer who knows only one mode of writing is not free, but is bound by one mode” (Murphy 53).
Most quality teachers probably employ some form of imitation in their instructional regimen. For instance, Strunk and White’s classic handbook The Elements of Style incorporates samples of good and bad writing to illustrate points of grammar and composition, and teachers who use student-produced writing to model the features of various assignments are adapting similar strategies. When teaching poetic structure, many poetry teachers utilize scaffolding, which is an imitative approach involving the use of specific lines from a well-known poem to serve as the initial framework for a student’s original verse. Eventually, the key lines are replaced by the student’s words, thus resulting in a brand-new poem that began as an imitation of someone else’s work. These approaches to writing instruction are certainly not new, and as Paul Butler states, the “idea behind imitation, then, is not that we merely read something that someone else has written, but that we read it and appropriate it in ways that become ‘original’ in the process of producing it ourselves. That is one way that imitation can be considered a creative act. It is not merely copying or reproducing the work of another, but transforming it in some important respects” (Butler).
Imitation and Narrative
At our high school in Arizona, the twelfth-grade English curriculum focuses on British and world literature. While many of the writing assignments associated with this material are analytical in nature, there are several works that lend themselves to narrative writing opportunities, such as Dante’s Inferno and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Over the course of these units, we analyze the characters, plots, styles, and stylistic techniques. The students are then given a chance to develop narratives using the same types of devices these authors employ. The criteria for these assignments are specific, although they afford plenty of flexibility in terms of substance and style.
For the Inferno writing project, students create an original narrative in which they describe the identities and punishments of those people they believe Dante would condemn to Hell if he were writing his poem today. The narrative is written in a style similar to that of Dante’s Inferno, and as such, it contains the following:
- A first-person narrator
- Human characters (those individuals whom Dante would place in Hell)
- A guide who is leading the narrator through Hell and explaining what he or she is witnessing
- Setting (one of the existing Circles in Dante’s geography of Hell or a level of the students’ creation)
- A depiction of the types of punishments the condemned souls will receive eternally
- The narrator’s reaction to the scene
The length of the assignment is limited to no more than 350 words, and students must include each of the requisite elements within their narrative. I sometimes give students the option of writing their narrative in verse form rather than prose, and for an extra challenge, they must utilize Dante’s terza rima rhyme scheme (aba, bcb, cdc, ded) for at least five tercets.
I have discovered that with specific criteria such as this in place, the students move beyond the “I don’t know what to write about” phase of the drafting process quickly, and they seem to genuinely enjoy coming up with creative ways of telling their stories. The guides for their journeys have included a host of diverse characters such as Dennis Rodman, Madonna, 2 Pac, Britney Spears, The Rock, Brad Pitt, Woody Allen, Paris Hilton, Angelina Jolie, and others. The victims in their Infernos often include well-known terrorists, serial killers, corporate criminals, media icons, pop stars, ex-boyfriends, and even a few teachers (including me!). The punishments that students create for their condemned victims range from amusing situations, such as winter visitors or “snowbirds” (a common sight in Arizona each winter) being forced to drive the posted speed limit and pay full price for their buffet meals, all the way to the ghastly torturing of some of the worst criminals in history. Most students write their narratives in a good-natured spirit of satire. However, teachers would be free to set whatever limitations they feel are appropriate given their student populations and community expectations. The following is an example of one student’s modern-day Inferno rendered in verse form.
I awoke to a powerful and abrupt shake.
I was led into the tenth circle of Hell.
I looked up and read a sign that made me quake.
Where the excursion would lead me, I could not tell.
The sign read “The Circle of the Ignorant Who Annoy All.”
I knew that after the journey, I would not feel well.
Madonna and I walked past Satan who began to call,
“Help me! Ignorant people buried me up to my shoulders!
Get me out of this place! I do not deserve this at all.”
We ventured into a room full of students who
Had to pass their tests and study hard.
If they did not pass, they were forced through
A library filled with books, and they had to use note cards
To write reports on deceased presidents,
Which was the worst punishment for those lards.
