On Copying and Imitation as Practice, Not Plagiarism

by Marisa PC


Every semester, as I teach scene-writing, I dedicate a class or two to dialogue. The content and pacing of dialogue are themselves worthy of discussion, but they are not my subject today. Instead, I notice that in at least half the cases, my students have difficulty punctuating dialogue correctly and sometimes struggle to paragraph it as well. Each time I teach it, I reflect on why these technical particularities come so easily to me. I’m detail-oriented, sure, and blessed with an undying love of grammar and mechanics. However, I’m also aware that no one—no teacher in a classroom, I mean—took time to teach me the hows and whys of dialogue punctuation. I’ve decided I learned how to do it through the practice of imitation.

In high school, I was already full of original stories to tell, but sometimes when another author’s work inspired me, I would rewrite it. I would copy in longhand whatever words had caught my attention, because I wanted to experience what it felt like to have such amazing words unspool from my pen. In no way was my copying an act of plagiarism. It was, rather, an act of homage—and of apprenticeship. I kept whole notebooks of song lyrics and passages from poetry and prose that moved me. Once, I even copied an entire novel but changed the point-of-view character to the one I preferred. Quite possibly, my long, attentive copying sessions led me to learn dialogue punctuation. I’m fairly sure it led me to learn other things about writing, too.

Among the creative writing textbooks in my possession is one by Nicholas Delbanco called The Sincerest Form: Writing Fiction by Imitation. I haven’t used it with any of my classes, but I find it an intriguing approach. Delbanco introduces each chapter with a short story—Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” Bharati Mukherjee’s “The Management of Grief,” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” among them—and follows with a step-by-step analysis of each, along with ten exercises promoting imitation of the story. The exercises for O’Connor’s story, for example, include incorporating dialect to write a scene between two characters discussing the Grandmother, writing five different endings, and expanding the relatively small role of the mother. An anthology of other stories and exercises follows.

Perhaps you have objected, as so many do, to the notion of imitation as a vehicle toward learning. You have your own style, your own stories, your own original you-ness of writing. I get that, I do, but Delbanco makes a strong case for such practice, pointing out how often we learn by example in other ways. We learn to walk and talk by example, he points out. Actors study other people’s actions and intonations; artists in their apprenticeship attempt to reproduce what they see. Delbanco goes on. And I’ll join him in promoting imitation as a fair practice.

Today I invite you to copy several pages of a story, essay, or book you admire or several poems by a poet whose work inspires you. Use longhand, and feel the words. If you want to take the exercise further, try writing a short original passage or poem of your own that follows the structure and mechanics of the admired piece. See whether you can develop a sense of how the author or poet of the piece you’re imitating made each decision—from word choice and sentence structure to development of character or theme. And if punctuating and paragraphing dialogue gives you fits, by all means, copy a long, effective passage of someone else’s and take note of what the author is doing!


In regard to the photo: Felix LaFollett is an African gray parrot who has his own Facebook page and is trainer to the people with whom he lives. As many of you know, I live with three parrots, and though they often repeat words, phrases, and noises, they are never merely imitating. Their gift of clear communication is one we humans should learn from and hope to emulate.

Sound Bite Sunday: The Bite-Sized Edition

Guest Post by Randi Beck

In honor of “bite”-sized sound bites, we’ll keep this intro equally small!  First, here are two bite-sized sound-bites (followed by one that is a bit more than a bite-sized chew):

writing-2bexcuses-2b-2bcoverWriting Excuses Podcast (“15 minutes long because you’re in a hurry”)

This show is primarily an advice & discussion session with some notable sci/fi/fantasy/romance writers.  This podcast is geared toward genre writers, but there are plenty of useful things here for writers of all tropes so for all you high-brow literary types, try it before you snub it. (Then erase it quickly from your list of podcasts so no one knows you’re listening to it.) Topics range from simple craft questions on POV and the like, to more sensitive issues such as cultural appropriation, gender dynamics, and colonialism. They also discuss issues on the business end of writing (how to hand-sell your book, for instance) and on the psychological end (how not to feel like an imposter). A great choice for the commute home if you write in the evenings or to enjoy with your coffee if you’re a morning writer.

