In The Battle of the Books, Jonathan Swift uses the allegory of the spider and the bee to illustrate the importance of looking outside oneself to create. Swift reveals the weakness of the writer who is autonomous, like the spider that creates a web only from what already exists within. The bee, however, wanders the natural world and takes from it to create honey and wax. So, too, can the writer increase the richness of his work, by examining and drawing from outside himself.
Reading is one of the most effective ways to expand your awareness and understanding of the tools at your disposal. Imitating another writer’s style allows you to practice those tools and to see how they work in your own hands. In fact, many writers do this deliberately to expand their skills. Study and practice Andre Dubus’s lush, meandering sentences for the beauty and suspense they create. Or Hemingway’s unsentimental and economic style for the brand of honesty it offers. Or Kerouac’s lyrical use of language for its musical quality.
Still, imitation is a sort of costume. Just as dressing up in a sailor suit and carrying a pipe to look like Popeye won’t make you genuinely strong, so, too, imitation can lead to a surface level illusion. Use what you learn from the act of imitating to develop your own writer’s voice; to expand your options and help you make better choices in your own writing. When you have a thorough understanding of the use of, say, clipped, bare prose, and the nuances of how you create it, you have a better idea of when to use it in your own work, and when to avoid it.
One way to take control of imitation and to use it to strengthen your writing is to be more deliberate about it. Pay attention to the choices the author makes as you read. If you appreciate a particular effect, study the prose to learn how the writer created it. Apply those choices in a passage of writing. Look at what effects are created when you use those same techniques. Take into consideration how it works with your own tendencies in writing. This process of analyzing will make you more aware of when you’re imitating, as well as how to adapt those new skills into your own writing.
Once you develop this awareness, you can keep better track of your own choices. If you’re reading Hemingway, but don’t want his style in the story you’re working on, that awareness can be enough to keep you from slipping into imitation. And if you find this is still a tendency, you might choose your readings accordingly, making sure your reading compliments what you’re trying to do in your own work.
Be the bee Jonathan Swift champions, but keep in mind this isn’t simply the act of taking. It’s the act of taking in, and using it to work with your own unique skills and choices. You want to make writing that is rich, and distinctly yours.