The Ancient Art of Imitation

“Through others we become ourselves.”

Lev S. Vygotsky


The term “imitation” generally has a negative connotation in creative work, as it implies that you are plagiarizing another artist’s work.

Interestingly, though, artists in ancient times had a different idea about the term.

Back then, the Greek author Dionysius came up with a literary method called imitatio, a practice in which an artist makes another artist’s work their own, by borrowing and adapting.

For the ancient artists, their understanding of “imitation” was much closer to “emulation”.

Another great Greek author, Seneca, likened this practice to that of bees in making honey. A bee “samples” nectar from a wide range of flowers and digests them, before going on to produce an entirely new version of honey. The honey that we consume, then, can be thought of as part flower and part bee.

Similarly, great artists create their original work by sampling and digesting the great works of the past. In turn, the work of a great artist is part research, and part the artist themselves.

Being a longtime Bob Dylan fan, he has taught me a lot about the creative process — mostly because he’s generous in letting others peek behind the curtains to see how his music is made.

Bob Dylan has famously used the practice of imitatio to craft many of his best songs. The essences of his early writings were borrowed from traditional folk songs that he loved. He made those songs his own, by adapting them to the social climate of his time.

For instance, the premise of a parent speaking to their child in A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, is based off the Old English ballad Lord Randall. To make his song both more timely and timeless, Dylan incorporates imagery of racism, war, and gun violence.

He kept his practice of imitatio very much alive after he abandoned the folk genre and went electric. Desolation Row, for example, has its influences from Modernist poetry, most recognizably T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. And his album Blood of the Tracks, despite being a deeply personal record, borrows influences from Anton Chekhov’s writings.

Imitatio is much more common than you realize. Heck, even the theme song from Barney and Friends is based off the melody of Yankee Doodle. This practice is not only present in creative work per se, but even in sports, or everyday activities, like cooking.

I know what you might be thinking — doesn’t this practice only cheapen the creative process, and how we view art?

I’d argue not, because I believe that creative work doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Whether we realize it or not, the work we create is derived or influenced by someone or somewhere else. Only that in practicing imitatio, you’re deliberately hand-picking those influences and incorporating them into your work.

I’d also argue that recognizing this practice is what makes creative work more doable. Rather than seeing creative work as an esoteric realm of geniuses (or people who are coked out of their minds), you start seeing it as something concrete that you can do, one step at a time. 

But then, if it’s this doable, why bother doing it at all? 

Think of it this way. There are inevitably countless people out there who are doing similar things as you are, but they’re not doing the same things. 

For example, you don’t have to tell me that there are already plenty of content creators uploading their food videos on YouTube. But then there’s you. 

All the creators you see out there, they are the unique results of their influences. And so are you.

The world hasn’t seen content from you — the world hasn’t gotten your own input, your own recipes, your own stories.

Remember, great work is part research, and part you. 

You have your own interpretations and opinions on the influences that you borrow from, which may be colored by your own culture, upbringing, and personal experiences. Use that to your advantage. 

You are the glue that binds everything together, in your own beautiful way.  

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