“It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
Author Austin Kleon expresses strong opinions and uses vivid language in his book Steal Like An Artist. He argues that all art has been done before and “nothing is original.” When I first read this, I thought this notion was offensive, and nearly put the book down.
I’m glad I didn’t, because I learned that what Kleon is actually saying is that human beings are constantly improving on what others have done before them. We’re always building on what’s already been created. Nothing comes into being from nothing.
Kleon himself has portraits of his favourite artists on the walls of his studio to inspire him. He says that seeing himself as part of a creative lineage helps him feel less alone. “They’re like friendly ghosts. I can almost feel them pushing me forward as I’m hunched over my desk.”
In his book, Kleon advises budding artists to choose one of these friendly ghosts—a favourite thinker, writer, or artist—and really study them. Investigate everything they created, and hone in on what you love about them. And then begin to copy them.
I remember doing this quite unconsciously in high school with the poetry of e.e.cummings. Something about the way he played with words and the sentiments he evoked really spoke to me. When I look back now, I can see I was copying his style, and I can also see how that led to me to finding more of my own voice later on.
Although Kleon’s word choices of “stealing” or “copying” don’t feel right to me (and maybe they won’t to you either), I definitely think opening ourselves to influences is a necessary first step on the path to our own creations. I prefer to use the terms “getting inspired” or “fuelling up.”
“Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light, and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul.”
If you’re someone who simply enjoys reading posts on art, writing, and creativity, stop here.
On the other hand, if you’re someone who is itching for a hands-on experience, try this on for size!
Choose one of your all-time favourite songs. Write down the line that most resonates with you (maybe the one you always shout out when you’re singing along).
Pick one of your favourite poems. Choose a line, and write it down.
Remember a favourite quote or saying. It could be also be a blessing or a prayer. Write that down too.
Finally, try to call up the last compliment that someone gave you, and write that down as well. Use the person’s exact words if you can.
Have a look and see what you’ve got in front of you. You can even use different scraps of paper and move them around. What can you create that is built on the words of others but is unique to you?