For the Canterbury Tales writing project, students are again given specific criteria in terms of length, style, and focus. As with the Inferno project, these limitations seem to provide creative freedom to the students. In this assignment, students are asked to compose an original tale in the style of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales that meets the following criteria:
- It must be a story that provides the “fullest measure / Of good morality and general pleasure” (“Prologue,” lines 817-18).
- It must contain interesting characters-either human or nonhuman.
- It should provide a well-established setting and an entertaining plot.
- It should include some sort of implied moral instruction.
- It should also reflect the personality of one of the characters from the story (such as the “Pardoner’s Tale” warning against the dangers of greed or the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” discussing the nature of women and marriage).
- The final narrative should be no more than two pages in length (250-400 words).
Honors students are asked to write their narrative in verse form rather than prose, and they must employ a series of rhymed couplets as Chaucer does. The limitation on the assignment’s length forces the students to be concise, which is a challenge for some, but the availability of numerous voices for their narrator gives them the direction they need as they think about each character’s personality and the stories he or she would likely tell. With this assignment and the Inferno project, students are given sample stories written by former students to help clarify the expectations for the narrative. The following is a student’s example of an original Canterbury Tale.
Once long ago in a town filled with trees
Was a strong young man who aimed to please
The ladies around him and the maidens, too.
He always knew what to say and to do.
His wife-well, he had more than a few-
They neither minded nor cared that he wasn’t true.
Among these ladies was one of pleasure
Whom this young man learned to treasure.
It began one day when he was out alone
With one of his many ladies, reading a poem.
His eyes were wandering away from this wife
For this wasn’t the woman to share his life.
What she didn’t know about this man,
That more than once he did give his hand.
Her lover was too scared to speak it true
That she wasn’t the only to hear, “I love you!”
For fear of losing her, he went on a journey.
Then he regretted his decisions and was slowly learning
That, “Love for one is more than love for all!”
He proudly spoke and stood up tall.
But on his way to the last of his own,
The young maiden came prancing out of her home.
When her eyes opened to see a kiss
Given to another through true love’s bliss,
She stormed off in a huff and around him she passed
And realized their love would never last.
It did not take long before he withered and died,
And none of his wives sorrowed or cried.
And on his tombstone it was engraved,
“How I wish the young maiden would have stayed!”
Given the nature of these assignments, I have found it beneficial to set specific content limitations on my students’ narratives. For the Inferno project, I do not allow students to depict violent tortures of anyone currently alive, and sexually oriented material is strictly forbidden. Likewise, the students’ Canterbury Tales must be appropriate for a high school audience-thus eliminating any bawdy imitations of “The Miller’s Tale” or other stories of that sort. I routinely have my students submit the first drafts of their writing to me for review, and they understand that I have “veto power” over any content I believe is inappropriate. Of course, these guidelines are flexible and could be modified for other educational environments and age groups.
With so much pressure on English teachers to develop students’ skills in academic writing, there are often few opportunities to venture into more-creative narrative forms. When these opportunities arise, it is in the best interest of teachers and students to get the most from the experiences. Imitation strategies have proven effective in my classroom precisely because they allow writers to focus on specific compositional skills, such as structure and word choice. When students are later expected to juggle additional elements of writing, these skills carry over into new situations, which ultimately aids them in developing their overall craft as writers because they have had opportunities to experiment with a variety of styles.
Art teachers have been using imitation as a means of teaching creative techniques to their students for centuries, and the same principles that make it effective in those disciplines apply equally well to the realms of language and writing. If asked, many successful writers will freely admit that much of their early work was characterized by an attempt to mimic other writers whom they admired, and it took this period of imitation for them to develop the skills necessary for them to find their literary voice. We would be wise to follow their example, because as master artists and teachers have demonstrated time and again, imitation is indeed a powerful key to unlocking a student’s creative potential. Or as Alexander Pope notes in An Essay on Criticism, “True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, / As those move easiest who have learned to dance” (lines 362-63).
Butler, Paul. “Imitation as Freedom: (Re)Forming Student Writing.” Spring 2002. National Writing Project. 5 Jul. 2006 <http://www.writingproject.org/cs/nwpp/print/nwpr/361>.
Murphy, James. A Short History of Writing Instruction: From Ancient Greece to Modern America. Mahwah: LEA, 2001.
Pope, Alexander. “An Essay on Criticism.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1986.