Steal Like an Artist

About a year ago, I was at the day job (web design), when a link to a blog post made it’s way around the office via AIM.

The post was basically one man’s manifesto when it came to creativity. He listed out ten things he wished he knew when he was starting out as a writer and artist. I remember the simplicity of his statements — practical, to the point — but also incredibly insightful. Small things we often forget when we are  knee-deep in The Creating or overwhelmed by The Doubts.

I remember nodding my head in agreement to nearly everything in that blog post, and then just the other day, while I was at B&N, I saw his book on the shelf. That blog post (by Austin Kleon) has been turned into a lovely little book: Steal Like an Artist.

I bought it, took it home, read it in under an hour, and experienced the euphoria I had reading the original blog post all over again. I wanted to jump up and shout, “Yes! This! Exactly this!”

This book is a little piece of genius and I think that Every. Single. Person. leading a creative life ought to read it. Or at least flip through a couple pages.


Let me give you a sampling.

The book opens with a quote from Pablo Picasso –“Art is theft.” — and then goes on to discuss how nothing is truly original. How every idea is simply a re-imagining of previous works. Kleon says:

“Some people find this idea depressing, but it fills me with hope…If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.”

Oh my goodness, yes! Nothing is new. Everything is borrowed and expanded upon. From here, the idea of “stealing” is introduced. And not stealing as in plagiarizing. That is bad. BAD! Plagiarizing is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Kleon instead talks about “copying” as a method of practice, as a way of finding yourself.

“Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying.”

He talks about surrounding yourself with the work of the artists you love, and the work of the artists those artists love, and studying everything. Embrace those artists. Emulate them. Try to create not only as they create, but to see as they see. Get inside their minds. The goal of copying is to see the ways in which you can’t be those artists because they are them and you are you. Kleon says this much better than me:

“Copy your heroes. Examine where you fall short. What’s in there that makes you different? That’s what you should amplify and transform into your own work.”

And then Kleon gives the most basic advice: Start making stuff. Just start! He talks about how “imposter syndrome” often holds people back. (I know for a fact that I struggle with this daily.) So what is “imposter syndrome?”

“The clinical definition is a “psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments.” It means that you feel like a phony, like you’re just winging it, that you really don’t have any idea what you’re doing.

Guess what: None of us do. Ask anybody doing truly creative work and they’ll tell you the truth: They don’t know where the good stuff comes from. They just show up to do their thing. Every day.”

YES! It’s like he’s in my head. I do feel like a phony, a hack, a sad excuse for a writer. I don’t know what I’m doing, and that’s OK. No one does. Every writer face doubts and fears. They sit down and create without knowing the answers — from the NYT Bestselling author, to the child picking up a pencil to draft their very first story.

The rest of the book became a sort of surreal reading experience for me, where I felt like Kleon was sitting in my office, speaking directly to me. Everything I need to hear when I’m lost in revisions or slogging through a first draft or swimming in the Vortex of Self-Doubt and Loathing for any number of reasons was in this book.

Sometimes these words of encouragement were written:

“There are no shortcuts. Make stuff every day. Know you’re going to suck for awhile. Fail. Get better.”

“We’re drawn to certain kinds of work because we’re inspired by people doing that work. All fiction, in fact, is fan fiction. The best advice is not to write what you know, it’s to write what you like…write the story you want to read.”

“Don’t worry about a grand scheme or unified vision for your work…What unifies your work is the fact that you made it.”

“You can’t go looking for validation from external sources. Once you put your work into the world, you have no control over the way people will react to it…Not everybody will get it. People will misinterpret you and what you do. They might even call you names. So get comfortable with being misunderstood, disparaged, or ignored–the trick is to be too busy doing your work to care.”

And then there were the doodles — you can see a bunch more here — interspersed between all the brilliance:

While I’ve summarized the book in this post, it’s nothing like the actual experience of reading it. Between the simple statements, sketched visuals, and conversational tone, it’s almost as if Kleon is speaking directly to you. This book is honest. And beautiful. And real. And it’s just good advice. For a creative life, but for life in general.

But of course, as Kleon points out on the very last page:

“Some advice can be a vice. Feel free to take what you can use, and leave the rest. There are no rules.”

Isn’t that the truth?

I’m giving away a copy of this little beauty. Use the form below to enter, or learn more about the book on Kleon’s site. (Giveaway is US only.)

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