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Imitation and Emulation: Stealing Style, Structure, and Subject from Other Writers

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When I was a little kid, my younger sister and I would play a game called “Lip or Tongue?”

It went like this: Concealing my mouth with my hand, I would EITHER stick out my tongue just enough to make it look like my lower lip, OR I would keep my tongue in my mouth and, I don’t know, try to make my lower lip look like a tongue. Then, the big reveal: I’d remove my hand, and my sister, ever the good sport, would have to guess (you guessed it) whether my lower lip was in fact my lower lip, OR my tongue was masquerading as my lower lip. Hence the name of the game: Lip or Tongue?

I had a very happy childhood. A little weird too, but also very happy.

I don’t know why I liked this silly game as much as I did. Perhaps I thought I was really sneaky and talented with my chameleon-esque tongue. Perhaps I fancied myself a master of deception and illusion. Perhaps I appreciated games (and questions) where there were more absolutes than gray areas. My lip was either a lip, or it was a tongue. This or that. 

Regardless, I now teach middle schoolers who, by definition, straddle elementary and high school, as well as childhood and teenagery. They are just noticing the beauty–and the frustration–of life’s many gray areas. They are just starting to appreciate the joy of wrestling with the concepts like truth, law, justice, compassion. They also want to know the rules, or at least, they want to know how the adults in the room choose to define the rules. Once they do, they can decide how, if, or when to get around the rules. Or when to break them entirely.

For example: Lying is bad, but are there situations where lying is acceptable? Stealing is wrong, but are there some situations where Robin Hood antics are noble? What does it mean to be a good friend? Is love enough? Is war ever justified? Is it alright to break my parents’ rules when my parents’ rules are stupid?

The world’s a confusing place for us adults, even more confusing for middle school students who, at least for a time, have the prefrontal cortex of a prehistoric reptile. 

So when I asked my students to read Linda Rief’s “Rambling Autobiography,” then study the syntax, juxtaposition, diction, and voice, then imitate Rief’s piece as they crafted their own “Rambling Autobiographies,” students were confused.

“But isn’t that plagiarism?” one asked.

“Right,” another chimed in. “It’s stealing another writer’s ideas.”

“And it’s cheating!” a third said. “Like, I’m not supposed to copy Joshua’s essay, but it’s OK to copy a famous writer’s writing? That’s definitely cheating.”

“Not exactly,” I said, and I proceeded to try to explain the difference between imitation and plagiarism, between seeking inspiration and stealing ideas.

But my own explanation sounded watery. And the eyes of even one middle schooler can hold so much disdain.

I sighed. “You’re right,” I said. “When I ask you to imitate a piece of writing, a structure, genre, or stylistic devices, it does seem like I’m asking you to plagiarize.”

Some nodded. Others frowned.

“So you are asking us to copy someone else’s work,” summarized one of the frowners.

Gah! This was no game of Lip or Tongue, that was for sure. 

“I think,” I said, “it’s good to study other people’s work. We can learn a lot from studying others’ writing, just like you can learn a lot from a piano teacher, a soccer coach, a mentor. If you’re a golfer, you study Tiger’s swing. If you’re an actor, you study the way Meryl Streep plays with her glasses

Only blank expressions.

“OK … if you’re a teenager with access to social media, you might find inspiration from your favorite ‘influencers.’” Here I did indeed use air quotes, partly to show my own distain for “influencers,” partly to show that I don’t understand what an “influencer” is or does or how they even came to be in the first place. “Then you might take what the ‘influencer’ is hawking or flaunting, and use it as inspiration. If you are inspired by someone’s creation, and you use that inspiration to create something of your own, something that’s unique, then it’s not stealing.”

But even as I heard the words coming from my mouth, I realized I was trying to convince my students of something I wasn’t entirely sure was true. To me, there really is something uncomfortably squishy about the line between emulation and plagiarism, between seeking inspiration and sneaking into someone’s private property and stealing their creative capital.

Weeks later, I’m still not sure where to draw that line. I’m still not sure where–or if–the definitions of emulation and plagiarism intersect.

Austin Kleon’s lovely little (literally) book titled Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, starts with two epigraphs.

The first from Picasso: “Art is Theft.”

The second from T.S. Eliot: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.”

Picasso’s quotation is black and white, this or that, lip or tongue. Eliot’s is full of gray shades. But neither truly helps us understand why and when we can use others’ work to inspire and inform our own. 

Where then is that line between imitation and theft? Or between imitation and emulation? Can we actually hone our craft by literally copying pages of Kurt Vonnegut or Zora Neale Hurston, Ocean Vuong or Mary Roach? And how far do we have to go to make something our own unique style? Can we borrow plot lines and creative story structures without fear that we are stealing others’ ideas?

It’s not a Lip or Tongue situation, that’s for sure. 

This is where you come in, I hope, to weigh in:

When we use other writers’ work as models for our own, is that stealing? Or cheating? Or plagiarizing? How do we (as students ourselves) seek inspiration from a literary muse without copying or stealing? 

I’m also curious to hear where you find inspiration for your writing. Where do you go to steal, imitate, or emulate? Who are your literary muses?

I’m genuinely uncertain and curious, and I hope your opinions will either quell or validate my confusion (as both a writer and a teacher).

Please, dear WU Community, don’t be tight-lipped in sharing your opinions. Please don’t hold your tongues.


About Sarah Callender

A Middle Grade novelist (and Middle School English teacher), Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her family: one tall, patient husband, one cartoonish canine, and two inspiring offspring. Because Sarah dislikes cleaning anything that will just get messy again, she tidies the house and weeds the yard only when absolutely necessary. This allows her time to focus on her true--and somewhat fraught--passions: writing, Abe Lincoln, and Tony’s Chocolonely chocolate bars. Equally passionate about mental health advocacy, Sarah is a member of The Stability Network. Sarah’s first book, BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES, will be published by Margaret Ferguson Books/Holiday House in Summer 2024.

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