A few days ago I had a startlingly familiar conversation with a writer friend of mine. The gothic-styled urban fantasy idea she’d been thrilled about only a few weeks before, one I thought held real promise, was now causing her no small amount of stress. She wanted to write the story, but it wasn’t working for her.
“I had this whole outline almost done,” she said. “Then I just lost confidence in it.”
“Why?” I pressed. “The idea is worth exploring.”
“I miss writing vampires and people with abilities,” she agreed. “But everybody seems to write vampires.”
There was the crux of the issue. She was feeling drained because the idea didn’t feel fresh to her. She felt like she’d stolen parts of the world she’d dreamt. It wasn’t unique compared to the published and unpublished material she’d seen. To quote the Barenaked Ladies, it had “all been done before.”
That song is a perfect reference. “It’s All Been Done" was the second single off the band’s 1998 album, and while it wasn’t as internationally popular as “One Week” from the same album, it peaked at #1 on the Canadian Singles Chart. In a sense, it’s also stolen material, or, at least a rehash of a very old idea. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9
Yep. There’s an argument to be made that Steven Page ripped off the Bible. And is he ashamed? Not one bit! Should he be? Not according to Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist. Find your favorite book, song, play, piece of art, Kleon says, and you will find echoes of ideas from other times, cultures, and artists. Even Mother Nature repeats ideas. That’s why we have the German word doppelgänger and why the internet graces us with photographs of civil war soldiers that look identical to Nicolas Cage.
In truth, it’s not a bad idea for creative people to look to others for inspiration. Steal Like an Artist highlights the benefits of mimicry. Kleon advocates strategically selecting pieces that resonate with you, learning the styles and signatures of your influencers, then finding unexplored intersections between those influences. In that space, you are free to play and remix their ideas into something perfectly your own. He quotes writer Jonathan Lethem’s idea that all creative works are only called original when others don’t know or recognize the sources the work references. “What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before.”
In his review of Kleon’s book, T.K. Coleman goes beyond suggesting you should steal like an artist. He says that the pursuit of originality is actually detrimental to the creative process. Coleman warns that chasing the dream of a completely original idea is a distraction. “It usually leads to a self-obsessive focus on saying what’s never been said when all that really matters is saying what you believe, saying what you feel, and saying what you mean.” In his opinion, lack of originality means you are finding your voice, learning your craft. What you need to do is continue adding to your pool of influences and pushing yourself so that your unique style emerges.
The best way to help that style emerge? Kleon advocates artists should play. Creatives have what my family calls “Ooo, shiny!” Something bright and new will catch their eye. If it holds their attention, they’ll start messing around, toying with the idea, picking it apart to see how it works and why they find it so fascinating. Kleon says, “Stuff that’s just play. That’s actually the good stuff. That’s when the magic happens.” Your best work will come out of the unexpected when you’re just having fun.
In the end, my friend decided that playing was exactly what she’d do. She decided to pursue the idea and see how it developed. I applauded her choice. Steal like an artist. Introduce yourself to some new ideas, quit worrying about being original, and make sure you have some fun in the process. It might just be the best idea you can steal.
This week begins a sort of artist spotlight that I'm calling Questions for Creatives. If there is interest, I'm hoping to make this a recurring feature on the blog.
Our first creative comes from Québec where she works in the communications field and writes in her spare time. CM Peters has penned everything from short erotica and fan fiction, to romance novels and elaborate fantasy epics. Her focus is complex, relatable characters, and she's currently editing her new romance/coming of age novel. An excerpt from her story "Body Heat" follows this interview, and you can connect with Peters on her facebook page.
Describe your passion or your current creative project.
I’m a writer through and through, with all the creative aspects, self-doubt, aspirations. I’m in between projects at the moment; waiting on news from a query and deciding what to throw myself into next.
How has your creative process changed or developed over time?
I’ve moved on from fanfics to original works and from writing in French to English. My native tongue in French, but since college, the inspiration to write in French has left the building, mostly due to creative differences and muffling of my talent by professors.
How do you continue to find new ideas?
I don’t find them, they find me. I have tons of characters walking around in my head. Some come a-knockin’, asking to be written. So, I usually go with what inspires me the most.
What was the first thing you created that you were truly proud of?
Wow, uhm… It’s hard to answer that question. Seeing people respond to something I’ve created, written or anything else, usually makes me proud. But taking pride in something, I’d say my first novel, Pawns. From a short story idea, I wrote twenty-eight chapters! I felt a void when it ended and missed my characters.
Do believe in creative block? And if so, what do you do to overcome it?
Very much so. It’s happened to me a few times, for different reasons each time. Time and patience, reading other works, but again, patience with yourself.
Tell me how you continue creating during emotionally difficult times.
It’s my anchor. Writing has saved me from myself more than once. I fuel my energy into it, sometimes to avoid those hardships, sometimes to feed from them.
What is the best advice you’ve ever been given about creativity?
To allow myself time, to be softer with myself about my failures, to take a break once in a while.
What is the best quality for a creative person to have?
An open mind. You never know what’ll come to you.
What kind of research do you do before beginning a new project?
Extensive. It’s one of my joys to do research and plan a new project. I love being as specific and realistic as possible when my project takes place in the real world.
What would you say to people just beginning to explore their own creativity?
