The following series on Creative Process draw heavily on Clark Terry's advice to young musicians: “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.” I am indebted to my close friend and colleague Donald Schell (founder of Music That Makes Community) for drawing my attention to Terry's quote as well as for the following crucial insight: Imitation leads us to our individuality.
In a previous post, I mentioned jazz trumpeter Clark Terry’s advice to those learning to play jazz: “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.” Jazz players and improvisers from other traditions have followed this path. They transcribe solos by favorite artists and learn to play them—imitation. They work some of those moves into their own solos—assimilation. And eventually they find themselves playing something utterly original—innovation.
Terry's insight is a powerful one, one which I want to explore over the next two weeks. It goes much deeper than the surface understanding that I just presented. It actually extends all the way to the audience. They, too, imitate, assimilate, and innovate. But let's start at the beginning.
The first observation is that Terry’s insight applies in any number of creative forms. A recent discovery of mine is a book on writing, Copy and Compose: A Guide to Prose Style by Winston Weathers and Otis Winchester.
From the introduction . . .
Writing is a skill, and like playing the violin or throwing a discus, it may be learned by observing how others do it-then by trying to imitate, carefully and thoughtfully, the way it was done. In writing, we can “observe” by copying sentences and paragraphs written by master stylists. And we can consciously imitate these sentences and paragraphs in our own writing, making them a part of our basic repertoire. . .
Having copied a model, word for word, in our own handwriting, we next choose a subject of our own, one as distinct and different from the content of the model as possible. Then we write our own passage, keeping in mind the general syntax, diction, phrasing, and any special characteristic of the model. Saying what we want to say, giving expression to our own concepts, observations, ideas, and beliefs, we imitate the manner and style, the structure and syntax, and the formality and texture of the model. Our own version is what is sometimes called a pastiche. In many European schools, students regularly learn the art of writing by composing pastiches or short pieces of composition in the style of another . . .
Reading, copying, and imitating are not an end in themselves, of course. They are means toward the development of our own style and our own mode of expression. By becoming thoughtful, practicing copyists, we can more easily achieve the goal of good writing. Instead of waiting to discover the methods of effective and powerful writing in a time-consuming trial-and-error way, we can become familiar with the work of the masters and benefit from their achievements. We can more quickly reach an effective level of com- position that will give us power to communicate.
Copy and Compose, Weathers and Winchester, p. 1, 3, 4-5
Weathers and Winchester then provide models of different style of prose sentences. For example . . .
#1 — The Loose Sentence
I remember one splendid morning, all blue and silver, in the summer holidays when I reluctantly tore myself away from the task of doing nothing in particular, and put on a hat of some sort and picked up a walking-stick, and put six very bright-coloured chalks in my pocket.
G. K. Chesterton, A Piece of Chalk
After describing the workings of this sentence structure, readers are instructed to . . .
Copy Chesterton's sentence; then compose a similar loose sentence, enlarging upon the initial, main thought by the addition of other details. Extend the sentence as long as you dare, sustaining interest as long as possible.
Copy and Compose, Weathers and Winchester, p. 8
The book proceeds with models of over sixty types of sentences (the periodic sentence, the inverted sentence, the master sentence, and so forth) and then, later in the book, various species of paragraphs (the topic sentence first paragraph, the paragraph of narrative details, the paragraph of contrasts, etc.).
As Clark Terry suggests, starting from imitation can help us access what is truly original within us.
Copy and Compose is out of print, which is a shame. The book's ideas, however, are there for the trying. The approach is well-established in all creative forms and for very good reasons, some of which we will explore as we continue.
Thank you for reading.