‘Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find yourself.’

Yohji Yamamoto

We all have heroes or idols. The authors we love to read, the musicians we love to hear, the directors whose films we love to watch. So entertaining, so thought-provoking, so inspiring. So overwhelming.

How do they do it?

These heroes have found their own true voice. It’s as if they were channelling a special energy that is all their own. Of course their technique is awesome, but technique alone is not enough. You can see that in those highly accomplished musicians or singers on TV contests. They’ve learned the language but they don’t speak from experience or from the heart. They don’t touch you.

Copying Leads to Voice

Voice is the Holy Grail, the one thing we’re told we have to have, in whatever field of the arts we work. But it can take years of struggle to find it. In writing it is composed of many things: the words we chose, the sentences we make, but also the thinking behind the sentences. Then again, it’s not just the thinking but the feeling, the whole approach to life and to art.

Trying to achieve voice by being wacky or out there doesn’t cut it, though wackiness and out-thereness could come later, a result of voice. But they aren’t the road to it.

Voice begins with hard work, with humbleness, with practice. One method of practice is imitation. That’s right, copying. This might mean physically copying the way a great actor performs a scene or says a monologue. It might mean copying verbatim the words a writer uses. It might mean imitating cadences of music or the structure of a scene a great director has created.

I recently took an online short story writing course with Sarah Selecky. She offers a writing exercise that shows how to start with copying and build on it. First choose a paragraph of writing from a writer that you love. Write it out, longhand on paper. Then write it out again. Then copy it a third time, but now change the key words, the nouns, verbs, adjective and adverbs to your own words. Don’t worry too much about making sense. You may find you get on a roll and new sentences flow in your chosen writer’s voice. Let them flow. Finally read aloud the original paragraph and your new paragraph. Feel what it’s like to speak in this voice. Then plunge straight into your own work.

This is where voice starts. Do this over and over again with all the writers that you love and your voice will eventually begin to emerge, something new but arrived at by copying what already existed. Your idols become your mentors. Feeling viscerally the way they did things, all the tiny details as well as overall construction, is the way you learn.

‘Who has not seen a young painter in a museum intently copying a Vermeer or a van Gogh,’ writes Mary Oliver. ‘Believing himself on the way to learning something valuable? Emotional freedom, the integrity and special quality of one’s work – are not first things, but final things. Only the patient and diligent, as well as the inspired, get there.’

Steven Pressfield, when he was just beginning, copied out pages and pages of Hemingway, to get a feel of how he did things, the words he chose, the construction of sentences and how sentences related to each other and formed paragraphs. Hunter S. Thompson copied out ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Farewell to Arms’, to understand how Fitzgerald and Hemingway achieved style and voice.

In his bestselling book, ‘Steal like an Artist,’ Austin Kleon has a whole section on copying. He has a wonderful quote on copying from Francis Ford Copola.

‘We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it into your own voice and that’s how you will find your own voice. And that’s how you begin. And then one day someone will steal from you.’

Homage Begins with Copying

If you don’t like the word ‘copying’, try ‘homage’. You are bowing down to the greats and learning from them. Of course copying alone isn’t enough. You have to take it further and transcend your influences. You learn first, this slow hard way and then start to push the boundaries of what has come before and make the art your own.

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”

Jim Jarmusch in Moviemaker Magazine