Yesterday I got worried when finding traces & hints of Samuel Beckett, a great favourite of mine, in my own writing. (Beckett really is a figure one wouldn’t try to imitate – bla – bla – bla). Today, a happy day of strange coincidences (Jung would probably call it synchronicity*), I read this in Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook:

You would learn very little in this world if you were not allowed to imitate. And to repeat your imitations until some solid grounding in the skill was achieved and the slight but wonderful difference – that made you you and no one else – could assert itself.

But if this is true, if imitating is a way to develop ones own voice, how come I feel so troubled?

Oliver can tell me why:

Every child is encouraged to imitate. But in the world of writing it is originality that is sought out, and praised, while imitation is the sin of sins.

While visual artist traditionally have been encouraged to study old masters, writers have been expected to find their own way, right from the start.

A poet develops his or her own style slowly, over a long period of working and thinking – thinking about other styles, amongst other things. Imitation fades as a poet’s own style begins to be embraced. (…) Emotional freedom, the integrity and special quality of one’s own work – these are not first things, but final things. Only the patient and diligent, as well as the inspired, get there. writer, trying to find her own way …


*(Synchronicity: the experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance, yet are experienced as occurring together in a meaningful manner)

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Harold Rhenisch says:

    Even the language is borrowed from our ancestors. The poet who wrote about this best was W.S. Graham. English, for example, is a gift from Old Norse and Anglo Saxon and French. Old Norse is a gift from older ancestors, and so on…everything is borrowed, everything speaks for the ancestors in the present, and the individual identity is a social construct created for Enlightenment purposes, but then co-opted by the Romantics, and then by the Marxists, and now by the ubiquitous National Socialists, and all that now, is also a ‘his’ or ‘her’ identity. One is not, however, bound to any particular narrative through this landscape. My ancestors sit around a boxing ring, making bets in a dozen languages and currencies, to see how the boy is going to do. Yours, no doubt, are up to something different. We don’t look for a voice. We have one. But a book-voice, ah, that is another thing. it is a script we write.

  2. KM Huber says:

    “Emotional freedom, the integrity and special quality of one’s own work – these are not first things, but final things.”

    Forgive me, Sigrun, I come to your wonderful post during a break in my own daily writing–your post is my treat/reward for working. Today is not one of my better writing days, and if my life depended upon it I could not find emotional freedom, integrity, or any kind of special quality in any thought that I have haphazardly conveyed in words, if, indeed, I have. These are early days for this particular piece of writing and slow going.

    Thanks to your post, I am rested and eager to struggle for a few more hours to get down initial thoughts as I am reminded that I write for what will emerge ultimately.

    Yours in synchronicity,


    1. Sigrun says:

      Dear Karen, I send you all my love end good wishes – across the Atlantic, from heart to heart! You know, it sounds like a cliché, but it is actually true: we need the contrasts; pleasure & pain, light & darkness, etc., etc. even if it sometimes feels TOO MUCH!

  3. We write within writing. There is some truth to intertextualité.

  4. It’s so true about writers being expected to find their own way from the start. And learning from other writers, from many poets I know, is reserved for only the most contemporary indie authors (usually each other). Anyone before is simply passé. I find that many have not even explored the modern writers (like Beckett or Mallarme–although many continental philosophers have) for wonderful ways to grapple with their own use of language.

    Wonderful image for the writer finding her way, by the way.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you Melissa!
      I’m learning a lot about writing these days. I’m 45, and probably I should have figured out things earlier, but I guess everything has its own time – .
      Basho says:
      “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.” In a writers world this might mean something like: Try to learn from the very best, and then extend their wisdom through your own work.

  5. The idea of writers having to be original is quite a Western Civilization concept. In the sphere-of-influence that includes China, Persia, Japan and other cultures we call “Eastern,” creative work is expected to stem from masters through mimicry as a learning method and through allusions in the work. Basho, for example, often used allusions to Li Po and other famous predecessors.

    Naturally, there is a difference between copying and allusions, but practicing in the predecessors’ styles is a good way to learn any art. A few people are born originals perhaps, but such a tiny percentage! And if all a writer does is read other indie-fashion writers, or refuses to read other writers at all for fear of having his or her style “tainted” by antecedent artists, how can that person mature creatively? Where is the delicious opportunity of change through exposure to other fellow human being-artists?

    Besides, you can’t be truly revolutionary if you don’t know your oppressor intimately. You have to understand who/what you are rebelling against.

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