I met a lovely woman the other day who, after I told her what I do for a living, declared that she wished she were creative. She said she likes to draw, but doesn’t have the creativity to draw something of her own; she can only copy.
I know she’s not the only one who’s ever felt that way, so I’ll tell you what I told her:
It’s okay to copy for a while. We learn by imitation. Artists mimic the masters. Writers pen shameless copies of their favorite books.* And that’s okay. It’s part of the learning process. Eventually, you grow out of it by reading more widely — recommendations, impulse-buy books, and award winners or bestsellers — and you find your own stories to write.**
Imitation isn’t without its pitfalls, though:
After a while, we sometimes find ourselves in an uncomfortable position. We put so much effort into mimicking our heroes that when we try to write our own thing, all we can do is be disappointed in it. We compare it to our hero’s work. We think about how much better the story could be, if only said hero had written it. Because ours is just a weak copy with lots of weird bits poking out. Weird bits that don’t belong in our hero’s kinds of stories.
But those weird bits? They didn’t come out of nowhere. Dig them out and see what they really are, because those weird bits aren’t weird at all — they’re your creativity shining through. They’re your stories. Your voice. Your style.
They’re what makes the story special. They’re what make it yours.
Imitation is a wonderful way to learn, so go ahead. But don’t be afraid of your own creativity, either.
*True story. I did this. Twice. I was eleven and then thirteen and I hadn’t yet read widely enough to understand there were more kinds of stories than those.
**Though I’m just going to talk about writing for now, this post is, of course, not limited to writers. It applies to all creative folks.