Stealing is not a crime — at least when you’re stealing ideas from a variety of artists. That’s the basis of Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. (A premise that he, of course, stole from other artists.)
In the book, Kleon shares unique insights on cultivating creativity.
Specifically, he presents the below 10 tips, which he created for a talk at a community college. They represent the things he wished he would’ve known when starting out.
- Steal like an artist.
- Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.
- Write the book you want to read.
- Use your hands.
- Side projects and hobbies are important.
- The secret: do good work and share it with people.
- Geography is no longer our master.
- Be nice. (The world is a small town.)
- Be boring. (It’s the only way to get work done.)
- Creativity is subtraction.
In the first chapter, Kleon quotes T.S. Eliot on stealing like a true artist:
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from which it was torn.
As Kleon explains, nothing is absolutely original, because artists build on the work that came before them. This very idea is liberating, he says. It lets you “stop trying to make something out of nothing,” and instead accept the influence of others. That’s why it’s important to gather and surround yourself with good ideas. “The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.”
Steal Like an Artist is filled with inspiration. (My copy is drenched in black marker and highlighter.) These are just a few of the tips I’m stealing from the book.
1. Instead of studying an entire discipline, “chew on one thinker — writer, artist, activist, role model — you really love.” Learning everything about a particular discipline is overwhelming. That’s why Kleon suggests picking one person and learning everything you can about them. Then he instructs readers to find three people that person loved and learn everything you can about them. When you’re done, just keep repeating the process.
By doing this, Kleon says that you’re building a family tree, “a creative lineage,” which will remind you that, as you’re creating, you’re not alone. Kleon keeps pictures of his favorite artists in his studio. “I can almost feel them pushing me forward as I’m hunched over my desk,” he writes.
2. Figure out how these thinkers see the world. According to Kleon, “You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.” In other words, you want to understand and internalize how they view the world. He makes another great point: “If you just mimic the surface of somebody’s work without understanding where they are coming from, your work will never be anything more than a knockoff.”
3. Have separate workspaces. I think it’s safe to say that most of us are attached to technology. For instance, I’m on my computer — on and off but mostly on — throughout the day. We barely leave each other’s sides.
But this isn’t so good for brainstorming or creating. When we’re creating, we also need to move our bodies, according to Kleon. He did just that with his first book Newspaper Blackout. His tools were a newspaper article and a permanent marker. He writes:
The process engaged most of 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 the 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.
Kleon has two workspaces: one for his computer — which he calls his digital desk — and the other purely for hands-on creating, which is his analog station. He suggests readers check out the school supply aisle of their local store and spend $10 on paper, pens and sticky notes. He writes:
When you get back home to your analog station, pretend it’s craft time. Scribble on paper, cut it up, and tape the pieces back together. Stand up while you’re working. Pin things on the walls and look for patterns. Spread things around your space and sort through them.
4. Pursue all your passions. Kleon says that you don’t have to pick one passion and discard the rest. He quotes playwright Steven Tomlinson, who said about various passions: “Let them talk to each other. Something will begin to happen.”
In addition to writing and drawing, Kleon also plays in a band. His music, he says, doesn’t interfere with his writing; rather, it’s added to and improved it. I especially love his concluding point about passion:
Don’t throw any of yourself away. Don’t worry about a grand scheme or unified vision for your work. Don’t worry about unity — what unifies your work is the fact that you made it. One day, you’ll look back and it will all make sense.
Check out Austin Kleon’s website to learn more about his interesting work. By the way, I first learned about Kleon’s book from Maria Popova’s fascinating blog, Brain Pickings. You can watch one of Kleon’s talks at Popova’s blog.