rawGrammar Girl Quick & Dirty Tips For Better Writing, with Mignon Fogarty

A nice and tidy little podcast that tells you all you need to know about it right in the title.  It helped me solve my embarrassing who vs. whom incompetence once and for all. Imagine what it can do for you. (And if you like the podcast, the website is equally nice, tidy, quick and dirty.)


170x170bbDon’t Keep Your Day Job, with Cathy Heller (The not so bite-sized podcast that is still easy to digest):

This is one for creatives of all sorts. Its purpose is to inspire you to follow your passion by sharing stories of how other artists have made a living doing what they love.  It’s positive and uplifting…and the host’s sincere enthusiasm go-get’em attitude might eventually get on some people’s nerves. But there are some great stories here and good advice for thinking and living outside the box. A couple to start with: “Turning Misery into Motivation” (with photographer Elisabeth Caren) and “What Can You Do Today?” (with the host, Cathy Heller). Episodes are 45-60 minutes.

And that’s all…until next week!

When to Write What Consumes Us (And Why Josh Chan Should Keep Singing)

I was a teenager when I learned that writing “in the heat of the moment” ends badly. For example, if in the middle of a lousy afternoon, I wrote a poem about my lousy afternoon, the poem turned out lousier than the afternoon. As another example, in an episode of the musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend the character Josh Chan becomes so jealous of his two friends’ romance that, at his dojo, he bursts into impassioned song:

“Angry! Feeling . . . bad!” he grunts more than sings. His emotions are raw, and as a result he struggles to be coherent. He doesn’t have what a writing workshop might call “temporal distance”–he’s too close to the situation to be able to see it and reflect on it with any kind of grace. If he sang/grunted about it later (maybe the next day, maybe months or years after the fact), he’d have the distance needed to create something eloquent and worthwhile. That’s what some people–me included–might say anyway.

But since I’m an essayist who uses writing to thrash about in muddy contradictions, I’ll include a quote from Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life:

One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for . . . later . . . give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

This passage (and, yes, do read the whole book) says adamantly not to wait, not to indulge in temporal distance, that if we feel the urge to express something, we should do so and do it now. Or does it say that? Dillard declares, “[T]he impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is . . . shameful” (emphasis supplied). Maybe this means that we must reach a place of wisdom about a subject before trying to tackle it.

Image result for the writing lifeBut I argue with that. Waiting to write until we feel confident in our wisdom is like waiting to live until we’ve figured out how not to mess up. It’s the same logic commitment-phobes use to avoid serious relationships–“What if it doesn’t work out?” becomes the reason never to work.

Thus, the pickle is this: If we should write about what consumes us, but we should also have something to say about it that’s more enlightened than “Angry! Feeling . . . bad!,” how do we proceed? In another section of The Writing Life Dillard poses an illuminating Q&A:

“Who will teach me to write?” . . .

The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut . . . that page will teach you to write.

These two Dillard excerpts in tandem suggest that (1) we must write about the thing that consumes us, (2) this writing must become wise, and (3) only the act of writing will empower us to accomplish (1) and (2). Put differently, Josh Chan can (should!) sing, “Angry! Feeling . . . bad!”–and he’ll have to keep singing to find his way to the real story.

As a teenager I learned that writing “in the heat of the moment” ends badly. As an adult I’m discovering that I should write despite that–heat is energy, after all–and I have to keep writing out of the original moment into other moments. As I draft and revise, the initial heat will transform into a stronger, more potent heat, a heat that dwarfs the disappointment, shame, ache, rage, or obsession that first goaded me.

