Featured Life

When It’s Okay To Be A Copycat

June 7, 2017

Did you know that Michelangelo’s first commission was a swindle?

I have a lot going on these days, including writing new material for our FTN Friday Bible Study, and participating in a book launch for author Jeff Goins, whose new book Real Artists Don’t Starve comes out today. These things are very different (so bear with me). Yesterday, however, I found a common thread.

Michelangelo’s first job was to copy another artist, make the sculpture look old, and then sell it as an antique. He was caught in the con, but it worked out in his favor, for the Cardinal who had originally wanted the piece—hired Michelangelo!

Now, I would certainly never condone cheating people with cheap knockoffs. However, this story brings to light a very interesting fact about apprenticing artists during the Renaissance:

“During the Renaissance, apprentices were taught to copy their master’s work so precisely that the copies were indistinguishable from the originals. Being able to reproduce an earlier work was not something to be ashamed of—it was a point of pride. In the words of author Noah Charney, it was ‘a sign of ability, not duplicity’ to be able to copy the work of a master.” — Real Artists Don’t Starve pp. 27 and 28

I have seen the benefits of a similar approach in my own writing. I started writing at a very young age. Among other things, I had finished the first draft of Winter’s Prey, Field of Ashes, and books 3-5 of the series by the time I went to Russia at 19. But if you went back and read those drafts today, well, you’d probably laugh. I was a novice. I had not honed my craft, found my voice, or learned from others. A Russian friend once looked at me compassionately and said, “Rachel, you write like Tolstoy—long sentences.”

Ten years later, I returned to the States. I found myself needing to fill the evenings while my grandparents watched classic movies, so I wrote. But then I started noticing the difference between those classic movies and many contemporary movies. The classic movies truly told stories. They had plots! Character and dialog driven plots! They didn’t have to blow things up, drown the movie in excessive music, or go where they shouldn’t go simply to get ratings—because they knew how to tell a story. So I started watching, but not watching for the sake of entertainment, watching for the sake of study.

I also started reading again, which I hadn’t had a lot of time for in Russia. As I read, I started noticing twists of phrases and how authors I adored built their sentences and paragraphs. The authors I liked best wrote with rhythm, or what I like to call lilt. The more I read their work and listened to it on audiobooks, the more I realized that was the voice I was looking for. No, it wouldn’t be an exact match. My voice would have its own tone, but whatever that tone was, it had to have lilt. So I listened and read and practiced—and it worked.

As I read Real Artists Don’t Starve, Michelangelo’s story got me to thinking about this practice of being a copycat, but it was the story of dancer Twyla Tharp that started to bring things together for me.

“When she started dancing in New York, the dancer dedicated herself to studying every great dancer who was working at the time. She patterned herself after these professionals, learning what she could from them, copying their every move. ‘I would literally stand behind them in class,’ she said, ‘in copying mode, and fall right into their footsteps. Their technique, style, and timing imprinted themselves on my muscles.” — Real Artists Don’t Starve pg. 30

Anything we do often or repetitively (like typing or shifting gears) probably involves some degree of muscle memory. This is what Twyla Tharp was doing. She was copying the movements of the greats, training her own muscles to do what the masters were doing, so that it would flow naturally out of her. The brain and writing work similarly. Many writers copy out the work of great writers in order to learn from them.

This is the point where Jeff’s book and my own work intersected this week.

The material I have been writing touches on the importance of the example we set for others. Before we are required to set an example, however, we are given an example to follow. 1 Peter 2:21 says that Christ left us an example and we are to follow in His steps.

Check out the meaning of the Greek word translated example!

“A writing copy, including all the letters of the alphabet, given to beginners as an aid in learning to draw them.” – Source, BlueLetterBible.com

In other words, if we are to be like Christ, then—just like the writer or sculptor who wants to become like the great artists who have gone before them—we need to sit down and study His work, His words, His actions, His responses, and His attitudes. We need to practice what He practiced until it becomes as much a part of us as those dance moves that flowed out of Twyla Tharp or as that sculpture that came from Michelangelo’s hands. We need to sit as a child with a copy sheet and trace the lines of His life over and over until His grace, kindness, love, righteousness, and forgiveness flow from the pen of our lives onto the paper of our circumstances and relationships, creating a genuine copy of the Master’s work.

It doesn’t stop there. In 1 Timothy 4:12, Paul tells Timothy to be an example of the believers. The word translated as example is the Greek word typos. Not typos as in mistakes in typing, but typos as in:

“The mark of a stroke or blow…print.” — Source, BlueLetterBible.com

All the copying we have done of the Master should now flow out in strokes, or be stamped out in images, which can be copied by others. And as the strokes of our example scribe their lines across our circumstances and relationships, they should always point our copiers to the Master.

This is when it’s okay to be a copycat. In fact, it’s more than okay. This is when it’s the preferred course because in being a copycat, we become the real thing.

Have you ever copied another artist’s work? What practices do you maintain in your Christian walk that allow you to copy Christ? Please share in the comments below.

Check Out Real Artists Don’t Starve
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  • Donna DeGuglielmo June 8, 2017 at 12:59 pm

    Hey ya Rachel, great read… got you article of Tribe writers… good to know you. and followed 🙂 blessings

  • Donna DeGuglielmo June 8, 2017 at 1:00 pm

    Hey ya Rachel, great read… got you article of Tribe writers… good to know you. and followed 🙂 blessings

    • Rachel Miller June 8, 2017 at 2:22 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to read it! Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for the follow.