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Nothing Comes from Nowhere
The author of Steal Like an Artist on unleashing your creativity.
Last year, writer and artist Austin Kleon spoke at Broome Community College in upstate New York, where he shared the 10 things he wished he had known – about inspiration, originality, art, and life – when he was starting out. Top of the list? Steal like an artist.
“Every idea is just a remix or mash-up of what came before,” Kleon says. His list exploded online, and this spring, he published an expanded, illustrated version. Excerpted here, Steal Like an Artist is a welcome refresher, even a crash course, in creativity in our hyper-connected age.
Every artist, at some point, is asked the question: “Where do you get your ideas?”
The honest artist answers, “I steal them.” You figure out what’s worth stealing, then you move on to the next thing. That’s about all there is to it.
The writer Jonathan Lethem has said that when people call something “original,” nine out of 10 times they just don’t know the references or original sources involved. What a good artist understands is nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before.
Some people find this idea depressing, but it fills me with hope. If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing. We can embrace influence instead of running away from it.
What you need to do is collect good ideas. Be curious. Look things up. Chase down every reference. Collect books, even if you don’t plan on reading them right away. (As the filmmaker John Waters said, “Nothing is more important than an unread library.”) In the digital space, that means following the best people – the people who are doing really interesting work. Pay attention to what they’re talking about, what they’re doing, what they’re linking to.
The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.
The truth is nobody is born with a style or a voice. In the beginning, we learn by copying. We learn to write by copying the alphabet. Musicians learn by practicing scales. Painters learn by reproducing masterpieces. As Salvador Dali said, “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”
Who to copy is easy – your heroes. The people you love, the people you’re inspired by, the people you want to be. Steal from all of them. What to copy is trickier. Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style.
You don’t want to look like your heroes; you want to see like them.
Take a moment to watch someone at a computer. They’re so still, so immobile. You don’t need a scientific study (of which there are a few) to tell you that sitting in front of a computer all day is killing you, and killing your work. We need to move, to feel like we’re making something with our bodies, not just our heads.
Work that only comes from a head isn’t any good. Watch a great musician play a show. Watch a great leader give a speech. You’ll see what I mean.
Find a way to bring your body into your work. Our bodies can tell our brains as much as our brains tell our bodies. You know the phrase, “going through the motions”? That’s what’s great about creative work: If you start going through the motions, if you strum a guitar, shuffle sticky notes around on a conference table, or start kneading clay, the motion kick-starts your brain into thinking.
For my first book, Newspaper Blackout, I made the process as hands-on as possible. Every poem in that book was made with a newspaper article and a permanent marker. The process engaged my senses: the feel of newsprint in my hands, the sight of words disappearing under my lines, the faint squeak of the marker tip, the smell of marker fumes – there was a kind of magic happening. When I was making the poems, it didn’t feel like work. It felt like play. Play is when magic happens.
If you have two or three real passions, don’t pick and choose. Keep all of your passions in your life. You can cut off a couple and only focus on one, but after a while, you’ll feel phantom-limb pain.
I spent my younger years obsessed with playing music, but then I decided I needed to focus on writing, so I spent half a decade hardly playing at all. The pain got worse and worse. Then, about a year ago, I started playing again. And rather than music taking away from writing, I find it interacting with it – making it better. New synapses in my brain are firing, new connections are being made.
Have a hobby – something creative that’s just for you. Something that gives but doesn’t take. While my art is for the world to see, music is only for my friends and me. We get together every Sunday and make noise. No pressure, no plans. It’s regenerative. It’s like church.
Don’t worry about a grand scheme or unified vision for your work. What unifies your work is the fact that you made it. One day, you’ll look back, and it will all make sense.
Every new writer, at some point, asks the question: “What should I write?” The standard answer is, “Write what you know.” This leads to terrible stories in which nothing interesting happens.
We make art because we like art. We’re drawn to certain kinds of work because we’re inspired by the people who made it. The best advice is not to write what you know, it’s to write what you like. Write the story you want to read. The same principle applies to any creative pursuit.
Think about your favorite work and your creative heroes. What did they miss? What didn’t they make? What could have been made better? If all of your favorite makers got together and collaborated, what would they make with you leading the crew?
Go make that stuff.
Excerpted with permission from Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, published this spring by Workman Publishing Company. Copyright © 2012 by Austin Kleon.