The Imitation Game
I started thinking about plagiarism last week, largely thanks to accusations leveled at Guillermo Del Toro’s Oscar-nominated, The Shape of Water. The estate of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Paul Zindel, claims that Del Toro has copied his janitor-falls-in-love-with-aquatic-creature story from Zindel’s 1969, Let Me Hear You Whisper, in which a janitor falls in love with a dolphin.
I fell further into this imitation/theft wormhole when I stumbled across a Writer’s Chronicle piece by Nicholas Delbanco, “Imitation vs. Originality.” In the piece, Delbanco explores charges of plagiarism around his 2006 novel, Spring and Fall (accusations that were unfounded). He then opens the discussion to evaluate how a more general type of emulation can be a fruitful writing practice. “There’s nothing shameful—indeed, much to be admired—in homage to a master or a rehearsal of what went before.”
It’s that word, rehearsal, that reminded me of a tactic I tried as a high school English teacher, a form of imitating that I hoped would lead my students into original composition.
I’m still not sure if the concept is sound. Like many of my efforts to teach high school writing, “The Imitation Game” (my title predated the 2014 film) grew out of frustration, my inability to inspire students to supercharge their syntax.
Working mainly on analytical essays, my students would sometimes fall into a lockstep subject-verb-object style, spawning repetitive sentences marching in time through paragraphs.
Holden Caulfield needs his red hunting hat. The hat has symbolic importance. It represents Holden’s individuality.
In my quest to spice up student writing, I found a text that provided templates for imitation. Grammar for High School: A Sentence-Composing Approach, champions the creation of a “sentence composing toolbox.” To build a complex sentence, students are trained to utilize these “tools,” a series of moves they can make with single words, phrases, and clauses. Examples of tools include: opening adjectives, delayed adverbs, prepositional phrases, appositive phrases, noun clauses. To illustrate these sentence components, the authors employ the “Grammar of the Greats,” and cherry pick sentences from Morrison, Rowling, Steinbeck, and everyone in between.
For example, to illustrate the appositive phrase, consider the following sentence lifted from Ann Patchett’s, Bel Canto.
Gen Watanabe, the young man who worked as Mr. Hosokawa’s translator, leaned over and spoke the words in Japanese to his employer.
I would instruct my class, “See how ‘the young man who worked as Mr. Hosokawa’s translator’ further identifies ‘Gen Watanabe’?” We would then construct our own sentences, sharing our work on the whiteboard until the space was filled with appositive-phrase-laden labor.
Eventually, this approach led to writing assignments that started to sound a bit like paint by number. Write a paragraph that includes two appositive phrases, two participial phrases, a delayed adjective, and an adverb clause. I can’t say the results were universally positive. At worst, I employed a method of mimicking that turned writing into a glorified mad-lib. But, if I’m being charitable with myself, students became more aware of the building blocks at their disposal when composing.
Invariably, during this process of “imitation,” one or two intrepid students would protest, “But Mr. Granata, isn’t this kind of like plagiarism?”We had discussed plagiarism, in part to stave off any attempt to pass in pirated Spark Notes passages as reading responses. I would respond with tired analogies—jazz musicians need to learn scales before they can improvise—or lean on the good writers borrow, great writers steal aphorism, though use of the word steal did little to placate student fears about plagiarism.
Perhaps one of the conclusions Delbanco reaches in his writing on imitation would have served me well in explaining this difference to my students.
Try to write a paragraph with no such echo or association. Try to have a conversation using no word you’ve not used before. Try to listen to a song or look at a picture that reminds you of nothing you’ve previously heard or seen, and you’ll perceive the problem.
Yes, this admission falls close to another aphoristic artistic sigh, there’s nothing new under the sun (that phrase itself an imitation of a verse in Ecclesiastes). And here too, I know I’m not breaking new ground with my reexamination of writing through imitation. But, I do agree with Delbanco, and believe there is much to be admired in “homage to a master or a rehearsal of what went before.” In that phrase, I admire Delbanco’s own recasting of another common refrain; imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Image: Paul Clark Jr.
Vince Granata is a staff editor at Café MFA and a third-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.