Two weeks ago we went to Boswell Book Company to see writer/artist Austin Kleon, who wrote a really nice book called Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, published by Workman this year.

The book’s premise is contained in this T.S. Eliot quote in the preface:

“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.”

Joan Didion, from the cover of The White Album

Steal Like an Artist does not condone plagiarism; Austin Kleon means something quite different. “What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere,” he says. “All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.”

This statement should bring relief to the writer, painter, poet, designer, musician. It does to me.

I know it’s an old notion, but look at Lady Gaga, who’s often accused of stealing from Madonna. If she had held out for a truly original idea, she’d still be waiting and maybe have produced nothing. Millions of people would have missed out.

I’m not a fan of Gaga, but that doesn’t matter. What I admire is the sense (or nerve) she took to be influenced and to press forward. “All creative work builds on what came before,” says Austin.

He goes on to paraphrase writer Jonathan Lethem, who “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.”

John Cheever, from the cover of The Wapshot Chronicle

For Lady Gaga, Madonna is a reference, an original source. Madonna in turn had her sources. If we were to trace back through them all, as Austin maintains in his book, we would see that their ideas have a history.

Whether Gaga has stolen, defaced, imitated, or turned what her sources did into something better or worse, I will leave up to you to decide for yourself.

The point is: There is a lot of magnificent stuff worth stealing. Identify it and who does it. Study those people, their work, figure out how they do what they do. Then practice it until you feel your own voice come through.

In his visit to Boswell, Austin told us about the eight, nine artists and writers he copies. He has pictures of them hanging in his workspace. He encouraged us to do this too.

Going up in mine: John Cheever and Joan Didion, without a doubt. Stephen King too, who is often dismissed as a genre writer. But his writing is clean and vibrant and beautiful and I would love nothing more than to be able to write like him someday.

Centuries of time have passed. We in 2012 have no hope of creating anything truly original anymore. But we can take from those artists we love, and bend, twist, and shape what they do into something that reflects our voice, our aesthetic.

Who are your heroes?


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