Welcome to the first Author Toolbox post of the year. Today I’ll delve into one of the topics I enjoyed most during my MA in Creative Writing: Stealing like an Artist.
Controversial, right? Actually, studying Austin Kleon’s book and TED talk on Stealing like an Artist was pretty inspiring. Kleon wrote Newspaper Blackout, a book of poetry made by crossing out words in newspaper articles with permanent marker.
Kleon grew up to love newspapers. His parents subscribed to them, and his uncles were reporters. It was no surprise he turned to newspapers when he had writers block after college, blocking out words in articles to form poetry, but when he published his first book of poems he received comments that his work was unoriginal.
On further investigation he found a 200 year tradition of finding poetry in newspapers, from William Burroughs, who cut up newspapers and rearranged the words to make poems, to Caleb Whitford in the 1760’s, who rearranged lines.
Instead of being discouraged Kleon carried on writing, because he realised nothing is completely original. All creative works build on what came before, and most stories are a remix or mash-up of two or more previous ideas. What can we learn from this? Don’t be discouraged if similar ideas have been done before.
An (artistic) family tree: Surround yourself with things that inspire you.
One of the concepts I loved was the idea of an artistic family tree. Kleon says we all have one: A list of influences on our writing and art. Just like we are a remix of our parents and ancestors, our writing is a mash-up of everything we love.
Kleon’s artistic tree contains artists and writers who’ve influenced him. Mine is full of characters and worlds, rather than the people who created them: TV shows, role-playing games, uplifting music, and some books. Do these things inspire me and influence my writing? Of course.
Stealing like an artist:
Ideas are everywhere, especially in the stories we consume. Kleon believes we should surround ourselves with the best ideas, things we admire, and collect those that resonate with us. Carry a notebook everywhere. Note your favourite parts of stories. Take the ideas you love in new directions and combine them with your own to make something new.
Kleon claims successful artists are those who transform the ideas of others, and he makes a good point. 50 Shades of Grey began as Twilight fanfiction. BBC’s Sherlock modernised Conan Doyle’s classic work. There are countless re-tellings too, from Robin Hood to Peter Pan.
Is stealing OK?
We debated this at length in our university forums, and we agreed we hated the word ‘Steal’ and the negative connotations it has. We preferred ‘remix’ or ‘transform.’ Most of us agreed with Kleon when he said there’s good stealing and bad stealing:
To back up his point, Kleon quoted T.S Elliot, who said immature, bad, poets imitate and deface what they steal, and mature, good, poets turn it into something better, or different. It’s never okay to copy someone else exactly. If you like a concept, use it, but transform it and make it your own. It’s believed J.K Rowling got the idea for a magical boarding school from the Worst Witch, but she added her own flair with her characters and plot in the Harry Potter series.
I’m heavily influenced by the stories I love, and I adore fanfiction. I love experimenting with other writer’s characters, and they often inspire my original stories. BBC’s Merlin encouraged me to write my own take on Arthurian Legend: I loved the show but I wasn’t thrilled with the ending.
For me, writing is taking the best parts from the stories I love and combining them with my own ideas to make something awesome. I often ‘remix’ like an artist, and if, when I’m published, someone loves my stories enough to be influenced by them, I’ll be flattered, not offended.
Don’t be afraid to steal like an artist. Use whatever inspires you in your work, and don’t worry if you’re borrowing aspects of other stories, so long as you’re not duplicating them or copying anything specific (like Death Eaters or the Ender Dragon). Don’t be discouraged if similar ideas have been done before. You’re you. Anything you write will be unique to who you are.
Write the stories you want to read, take something that resonates with you from everything you read or see, combine that with your own ideas, and create amazing stories!
Kleon’s TED talk is fun to watch and goes into more detail. His book is available on Amazon.
Thanks for reading!
What do you think? Is ‘stealing’ like an artist okay? What is your artistic family tree? Let me know in the comments 🙂
This post is part of the Author Toolbox Blog Hop, hosted by Raimey Gallant. Next month I’ll focus on villains in TV and Film. To read more posts in the hop, click the image below:
The new hop rules make it easier to participate: Participants can choose to post every other month, and editors, cover artists, illustrators and others can now join us. I’ll probably post most months, with the exception of May when I’ll be sobbing over deadlines again!