Monday, July 1, 2013

Steal Like An Artist

Michael Salsbury
Earlier today, I finished reading Austin Kleon's book Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative.  I recommend it for anyone considering undertaking a creative endeavor such as writing, painting, drawing, or music.

It's a quick and easy read.  Kleon's writing style is very conversational and pleasant.  He doesn't talk down to the reader or get preachy.  He simply delivers the material he's there to present and moves on.  Along the way, he shares a number of his artworks and many inspirational quotes to support what he covers in the text.

According to the book, "The writer Jonathan Lethem has said that when people call something 'original,' nine times out of ten they just don't know the references or the original sources involved.  What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before.  Nothing is completely original… If we're free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it."

I took several things away from the book, including:

  • Copy your heroes, the people who inspired you, or the ones you want to be.  Don't just steal from one of them, steal from all of them.  "If you copy from one author, it's plagiarism, but if you copy from many, it's research."

  • What should you copy?  Don't steal the style. Steal the thinking behind it.  You don't want to "look like" your heroes, you want to see the world like they do – to internalize their way of looking at the world. If you just mimic it without understanding where they're coming from, you'll only be a knockoff.

  • Our failure to become our perceived ideal is what defines us and makes us unique.

  • All fiction is fan fiction.  The best advice is not to write what you know, but to write what you like.  Write the kind of story you like best, the kind you want to read.  When you're at a loss, ask "What would make a better story?"

  • Think about your favorite work from your creative heroes.  Ask yourself:  What did they miss? What didn't they make? What could have been made better? If they were still alive, what would they be making today? If all your favorites got together and collaborated, what would they make with you leading them?

  • Find a way to bring your body (arms, legs, etc.) into the work.  Physical motion kickstarts the brain.

  • Take time to mess around, to get lost, and to wander.  You never know where it will lead you.

  • It's important to have a hobby, something creative that's just for you.  You don't try to make money or get famous from it, you do it just to be happy.  It's something that gives but doesn't take from you.

  • You want attention only after you're doing really good work.

  • There are no shortcuts. Know you're going to suck for a while. Fail. Get better.

  • The secret of Internet success… Step 1: Wonder at something.  Step 2: Invite others to wonder with you.

  • Think about what you have to share that could be of some value to people and share it online.

  • Surround yourself with books and objects you love.  Create your own world.

  • Travel makes the world look new and our brains work harder.

  • You have to find a place that feeds you creatively, socially, spiritually, and literally.  The food should be good.

  • If you ever find that you're the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.

  • Write public fan letters.  Your hero may or may not see them. The important thing is that you show your appreciation without expecting something in return.

  • Keep a "praise file" of the nice messages you get about your work.  When you're feeling down, look at it.

  • Get a wall calendar that shows you the whole year. Then break your work into daily chunks. When you finish a chunk, make a big X in that day's box.  After a while, you'll have a chain of boxes.  Your only job is not to break the chain.

  • Keep a log book. Ask yourself each day "What's the best thing that happened today?"

  • The way to get over a creative block is to place some constraints on yourself.  Limitations mean freedom in creative work.

  • It's often what an artist leaves out that makes art interesting.

The book came along at a good time for me.  I have recently started brainstorming a science-fiction universe which draws ideas from a variety of sources.  If you looked at many of these individually, you might recognize them as coming from this book, that movie, or a particular television series.  Combined, however, they create a universe that would be hard to recognize as any one of those influences.  I'm hopeful that when this universe is complete (or "complete enough") that it will be a setting for a series of short stories and novels.  Those stories will definitely not be a retelling of the original source material, but something new.  This book helped inspire my confidence to keep visualizing that fictional universe in spite of the fact that I'm "stealing" bits of it from writers whose work inspired me.

I highly recommend this book.  It would make a great gift to a friend, loved one, or family member who is writing, sculpting, painting, playing music, etc.  It will encourage them to explore their influences, and to expand on the things that make those works great.  The relatively low price of the book makes it an inexpensive gift as well.

About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


Post a Comment