Much like Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon resonates more with each pass. It is an easy, fun read that lays out the artistic process in such a clear and effective format. This is my second pass through the book and I have only covered the first two chapters, but I feel like this time through, I’m taking the time to digest the ideas in a more manageable fashion. This post is only on the first couple chapters of the book, and in a much more specific way than the first, I will discuss how this book has shaped my perspective on writing.
It begins with a wonderful quote by T.S. Eliot:
“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.”
Ecclesiatstes 1:9 says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Everything we do, say or create is stolen or inspired by something that has touched us at one point in our lives or another. We didn’t create ourselves and we don’t stop growing, changing without the influence of our surroundings.
Kleon’s first chapter, entitled “Steal Like An Artist”, gets to the heart of this idea. It gives the artist permission to steal. We are all the sum of the parts that made us and we cannot deny that anything we create has come out of admiration for the work of others. We find heroes, role models and idols that we want to emulate. Kleon suggests building your own “family tree”. A list of the all the people that inspire your work; then find out who inspired theirs and so on. Keep discovering new sources. I’ve recently been putting this into practice and surprisingly (but upon reflection, it should not be so surprising) most of the artists’ work that I emulate have the same people that they emulated. As you can probably tell from recent posts, I’ve adopted Jason Sherman as my playwriting mentor (whether he is okay with that or no) and I have been devouring his work. I refrained for a long time asking him about his favourite writers and those he admires (it felt like a super cheesy super fan type question), but if I’m going to follow Kleon’s advice, I need to know what people comprise the rest of the branches of my writing family tree. His response was nearly identical to those that were the literary forebears of my favourite writers like Orwell and Hemingway. With so much information at our fingertips these days, it is sometimes hard to know where to look for inspiration; this is what I find so useful about this genealogy of writers, I now have a long list of the works I should be reading (because those are the things that inspired the people who inspire me). Currently, I’m making my way through Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to be followed by Melville’s Moby Dick (both books I’ve had sitting on my shelf for years, but haven’t opened).
Another thing that Kleon addresses in this first chapter is developing an inspiration file to save your thefts for later. It can take whatever form you wish. This is something I’ve been doing for years without consciously recognizing it. Having it brought to the forefront of my mind makes it easier to organize and control. I’ve started to be much more diligent about where I put these thefts (it also helps that I have a blogs that tracks them). I am a very visual person and often my thefts come in pictures, which now go straight into my “Inspiration” file on my computer. Recently, I was given a copy of The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and it changed my life (there is a post coming on it). I have been trying to look at the world as a child would. As I was walking home the other day, I looked up and was struck by the cotton candy sky with popcorn trees: it was early dusk and the clouds were a bright pink on a clear blue sky and since it is spring, the flowers are budding on some of the trees which resemble popcorn. I’ve included the picture I took:
|Cotton Candy Sky & Popcorn Trees
I’ve also started a file on my phone to record interesting traits or characteristics of people I see, quirky dialogue I overhear and anything else that strikes me during my travels. I don’t know what will come of it all, but it is all there... for whenever I need it: like the girl who does wordsearches by colouring in each block with a highlighter; the man who was drawing me on the subway and then self-consciously covered the picture when I walked past to exit or the man with the perfectly sculpted white hair and the large hollow eyes entrenched in the many folds of his wrinkled face that stared forward as if watching some past horror recur in an endless loop just off in the distance.
In Chapter 2, entitled “Don’t Wait Until You Know Who You Are To Get Started”, Kleon address what he calls “imposter syndrome”. This is something I suffer from constantly. The feeling that I have no idea what I’m doing and I’m just a big phony. I asked Sherman a lot about his process and how he goes about writing and his response was “I just write. I get an idea and I write it out.” Well, thanks! That’s what I do as well but that doesn’t make me a writer... or does it? This is the area that Kleon addresses in this chapter: with all things, you just need to keep doing it, you get better at it and eventually you become what you want to be; you just need to start doing it and keep doing it. I read an article in The Guardian recently by James Rhodes, a concert pianist in the UK, which expressed the value of just doing what you want to do very clearly. Rhodes discusses the value of spending even an hour a week pursuing some artistic format that inspires you. He comments about how many people come up to him and say how they wish they could do what he does and his response is do it! You don’t need to dedicate your life to it, but if you have the need and the desire: just start doing it and see where that takes you. Write a page a day, as John Steinbeck says “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” Since we have started the advertising for Empty Boxes, quite a few people have come up and said, “You wrote a play, wow!” For me, I have written a number of plays, I’ve just haven’t done anything about it until now, it has never seemed like anything extraordinary to me. With the same sentiments as Sherman: I feel like writing something, so I do. I just keep pecking away at one thing or another until something ends up finished. It doesn’t have to be everyday or even every month; just when you feel like it and eventually you end up with something that wasn’t something before. I have never felt like I’m a writer. I have no formal training (other than one half-credit course I took in playwriting in university), but now I’m beginning to see that just the act of doing it is enough. I wrote a play. Not everyone has written a play. That counts for something.
How do you do this? Where do the ideas come from? Start by copying. Kleon has a beautiful example in his book where he has hand-drawn 25 stars on a page with the statement: “The human hand is incapable of making a perfect copy”; it’s true, not one of the 25 stars is identical to another. So, no matter how much you try to copy, emulate or imitate your heroes, you will never be able to replicate it exactly. Painters do it all the time. They learn technique by creating replicas of famous works. How did the masters before us do it? Once you learn how they did it, you can know how you want to do it. I’ve used this quote from Maxine Ruvinsky before, but: “After all, in order to break rules for artistic or intellectual effect, you have to first understand command those rules; to break rules because you don’t know them is nothing more illustrious than simple ignorance.” Also, it’s hard! And lonely. Who wants to reinvent the wheel?! Stop feeling like you have to be original or come up with something new. Something new will come out no matter what you do. Even this post: ultimately it is a summary/rehash of other peoples’ ideas with a few hurrah-for-them comments of my own devising thrown in, but it is still original. It is what all of these influences have meant to me and the impact that they have had on my own work that make it my own. I love the idea that I am surrounded by things that I can take ideas from. During teachers’ college, we were encouraged to beg, borrow and steal as many resources from other people as humanly possible. The rationale was that as a first year teacher, you would be too overwhelmed with adapting to the demands of the job, students and parents to have to develop brand new exercises, lesson plans and course outlines without any help. You would go crazy. The entire profession is based on collaboration. It was wonderful. You still adapt anything you take to fit your comfort level with the material or classroom structure, but the bones were there. It is the same in the arts.
I’ll have more about Steal Like an Artist as I continue to work my way through. That’s all for this week!
To read more about some of the things discussed in this post, please refer to the following links:
Austin Kleon: http://austinkleon.com/
James Rhodes article in The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2013/apr/26/james-rhodes-blog-find-what-you-love
John Steinbeck – 6 Tips on Writing: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/03/12/john-steinbeck-six-tips-on-writing/
Art Thief Posts Referenced: