The art of imitation

by Philippa Macken

Last week as I cleaned my daughter’s room (because, let’s face it, she’s genetically challenged in that department), I came across a scribbled paragraph in her creative writing workbook.

It’s funny how easy it is to feel alone in a playground full of kids. Sometimes I wonder if my friends understand me.

I had to smile because I instantly recognised the style of writing as a replica of the book she just finished reading, John Marsden’s So Much To Tell You. This delicious novel is written in diary form and instantly connects the young reader to the main character in a way that is intimate and true. I was so pleased to see my daughter emulating this style and making it her own.

If I asked you to explain the most important elements of creative writing you would probably include ‘originality’ in your definition. But how can children develop their own style when they’re only just learning to read and write themselves? There are three crucial steps: READ – INTERPRET – IMITATE.

As parents, we know that for better or worse, our tiny babies morph into eccentric toddlers who imitate everything we do. It can be like living with a walking, drooling mirror, with an uncanny knack for taking our least attractive words, facial expressions and behaviours and mimicking them in inappropriate circumstances.

But in truth, imitation is at the basis of all learning. It’s how a human being develops skills and talents that can later be moulded into a unique personal style. Like taking a recipe and adding a dash of nutmeg or a squeeze of lemon to make it one-of-a-kind.

The more children read and are read to, the more they are exposed to different styles of writing, from Aaron Blabey’s hilarious prose in Pig the Pug to the familiar, conversational quality of Judy Blume’s Superfudge. Kids who use their favourite books as inspiration find it easy to create their own prose from as early as Kindergarten.

Don’t dismay if your little ones simply regurgitate their favourite bedtime story or plagiarise something they have read. Once a certain style or genre of writing has been imitated enough, your child will feel confident about transforming it into a story that is all their own.

We might roll our eyes when we see a group of teenagers dressed in almost identical clothes, copying each other’s slang and demeanour, but we know it’s an essential phase that humans pass through as they develop their unique sense of self.

The same is true for writing. It is imperative that babies and children are read to every day. And it’s crucial that children are free to pursue independent reading so that they become inspired to put their own words on paper.

Crucially, kids need to feel free to express themselves through creative writing without fear of judgment or criticism. They may well ‘borrow’ an idea from an author but, with encouragement, they’ll make it their own through characterisation, setting and plot.

Resist the urge to nit-pick over spelling and grammatical errors, or your child’s choice of topic. Celebrate your child’s efforts, praise their creative ideas, and the rest will follow.

Free from the fear of failure, safe in the knowledge that ‘anything goes’, children will inject their unique experiences, memories and emotions into stories and poetry. They’ll feel the buzz of satisfaction that comes with allowing that delicious creative juice to flow uncensored.

Story writing can quickly become an activity that kids find irresistible and downright fun, regardless of whether or not they grow up to be the next Robin Klein.

So the next time your child churns out a story that smacks of Captain Underpants or is set in the wizarding world with a main character called Harriet, rejoice! Your child is well on the way to discovering their own writer’s voice, through inspiration and imitation.

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