The Burden of Imitation
Posted on March 19, 2019
In Zen and the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury writes about the years he spent trying to write like his favorite authors. “I loved them, and they smothered me.”
Bradbury called this the burden of imitation, and it was holding him back. This resonated with me, as I’ve been trying to imitate Michael Crichton’s speculative fiction for years.
Sensing that Bradbury needed to grow out of the phase of imitation, he made a list of things he loved and hated, “Sensing somewhere in the bright and dark seasons must be something that was really me.”
He chose one topic from the list and began writing. In two hours, he’d created a short story called “The Lake,” one of his most famous stories. By the end of writing it, he was crying, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. He said that he’d finally done something that was his own. After ten years of writing like his heroes, he had found a voice of his own. “The Lake” was a hit and was reprinted many times over four decades.
In a similar stage in my growth as a writer, I’m casting off my idols and just writing, shooting from the hip, trying to please no one (but myself, perhaps). It’s energizing to go into uncharted territory. To discover hidden abilities. To experiment with new genres. Different tones. New voices. Unfamiliar processes.
Bradbury admits that the creation of “The Lake” is partly a cautionary tale, however, because the valuable lesson he learned didn’t stick. He spent several more years wandering, flopping around, “tripping over his shoelaces,” trying to emulate successful writers of pulp fiction.
Eventually, Bradbury started to make his famous noun lists, which he confessed let his better stuff surface. “I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trap door on the top of my skull.” These lists, helped him “blunder” into stories, such as Something Wicked This Way Comes and Fahrenheit 451.
Bradbury began trusting his noun lists, using them for what he called “prescriptions for discovery.” Before writing, he would pick a word and write and follow his nose. By the middle of the page, a story would emerge. He said these stories wrote themselves. In Zen and Art of Writing, Bradbury urges young writers to “conjure the nouns, alert the secret self, taste the darkness.”