So, this March and onward, write the tsunami in your head, the thing you dream and rant of, the thing you pen notes about on your hand and forearm, the hot thing that singes every article, book, TV episode, conversation. Write it in dumb words and broken sentences. As you write you will gain temporal perspective and build something that others need to hear–the page, the page will show the way.


Bibliophilia Stichomancy: Inspiration from the Literary Divine

Perhaps the favorite thing Randi and I brought back from AWP (other than the memories, of course!) was a box of “literary postcards” called Bibliophilia:


The postcards come in a box of 100*.  They are beautiful images, each with a different quote from a famous writer.   Randi found them at one of the booths, and she showed me the find with a guilty pleasure, pulling them from her tote bag in the middle of the bustling AWP Bookfair.  “Look!” she said, and we opened them immediately, our hands reaching outwards, not to flip through the cards as you might expect, but to each draw one at random, our eyes closed, left hands extended, seeking our inspiration for the day.

Okay, so maybe this was not the purpose of the postcards.  I doubt they were meant to be a form of writer’s stichomancy, a grasping at words the way people used to grasp at random Bible passages for insight or divine guidance.  But Randi and I do this often, with EVERYTHING, from board game characters to fortune cookies to boxes full of rocks…  Either way, the cards’ messages were profound.   Continue reading

TBT: Shameless Plug? or Inspiration?

In honor of the Facebook “Throw Back Thursday” Tradition, I thought I’d bring back Oldie’s But Goodies. This week’s TBT prompt was originally published in 2013 by Jennifer Simpson.

As Jenn writes:

“Goals are good. Measurable goals even better. But understanding the why: why is it important to you, what is your mission, what part of your soul does attaining this goal feed? Those are the things that will keep you going.”

Read the entire post here:

A Writer's March

Hopefully a little of both…

Before you dig in too deep with your Writer’s March goals, I’m going to suggest starting with writing about why you write

Last summer I had the pleasure of attending the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference as a graduate student intern–the last time I will be able to do that since I’ve now graduated. At The Conference I signed up for Seattle-based writer Priscilla Long‘s week-long class, “The Art of the Sentence, the Art of the Paragraph.” (PS there are still spots left in Priscilla’s class for the summer 2013 Conference)

Two great things were sparked by in-class writing exercises: one, an essay that while it has not yet found a home (rejected by 6 of the 12 journals I’ve sent it to) was a finalist for the A Room Of Her Own Orlando Prize for creative non fiction and two, the I…

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The Elephant in the Room

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

Well, now, it’s been an interesting couple of months, hasn’t it? When I was asked once again to write a guest post for yet another March, the first thing I had to know was whether I would be welcome or encouraged to write about “the Elephant in the room,” because that would make a huge difference in how I would frame whatever I might want to say. And do you notice how I didn’t even have to specify which elephant I was talking about? Sam knew exactly what I meant when I asked her, and I bet you did too. It is safe to say that the recent election is one of the most polarizing events in recent memory. And since I am a guest (blogger) in this house, I wanted to be sure I knew the rules. Continue reading

Go Gay or Go Home

At this year’s AWP Conference in Washington, D.C., I spoke on my first panel.  The panel

Hail from AWP

That’s me, hiding behind the podium, speaking with my hands!

was called, “The Politics of Queering Characters,” and was, as the title suggests, about the benefits and drawbacks of creating queer characters on the page (whether that page be fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry or otherwise).

I organized this panel in response to a talk Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You, gave at last year’s AWP.  For those unfamiliar with Greenwell, his latest novel has been hailed the “great gay novel of our time,” and as a queer writer, I was eager to hear him speak.  On the podium, Greenwell talked about his views on being marginalized as a “gay writer” (a place some writers try to avoid as it often is seen as a curse, a label that can keep a writer from becoming more established and well read).  He brought up Aristotle’s idea of the universal, that belief a writer’s our goal should be to tap into a collective consciousness of sorts, where no matter where you live or who you are, if the writer is doing their job, the reader will be moved by a “universal” sense of what it means to be human.

