Steal like an artist

October 19, 2014

Among certain circles, I think there’s too much focus on the unique. It’s nearly a fetish. “I’ve seen it all before” or “This is just like ______” are not the dirty words some imagine them to be. They’re the result of a creative truth you may not be aware of.

Artists steal. Artists steal all the time. Any artist who tells you she doesn’t is lying. There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new combinations of what’s been seen before. And often, what you think is original isn’t; nine times out of ten, you just don’t know the references involved.

If you’re an artist, or would like to be an artist, or would like to understand artists, read Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. Check it out at your local library—hopefully it’s there.

Real artists steal. We take ideas from anyone who has ideas worth stealing, and we weave them together into something totally our own. Go watch any Quentin Tarantino movie; you may notice that all the elements he uses have been used before. But what he does is combine them in a way that only Quentin Tarantino can. That’s what makes something unique—it’s not the ideas, but the execution. It’s in the combination that something new is born.

This isn’t an excuse to phone it in. The obvious aping of something successful in order to cash in on what’s worked before is poison to good storytelling. But you don’t have to be utterly unique to tell a good story, nor should you look for it in the works you enjoy. To do so is to reject the wealth of ideas lying around us, and the wonderful stories that can be woven from their cloth.

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 that from which it was torn.” -T.S. Eliot

Unique is overrated. Look for good instead. Not everyone can make that distinction, but it’s an important one.

As always, thank you for using my Amazon Affiliate link (info).

By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.

2 Comments

  1. Reply

    Ana

    That’s certainly true. And it’s far more obvious than most people realize.

    I remember reading at one point about how Tolkien’s works were originally just his take on Norse mythology (jokingly referred to as his “Edda fanfic”). But he kept working on it so much that it became its own thing and a cultural icon.

    And of course, you get things like the infinite takes on Sherlock Holmes. At this point, I think more people have seen the reimaginings than have read the original. (Though that’s a slightly different situation.)

    1. Reply

      Stilts

      The J.R.R. Tolkien further solidifies my point about not always knowing the references. I thought I remembered that he set out to make his own mythology, but starting with a take on Norse mythology and gradually tweaking it until it became something new makes way more sense. (For example, the idea of multiple realms and “Middle Earth” takes on a new light.)

      All the Sherlock Holmes stories are a different thing. One which I honestly wish would stop, with certain rare exceptions, lol

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *