Writing shows its influences by the contagion of rhythm and pacing more often than by exact imitation of ideas. We know that Updike read Nabokov in the nineteen sixties by the sudden license Updike claims to unsubdue his prose, to make his sentences self-consciously exclamatory, rather than by an onset of chess playing or butterfly collecting." (Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, Jan. 16, 2017, p. 84)Writers imitate other writers: their themes, their literary form, their tone, everything. Much of what is published amounts to bad imitations of bad stories. How does a writer avoid such a misfortune? Read the greatest writers who have ever lived. Read Leo Tolstoy, Flannery O'Connor, Gustave Flaubert, Nikolai Gogol, Rebecca West, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, many, many others in the grand pantheon of world literature.
About imitation. One thing that's ever so hard to be is original. Good writers present something novel in tone or style; a good writer has his/her own voice. When you find your voice you have begun.
Here's the layman's image of a writer who teaches creative writing in a university:
". . . a dramatic figure striking in appearance, wearing boots and jodhpurs, perhaps, with long white hair like a prophet and bearing a kind of literary ichor, the fluid in the veins of the gods" (James Salter, The Art of Fiction, p. 57).Can that white-haired prophet teach you to write? No, you have to learn yourself, through years and years of intensive practice, while reading only the best creative writers and learning from them.
One day a writer of creative literary fiction sits down and writes a masterpiece. Other writers are plunged into sorrowful depression, thinking, "Dang, there are only a limited number of masterpieces to be written, and now this guy has filched another one and run off with it" (paraphrase of Salter, The Art of Fiction, p. 50).I just read the brilliant novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer. Didn't feel envious of him, just thought, Wonderful, how great to have a young writer writing at that level of creativity.
What do good creative writers do? They "make the shape and rhythm of sentences intensely felt" (Salter, p. 56). Yes!
Then there's the aspiring creative writer who proclaims, "I'm not interested in rhythms of sentences; I want to write about ideas." Urggh.