By the time it occurred to me that I was copying other girls, it was already too late to hide it. For several months, I had been trying to perfect an older girl’s giddy laugh, the way she would lean in and whisper to a boy, touching his shoulder and then traipsing away. I was mortified to realize that everyone else could see exactly what I was doing. And judging by the slogans plastered on posters and folders, I was going about this growing up thing all wrong.
Imitation, it seems, is a sure sign of insecurity. But it’s a mysterious assignment, this call to “Be Yourself,” especially when you’re pretty sure you’re not who you want to be yet. What’s more, be yourself implies advancement by introspection, as if pausing to contemplate who you are is a form of progress.
More than anything, it raises the question How can I be anything but myself?
If authentic is the highest praise of our era, then imitation is the lowest insult. Then why have I always found myself so drawn to imitating others?
There’s a human instinct for imitation.
It wasn’t until I had children that I realized how primitive is our instinct for imitation. Observe a newborn in the animal kingdom—especially those born alone without parents—and you’ll often see a skillful creature with powerful instincts for survival: Turtles who hatch and head straight to the sea, or butterflies who emerge and immediately continue the great relay migration of their species. This is an incredible contrast against the human being at birth.
None of my children were born originals. They were born pathetic. Truly. They have only two skills when they are born: a cry that begs for sympathy, and the instinct of imitation. Infants learn a lot in the first year of life, and almost all of it is through imitation. They smile, form sounds with their lips, and learn to bear the weight of their own bodies all by responding to examples. Human infants would be lost without older versions of the species to care for them and, even more importantly, to give them an image of what it means to be human.
Apprenticeship amplifies the work of the amateur.
Imitation is simply a form of discipleship. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he encouraged them to imitate his faith, just as he imitated Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Part of the beauty of church membership is that God gives us a variety of living pictures of faith. So much of the life of faith is an ability to set our minds on Christ, even though he is not visible and the world is full of distractions. Those whose faith is more mature than ours, who “by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” provide an image of who we can and ought to become (Hebrews 5:14). When we struggle to see Christ or to know what it means to follow him, we can set our sights on those mature Christians worthy of imitation and do what they do.
Behind the skill of imitation is the core value of curiosity. Rather than saying that babies are born to imitate, it might be more accurate to say that babies are born with a wordless curiosity. “How do I interact with the world?” Or, more accurately, “How do I get more of it into my mouth?” Curiosity leads to imagination. And imagination, at least at first, is not so much about conjuring new ideas as much as it is about seeing possibilities in what is already there. If so, then imitation does not stifle our imaginations—it feeds them.
Perhaps there is such a thing as imitation that is not rooted in insecurity and fear, but in admiration and curiosity. If so, could this most primitive skill make us disciples to a craft rather than cheap knock-offs?
The world may or may not need another cookbook, but it needs all the lovers—amateurs—it can get.
—Father Robert Farror Capon, The Supper of the Lamb
When we grow intimidated by our creative work, we can remind ourselves that every professional began as an amateur, a word which Robert Farrar Capon reminds us means “lover.” Amateurs do things for the love of them. We write because we’ve loved words written by others. We cook because we’ve loved food made by others. We compose because we’ve loved songs and admired those who could compose them.
I have been in love with books all my life and every year the urge to participate in the making of words grows stronger. I have no formal training and have shown no signs of being a prodigy, but perhaps I could enter this new world of letters like an infant, humble enough to know how pathetic I am but eager to imitate.
As counterintuitive as it seems, imitation may be the key to fulfilling our own creative callings. For every prodigy who was seemingly born with the talent to produce and understand complex works of art, there are thousands of us who learned to love through a sort of apprenticeship. We didn’t receive our ability as a gift, but we could learn it as a skill. I see it almost every time I read an interview of a writer I admire: they, too, have writers they admire and whose shadow looms large over their early years and early works.
We can craft not-so-cheap imitations.
Who can bear the weight of the pressure of originality? It used to be that every time I attempted to write, I ended up discouraged. I’d start to recognize I was ripping off my plot from some story or other and stop myself dead in my tracks. I would rather write nothing than be accused of being derivative. When I began to remember I was writing for the love of words, I decided to ignore the voice in my head that accused me of imitation. Who cares? I’m just playing. I’m just learning how to love words.
When I was younger, I was afraid of looking like a fraud, a cheap imitation of someone else. Now that I’ve grown up, I am learning to imitate out of love instead of fear. I want to write a poem as poignant as Mary Oliver’s or as witty as Billy Collins’s. I want to write a novel as piercing as Marilynne Robinson’s or as imaginative as Madeline L’Engle’s. Or, to add my new favorite, a short story as unexpected as Lesley Nneka Arimah. I’ll own it.
If you ever see my name attached to something wildly original, something so inventive you wonder where it came from, you’ll already know my secret. In the (much more likely) case that you don’t, know that I’ll be somewhere amateurishly ripping off my heroes. The world needs all the lovers—all the fans and imitators and enthusiasts—that it can get.
Cover image by Matt Hawthorne.