Creating reproductions of other works requires an extremely high level of technical proficiency. One’s subject matter will always be personal, but I want to encourage my students to deliberately acquire new technical skills by taking on the aesthetic of the writers they read.
In this sense, every text is a potential writing instructor. I have taught myself a lot by doing this assignment. For example, by imitating Melanie Rae Thon‘s imagistic descriptions, I learned how to make an idiosyncratic first person voice graphic. By imitating Hemingway, I learned greater control of the line, of syntax, as a mode of characterization. By imitating Thom Jones, I learned to appreciate tragicomic realism, which led me to the work of Denis Johnson, which ultimately led me to Maupassant and Isaac Babel.
I want my students to learn to see how one writer connects to another stylistically and thematically. I tell them to imitate everyone. Fill notebook after notebook. This is how one practices, how one acquires a technique that can render and evoke anything the story needs at any point.
And it never ends. We should use the library as the ultimate resource for self-education, the ultimate art studio. None of this will cause a writer to forget herself or her own voice. On the contrary, it will enrich her style, inform her subject matter, and teach her more about who she is as a working artist.