MA Creative Writing Adventures: Steal like an Artist #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

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.

ma writing toolbox steal 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.

Nothing’s original:

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.

artistic family tree
My artistic family tree. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some. I have too many fandoms…

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:

good theft vs bad theft austin kleon
Good vs Bad Theft. Credit to: Austin Kleon’s website

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.

The Verdict?

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.

scales divider copy

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:


Past Posts: MA Writing: Writing Exercises.
Work experience in Publishing at Penguin Books.
Lessons in Storytelling from TV and Film.

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!



  1. Lots of truth here and remixing has become popular with students–where permitted. Luckily, government laws take much of the guesswork out of whether it’s a copyright infringement. Of course, that means we artists have to know the copyright laws worldwide. Yikes!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I was relieved when I realised there were clear government guidelines on copyright. I first came across them when Sherlock aired on the BBC. I was baffled at how they could use existing characters, so I looked into it. Apparently most of the Sherlock Holmes adventures were out of copyright, but not all (Just to make things even more baffling!)


  2. I honestly worry about this, all the time! I feel sometimes like I’ve never had an original idea in my life. Like I’m just stealing plots and ideas and I feel so guilty for letting another work inform mine. When what I’m doing is re-mixing and honoring the things I loved about another artist. Of course I’m not going to take their ideas word-for-word, but even taking them as inspiration made me afraid of being accused of theft. This post is such a relief.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I used to worry a lot too, especially since my current WIP is based on the end of BBC’s Merlin (albeit loosely, but I know that’s where I got my inspiration and chances are fans would too!). The MA has been amazing for boosting confidence and making it clear what we’re doing is remixing not theft. Glad to help 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. We only know what we’ve seen and what we’ve learned. I agree getting inspirations and ideas from what others have written is not plagiarism, as long as you proceed down the left side of your well-composed chart. Old ideas can become new and revised. When in doubt and when the parallels become too close, give credit to those who inspired your writing. As usual, good topic and great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree.
    I think there’s a way in which, if someone calls it stealing, I’m doing it wrong.
    When it’s done well, no one feels that way. Maybe they smile at the homage or nod to other works, or they find it refreshing or frustrating that the story doesn’t go the way they expect, but as you say, they still think of it as “an original”.
    I think part of the difference is between those who set out to recreate, vs those who start with inspiration derived from the original, but then they create in their own space, letting memory and perception transform what they previously experienced, rather than concretely referring back to the original source.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love it when I notice nods to other works in a story, it makes me smile as you say 🙂
      Good point: I always find when I’m inspired by something I don’t want to recreate it, because there are often things I dislike (or downright hate) about the original that I’d never want in my own stories. It’s all about being inspired and making it our own work 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve heard from many that the idea of “stealing” is very Western. In Eastern culture, plagiarism is sometimes the highest form of flattery (this was reaffirmed in my work with a student who was new to the United States and wanted to include verbatim sections in a written report from her sources but had no concept of citation…. anyway, I fully support this – even Shakespeare had his predecessors!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an interesting point. I know in Japan copyright doesn’t seem to be an issue at all. Fan comics (doujinshi) are sold on ebay and in stores, and no one seems bothered, but here that kind of thing would be frowned upon.
      We all get our inspiration from somewhere 🙂


  6. I love the artistic family tree idea. And I think, to some degree, it’s almost impossible not to borrow/steal/be influenced by what we see and read. It always brings this quote to mind: “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own”.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. There are no new ideas, only new ways to tell the story. I’m editing a Cinderella story where Cinderella holds a typically male job that is very physical, which sets her apart from her traditional sisters. Storytelling is about how you interpret age-old themes that resonate with the reader.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I kind of love that nothing is truly original. I still get twitches when I see a scene in a film or TV show that is similar to something I’ve written, not because that’s a bad thing, but because I feel like people will assume I just ripped off the show somehow. At the same time, I love subverting tropes and generally messing with archetypes and cliches. No deep and meaningful reason for that. It’s just fun 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Me too, it was reassuring especially because I’m writing based on Arthurian legend, but inspired by BBC’s Merlin, so when I first started the project I was so wary of being a rip off.
      I agree, messing with cliches and experimenting with writing is a lot of fun 🙂


  9. Ohmygoodness, I LOVED the Worst Witch! I was thinking about it the other day. 💜

    Thanks for this post. I agree (and teach) the concepts that there’s nothing new and ideas resonate. Resonance is one of the reasons similarly themed novels are released within a short time. It’s what you do with the idea that counts.

    I recently wrestled with this idea in a WIP. I decided it echoed Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” enough that readers would likely think the resonance was intentional. When i though about it a while I decided that the poem and my WIP did actually resonate so well that, instead of reworking it, I made the protagonist a fan of the poem, so i’m capitalizing on the connection rather than fighting it. That’s another way to look at this topic.

    Liked by 1 person

Share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s