It's probably not any surprise that I took a lot of art classes through high school. In fact, during my teen years I would say I was more into art than writing. I drew everyday. Sometimes all day. I took every art class my schedule would allow. I passed the AP art exam twice. I am telling you this so you know where I'm coming from.
Because the most common questions I hear from newer writers is "Are you afraid someone's going to steal your ideas?" or "How do I read without imitating the stories subconsciously?" or "Do you read in your genre—aren't you afraid you'll accidentally copy someone?"
Quite frankly, these questions baffle me. There seems to be this idea that writers are not influenced by each other—and if you are, you are a plagiarist.
This is not the case. I'd like to clear this up today.
So back to my art training. I don't know if you've ever been in an art class, but there's A LOT of "copying" going on. When you are learning to draw, a teacher often demonstrates on paper the principles of foreground/background or foreshortening or proper human proportions and you copy. In a beginning painting class, the instructor will likely have students attempt to mimic his or her painting while teaching proper techniques. In figure study, you are literally "copying" a person's body as accurately as you can.
The "copying" doesn't stop there. When you learn about different art eras and styles, teachers pull out examples from the greats of that era—Monet, Picasso, Van Gough, Michaelangelo, Caravaggio. You are encouraged to absorb their styles and learn from their methods and then attempt to interpret that in your own way. Many times students will even attempt to replicate a famous piece of art in order to gain greater insight into how that artist accomplished what he or she did.
I took these same concepts to my anime education. Though I didn't have an official class in it, I watched as much as I could. When I saw a new style of eye that I liked, I tried to copy it. When I saw a unique take on body proportions, I tried to imitate it. Because in trying to imitate I not only learned from the greats in the field, I figured out what my own style was, too.
Imitation, in fact, is used in most every art form. Musicians aren't expected to compose their own music before they even know how to play their instrument. Dancers don't choreograph their own performances before they learn the basic moves. Chefs don't create their own recipes before they know the traditional ones. No. Musicians and dancers and chefs learn from their respective greats in the field. They learn the basics from those who knew them so well they were able to innovate. Because true innovation can't happen until you know what's already been done.
So why do so many newer authors think it's a good idea to stop reading in order to keep their imaginations "untainted"? I don't know. As far as art is concerned—and I believe writing is an art—imitation is an expected part of the journey.
Personally, when I read as a newer author it taught me about my genre and what kinds of expectations resided therein. It taught me what was being done and how. It showed me many different styles of writing that I didn't know existed, which educated my own and helped me see where I stood out and where I needed more work.
More than that. Reading sparks my own imagination and love of story. When I feel the creative well going dry, one of the easiest ways to fill it is going on a "story binge." I read books, watch movies, anime, and Kdrama. I take in other's stories, and they inspire me to create my own.
This is not copying or plagiarizing. This is inspiration and, yes, sometimes imitation. Copying and plagiarizing involve stealing huge chunks of a writer's work verbatim and claiming it is your own. Imitation or pulling for inspiration is something all artists do—art informs art.
Was TRANSPARENT largely inspired by X-Men? Yes. Did I steal the story of Wolverine but name him another name and say I wrote it? No. I took my own path on the mutations road. Was I inspired to try writing in first person present because I read THE HUNGER GAMES? Yes! Did I write about a girl name Patniss who goes to a deathmatch for teens? No. I thought, "Wow, that first person present was done really well, I'd like to try it and see how it feels to write in that pov."
I highly encourage all writers to not only learn the craft, but to read the books in their genre that are successful. Even those that aren't. It's very educational, and as a writer you should be always seeking to learn more about writing in any way you can. Because once you know the standards, that is when you will truly be able to find your voice and style and genre. You will be a better writer for it. I promise.