This is something I’ve always aspired towards in my own writing, this sense that all stories, even a queer story (especially a queer story), can be made into a story anyone can relate to, if done correctly.  This idea works with my own sense of idealism, and for years, I’d gone about on this quest quite happily.  But then, Greenwell threw a metaphorical wrench in that system.  He questioned this idea of the universal, wondering who it was made for?  Was it made for people like us?  Or was the universal created out of the artistic aesthetic of a privileged few.  And that aesthetic looks a lot paler, whiter, and straighter than my own.

And so Greenwell argued, why aim for the universal at all?  “I am a queer writer,” he said, “writing queer characters for a queer audience.”  He spoke, quite passionately, about the so-called “gay-ghetto,” claiming by the end that if James Baldwin and Virginia Woolf are in this “gay-ghetto,” then count him in.

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Fret Not!* On the Reasons Behind the Rules for My Fiction Workshop

Guest post by Marisa PC (Tyger Burning)

Dec 2015-July 2016 004 (152).JPGIt’s that time of the semester again. The students in my fiction-writing class are getting ready to turn in short stories for workshopping, and I’ve had the nerve to give them rules to follow as they write—stuff like writing from the POV of a living human character who’s interacting with other human characters in a contemporary time and in a setting they’re familiar with. Don’t kill off a character in order to resolve a conflict, I say. Don’t write a story that begins or ends with an alarm clock, I say, or one that depends on coincidence or one that ends with the gimmick of “It was all a dream.” Don’t turn in a would-be episode of whatever’s hot on Netflix or at the movies. Don’t, don’t, don’t, I say. Amid all the don’ts, I include the all-important one, so important that it’s underscored on the list of content guidelines on my syllabus. “Genre work is forbidden,” I’ve warned, “and turning it in will result in a grade deduction and possible failure of the assignment.”

Inevitably, this rule makes the light go out of the eyes of about half my fiction students, while the others appear unfazed. The class—an intermediate-level undergraduate fiction workshop—has literary fiction as its focus, I’ve said, so the repetition of the rule should come as no surprise. Even as I hammer home what sorts of things I’m looking for in their stories, I wonder who this semester’s rule-breaker will be. Who will insist on setting a story on another planet or adding a dragon into the mix or having a zombie take a bite out of an expendable character or treating the reader to a day in the pet beta fish’s life from the pet beta fish’s POV? And is there any chance at all that that rule-defying risk-taker will compose a successful story? Continue reading

Sound Bite Sunday

Guest post by Randi Beck

My current day job involves equal parts mind-numbing monotony (think walking very slowly through a grocery store while using a calculator) and twenty or so Billboard pop songs played on loop (think Maroon 5—all day, every day.) So rather than sink further into a Sisyphisian state of depression, I said screw the no-headphones rule and started downloading podcasts.

It turns out you can find a podcast on pretty much anything, including writing. I have found some to be surprisingly motivating and/or educational. I have also found some to be terrible. So I have weeded through dozens of podcasts to bring you this weekly list of recommended listening, which will heretoafter be known as “Sunday Sound Bites.”

Some of these will focus on craft and productivity, others feature author interviews, and some are just good writerly fun. A few may not be about writing, specifically, but should prove useful in developing your writing habit or motivating you when the going gets tough. I hope you’ll find at least a few that you enjoy. Continue reading

Saturday Afternoon Inspiration

Happy Saturday, folks.  Here in Merced-land, we are laying down laminate floors and jamming to music.  It’s a busy day, but thanks to my commitment to you, I’ll still put words to the page by the end of the night and hope that, no matter what YOU are doing, you’ll do the same, too!

Today, I thought I’d leave words of wisdom to the wise.  Here are 13 inspiring quotes stolen from HERE and HERE and HERE.  Find the one that inspires you, and write it on a post-it.  Leave it somewhere on your desk to remind you as you go.


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