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 It wasn’t unique compared to the published and unpublished material she’d seen.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.
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.