by Shawna Coppola, The Educator Collaborative Fellow
Register to watch Shawna Coppola and Carla España’s 2018-2019 Study Series Session, “Teach Writing with Energy, Intention and Joy,” on-demand through June 30, 2019.
But What If They Copy Their Mentors?
As writing teachers, most of us are familiar with the practice of using mentor texts as a way to inspire students to write and, simultaneously, to lift the level of the writing students do. The number of professional texts devoted to using mentors to teach writing (or more accurately, to teach writers) are plentiful and reflect the experience and expertise of such esteemed educators as Katie Wood Ray, Lynne Dorfman, Rose Cappelli, and Ralph Fletcher. As someone who, herself, has witnessed the power of using mentor texts to inspire and engage writers of all ages, I often present workshops to colleagues that offer the best thinking in relation to this work, carefully curated and sprinkled throughout with my own tips and tricks that I’ve discovered throughout my teaching career.
When presenting on any aspect of my work, I try to be as student-centered as possible, and to that end, I always ask workshop participants to help guide my instruction by asking the questions that are most sharply “rising to the surface” for them. One hundred percent of the time, when presenting about mentors, I am asked by at least one participant the following question: But what if [students] just copy the mentors?
Borrowing Elements From Mentors
In the past, I’ve replied by sharing the writing mentors I had as a kid, long before I identified them as such, and explained how I would “borrow” elements of their style—e.g., Dave Barry’s use of footnotes to “talk” directly to his reader, or Stephen King’s use of parentheses and italics to communicate his characters’ inner, most frightening thoughts—for use in my own writing. [For the record, that’s ultimately what we want to happen, right?—for students to experiment with the style, craft, and structural elements of their favorite writing mentors?] When this failed to satisfy the questioner, who would typically give me their best hairy eyeball (and to be fair, this would usually occur after a carb-heavy lunch), I would reassure them that in my almost two-decades of teaching student writers I’ve only met one student who, to my knowledge, outright copied someone’s work and tried to pass it off as her own.
Having spent the past few years of my life slowly developing my skills as a visual artist, I now view this question through a slightly different lens. I have many, many mentors who excel at the work I aspire to create—specifically, web comics and watercolors—and there are two things I regularly do that have helped me move closer toward both my compositional goals as well as my aptitude as an artist: 1) I follow some of my mentors’ exact processes, and 2) I copy their work.
It’s true: I willfully and intentionally copy the work of my mentors.
I’ll show you two examples where I’ve done this, although as I said, this is a regular, frequent practice of mine. The first is an instance where I copied the work of Raina Telgemeier from several panels of her book Sisters. I didn’t trace the composition; rather, I used it as a reference as I attempted to compose the exact image in my sketchbook. The second example shows a copied work consisting of watercolor and ink from the collection of illustrator Ohn Mar Win, whose tutorials I regularly watch on Skillshare.
I do this “copying” with many of my compositional mentors—my writer’s notebooks and sketchbooks are filled with the work of Win, Matthew Holm, Christine Rai, LeUyen Pham, and Yasmina Creates, created by my own amateur hand.
Should I Be Ashamed of Copying My Mentors?
Should I be ashamed of this? Of course not. Copying the work of my mentors—as long as I do not pass it off as my own work or attempt to profit off of it—contributes enormously to my development as a visual artist. By creating these “copies” (which fall under the concept umbrella of “fan art”), I am learning about and practicing important compositional decisions and techniques, which include, but are not limited to:
- line work variations,
- communicating character expressions,
- visual organization,
- textual layout,
Most importantly, I am doing this without the additional compositional load of creating new or unique content, which frees me up to more efficiently absorb the lessons I am learning by engaging in this work.
And besides, let’s face it—we educators are generally more accepting of “copying” when it suits our own instructional needs, are we not? For example, there is no actual form of poetry called “I Am” or “I Am From” poetry, which is often assigned to students of all ages and which could be characterized as a form of “fan art” based off of George Ella Lyon’s poem “Where I’m From.” When we invite students to compose such a poem, are we not “copying” or “borrowing” Lyon’s entire concept (and even a little bit of her structure as well as some of her language choices)? Do we not invite students to “copy” lines from the books they are reading and post them on a “Lines We Love” or “Famous First Lines” display in order to seal in some of the compositional craft that’s embedded in such writing? There’s a reason why the old adage “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” persists—because imitation is something we all engage in at some point in our lives. And for creatives, imitation is a valid way to support skill development while temporarily suspending the need to also create original content.
Therefore, I suppose my revised answer to the question, But what if [students] just copy the mentors? is, “Eh. So what if they do?” I can’t think of a single student who would—or could—maintain a practice of literally copying the work their mentor did assignment after assignment, writing piece after writing piece, day after day. No student writer wants to be that bored—or that boring. So go ahead—copy away, kids. Copy away.