Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Creative Life: Steal Like an Artist

Technique Tuesday

Austin Kleon's first piece of advice in "How to Steal Like an Artist (and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me) was motivated by his honest answer to the inevitable where-do-you-get-your-ideas question: "I steal them."

Before your ethical early-warning system goes into a tizzy, remember that copyright protects the expression, not the idea. J.K. Rowling's lawyers can't do anything to stop me if I want to tell a story about a boy at a boarding school for wizards as long as it is my own expression of that basic idea. (If you think you have an idea that is inherently valuable, you need a patent my friend.)

Kleon makes two key points: "Nothing is original," and, "You are the sum of your influence."

Nothing is Original

With between six and seven billion minds on the planet right now, what statistically is the chance that no one else has had an idea similar to yours? Add the constraints of archetypes and only a handful of fundamentally different stories and you don't have much scope for something unique.

[This, by the way, is why agents reject quickly when you claim that there's nothing on the market like your manuscript.]

It would be easy to decide that it's not worth trying because it has already been done when you hear that nothing is original. But Kleon says the idea gives him hope: instead of wandering in the desert, spending a lifetime searching for an original idea, you can drink deeply from the same well everyone else uses. What matters is not the ideas, but how you use them.

You are the Sum of your Influences

What kind of story could a brain grown in a vat tell? What are the chances that you and the brain would have enough common points of reference to communicate? To put it another way, how many encyclopedias would have to accompany your novel so that the brain in the vat could understand it?

We exist, physically, socially, and mentally, in a vast web of shared ideas. Our explicit communication is only the visible part of an iceberg of references and associations. That last sentence, for example, works only if you know that icebergs are mountains of ice floating in the ocean with only about 10% of their mass visible above the surface. Think how exhausting communication would be if we had to spell out every reference and association.

Steal like an Artist

What does this mean for those of us who aspire to unique expressions?

Kleon says it very well:
"An artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: hoarders collect indiscriminately, the artist collects selectively. They only collect things that they really love."
An artist "steals" by becoming a conceptual omnivore, selecting and saving the ideas that resonate most strongly in a mental stock pot where their essences can commingle. The richer your broth of influences, the better your chances for making a unique association, or hitting upon a twist that is both surprising and inevitable.

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


  1. I read three of your posts and was impressed and excited. It reads like some of the best writing books I own, and fills a niche left empty by other blogs I have read. Thanks.

  2. Welcome, and thank you. You're very kind.

    I hope the blog continues to live up to your expectations (and trust you'll let me know what I can do better).


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