Don’t let fear stop you. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it! If you’re a writer, find a pencil and paper that are water resistant and bring it into the shower. The best ideas come while in there!
Excerpt from Body Heat by CM Peters
He roared when he reached her, pressing her against the door to kiss her. He rubbed his cold nose on her cheek. “I think it’s now time to toast me toes by the fire!”
Carina giggled, kissing his nose. “Alright. Go to my room, start a fire, and I’ll get some of tonight’s chili for dinner. The next customers to come in will only arrive tomorrow so we have the night to ourselves, so some time for some body heat,” she said, wiggling her eyebrows.
Liam purred and grinned. “Oh yes! What a lovely plan, doll!”
Snuggling in an oversized quilt in front of the fire for the evening, the couple made plans for a small Christmas, agreeing on only one gift for each other. With chili, corn chips, and whiskey, they were stocked for the night and didn’t move until Liam began snoring in front of the movie they’d started. Carina sighed and nudged him, so he’d wake up.
The evenings were started to get boring, barely three weeks after his arrival. She knew that he was working hard during the day, but she missed spending time with him. At least at the bar, we worked side by side. But she couldn’t hold it against him; he’d traveled thousands of miles to help her.
It was late; everyone was dragging, and it was too warm under the stage lights. The union steward had called the orchestra out on a much-needed break fifteen minutes earlier. Offstage, orchestra members clumped in small groups to grumble or quip about the situation. Onstage, a few individuals silently worked difficult fingerings and wrote notes on sheet music, trying to work out why the sound wasn’t coming together in rehearsal the way it had in their solo practice. They were all strong performers, creative individuals, professional musicians, but right now, they didn’t sound like it.
When everyone returned to their seats, the ensemble started into the same section they had been trying earlier. It wasn’t a particularly difficult movement, but even these seasoned performers tended to rush through. Time after time, the conductor stopped everyone, asking them to mark their music, to wait for his cue. Time after time, the orchestra began, only to fall apart at the same measure. The group was out of sync, and frustrations were high. Finally, the conductor put down his baton. All instruments came to rest on laps.
“We’re not losing the tempo or speeding up,” he declared. “We’re shorting the rests. We’re not giving them their full time because we’re in a hurry to get to the next note. The notes get their moment. Give full time to the rest. When we forget to rest, we never have enough time.”
As if to emphasize his point, the conductor paused a moment, letting the words sink in before he raised his baton. This time, there was a different energy when the orchestra began. The air was not tense. There was less frustration. Everyone knew that all they needed to do was give proper time to rest. They did, and the piece came together.
What an astonishing idea, to give ourselves time to rest. As creative people, we often are focused on productivity: finishing an edit before the deadline, polishing a work in time for performance, completing enough pieces to be juried into a show. What we often forget is tranquility, the quiet needed for the creative process.
In her book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less,, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, suggests that everyone needs active rest. Pang argues that our best work is done four to six hours a day, all at once or in individual segments. That time should be spent focused on work, and the remainder of our time requires rest. This suggestion is echoed by a Scientific American article that delved into Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime. The article highlights Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s 2012 research paper showing rest is essential for the mental processes that understand identity, human behavior, and ethics. Like stories, identity and ethics are composed of sensory experiences, hypothetical questions, and moral judgments. It’s not surprising that related research suggests that especially creative people use these sections of the brain more often than the typical person.
It’s easy to fall into step with a never-ending to-do list, to keep life so busy that we don’t have the proper time to process information and make something new. We can start to feel guilty about resting or playing. Before we know it, creativity is harder to access. It becomes something we obsess about, a draining task instead of a renewing force. As research shows, we need to remember that we are at our most creative when we set aside time to sleep, play, and enjoy the process.
Similarly, when we are in a hurry to see the reward of our creative efforts, it’s easy to forget the value of letting our work, whatever it is, settle. Actors can come back to a scene the day after rehearsal to find the notes now make more sense. Artists and writers that allow a ‘cooling off period’ return to their work with fresh eyes, ready to make corrections and improvements. Audio and video engineers that leave an individual track come back to it with music or effects that enhance a scene, creating a deeper emotional connection with the audience. During the creative process, taking a step back from your work often culminates in taking a leap forward in the quality of your project.
The mind and body need time away from a project to process information and see the work objectively. As a creative, give yourself and your project a little downtime. Sleep. Meditate. Read. Travel. Bake. Take your rest in whatever way works best for you. Don’t be in a hurry to get to the next scene, book, or note. Create time for rest and it will create time for you.
I've been thinking about creativity lately. I've been rolling around in my head questions about what makes a creative and how creatives fuel that side of themselves. I've delved into books, pulled up websites, watched TED talks, talked to creatives I know, and from what I can tell, everyone has a different process, a way that works for them that may not work for anyone else.
The writers I know often say they are inspired by books they have read or places they have visited. Artists tell me particulars colors or patterns strike them as fun to play with. Musicians have chords or modes they gravitate towards. Comedians and actors observe human nature. Designers find....well, I'm not quite sure yet. I haven't gotten a chance to ask yet.
In my completely unscientific research, I've made a few general observations:
Harley Easton is a Renaissance woman dabbling in everything life offers. She's worked at a theme park, found expert witnesses, been a guest lecturer at a national museum, and worked with medical students. Putting experience and insanity to good use, she's become an author specializing in erotic, romantic, and speculative fiction.