Of Imitation: An essay by Naomi Washer

Of Imitation

After Montaigne’s Of Books

By Naomi Washer

I am of the seemingly unfortunate habit of hiding behind another’s words. This is purely due to the pleasure I have in reading them, and the visceral, physical reaction they awaken in me. My young diaries are full of borrowed lines, scribbled and scrawled with immense force, overshadowing any of my own thoughts. It seemed to me, as a young writer exploring prose and poetry for the first time with only a vague, unguided inner hand to lead me, that this practice was a natural place to begin. It is within these appropriated lines that I have come to discover which rhythms resonate in me, which tones and subjects carry me forth. If I read a book and do not underline a single word, it is a clear sign that the knowledge which I gleaned from my reading only served to show me what I do not care to write about, or how I do not care to write. There are, of course, the rare few cases in which I do not underline a loved book at all, having found the text too perfect and complete to damage with the touch of my own jostling pen. These are books which I feel I could have written myself. Not now, at my current age and status, but rather in the future, when the ideas explored in the text and the skills which I admire have marinated in me long enough that I can do them justice. I am thinking of the work of Cavafy, his poems so concise and compact that any underlining on my part would be superfluous—

And, for me, the whole of you has been transformed into feeling.

When I read a new work I feel a connection to, it is nearly impossible for me not to try imitating the style. It is simply how I gauge how well I’ve understood it. And truly, I do not have to try. The words and style come of their own accord, accosting me in my sleep, in the middle of the night, and in each of my daily walks. There comes a point at which I look at these writings and believe I’ve taken the idea of imitation too far, composing lines that sound altogether too similar to the writer in question, but more often than not, this is a situation doomed from the start: I have already begun to write this way, before I read their words, and this inclination toward subject matter and style is what lead me to read their work in the first place. I feel a kinship with the writer as though we had sat together for long hours over tea. When I include a line of text by another writer, whether famous or obscure, it is because of this kinship, this act of finishing each other’s sentences. When I say I want an endless day to walk and breathe in new sights, to meander through a forest and never have to speak, it is a logical progression to include—

Let me stop here. Let me, too, look at nature awhile.

The words of Cavafy are so entwined in my own thoughts in this case that it is necessary to let my readers know. I should certainly like to be able to form these finely-crafted lines on my own, but as I do not possess the skill level of those I admire, I am bound to the world of imitation as a beginning process. It was Ezra Pound who advised W. S. Merwin to begin translating poetry as a way to discover his own use of language. It has been argued, and it may be true, that young writers do not have enough to write about. I see sense in this statement, even while I am a young writer myself, and I have no qualms about the practice of imitation. Recently I was searching through books I had not read in a while, and I discovered that, some months ago, I had taken to writing my own prose within the lines of another’s book. I recall being very nearly on the edge of sleep, and looking at my own prose, did not fully recognize myself in it. This was because it was imitative. Scanning the subject matter and style of the book, I saw very clearly that I had been practicing an imitation, and this drowsy, half-awake state led me to write within the book itself, having been too tired to get up out of my bed to search for a piece of paper. What seemed to have transpired was a conversation of sorts between the writer and myself. I picked up where she left off, introduced new thoughts, and asked related questions. The book was Bring Down the Little Birds, by Carmen Gimenez Smith, and I wish to transcribe here the writings that I found.

 

On page 11: “I pick up the child I am babysitting and adjust him on my hip, searching for the mother place, the nestling of bones and flesh. He cries because we do not fit.”

 

On page 26: “The story my sister knows of my birth is the story of a sleepover at her best friend’s house.”

 

On page 28: “I want to treasure the expansive time that summer gave me, but the truth is, I want a baby to consume my time.”

 

Page 29: “I’m angry at my mother for not wanting to get her picture taken. It feels like a punishment to me—a refusal of a gift to give me when she’s gone. I want pictures of her because I think she’s beautiful, but she doesn’t care about beauty.”

 

And at the bottom of the page, continuing to the top of page 30:

“The scrunched-up face she makes when caught in a frame: I’m ashamed that I don’t like it. I try to throw away my own fear of being photographed, to give a gift to my unborn child.”

 

Page 36: “What stories will I tell my child? Do I want her or him to grow up on magic, silvery unicorns and flying foxes? I don’t write fiction. Where will the fictions come from? Like knowing how to breast-feed because the baby is suddenly there and needing to, will I suddenly, just by gazing at the child in my arms, feel a fictional tale flow out of me? (All these water metaphors). Why can’t I flow fictions now?”

 

Page 41: “Cancer horoscope: Cancers are forever tied to their mothers. Some days I think this a positive thing. But is it a disease, cancer, a dark lump of mystery consuming me and my mother?”

 

Page 54: “I wonder about this decade, how everyone is tattooed these days. Babies mesmerized by mommy’s hands, the hairs on daddy’s legs. Maybe this is why I decide to shave my legs again. I imagine my baby exploring the mountain range of my spine, touching the mountain range tattoo on my left arm. Will we live near mountains? Will my baby know anything about mountains? I decide I will not be ashamed of my markings—my child will know what has marked me. And maybe this is where the fictions will come—I’ll make up stories of a tiny pink thumb named Lily, or Iris, or Willow, who lives in the mountain on my arm.”

 

Page 58: “My mother makes plans to visit me even before I am gone. We’re eating dinner and the thought of her following me, her decisiveness, her strengthening the cord while I am trying to loosen it, makes me furious. I scream at her. I hurt her feelings, badly. She is still mad at me in the morning.

I’m in Chicago. My mother calls me to make plans. She sounds girlish on the phone as she describes her love of driving solo, living solo on the road. New Orleans to North Carolina, stay the night in Atlanta. People always asked her, Don’t you hate to be alone? She laughs, says, No, I love it.

My mother loves to be alone and so do I, but we refuse to separate from each other.”

 

Page 61: “The idea that everything I’ve felt, my mother has felt first. Not my sister—she and I are two different worlds created from my mother—my mother as one, all-encompassing world. But is this assuming? Can I put words in her silent mouth?”

 

Page 65: “I am out of college by the time I realize my mother never forced me to tackle her own half-ambitions. She had ambitions and she fulfilled them, fulfills them every day. Whose story was I trying to write the final pages of?”

 

Page 83: “I wanted my mother to have a studio, write a book, have an art that was separate from me. How could she be so selfless? Her selflessness: I desired to honor it.

My mother watches HGTV and cleans the pool, swims in it like when she was a girl. She sends me text messages that say, Got my swim in before the storms!!!”

 

Page 84: “Someday I’m going to buy my mother a house on a lake. She’ll swim in the lake, recovering all she once was.”

 

Page 88: “Was she ever sick? I don’t remember her ever being sick, only taking care of me when I was, in the middle of the night, feeding me plain cheerios out of a small bowl, sitting on the stairs.”


Naomi Washer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Ghost Proposal. Her work has appeared in Passages North, Split Lip Magazine, Essay Daily, Blue Mesa Review, St. Petersburg Review, and other journals. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, Hambidge Center for the Arts, and Columbia College Chicago where she earned her MFA in Nonfiction. She lives in Vermont, below a mountain, between two rivers. More at www.naomiwasher.com

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