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
– Austin Kleon
On my last birthday wish list was Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon. I was looking for a creative kick in my artistic butt. As many artists do, my productivity comes in waves–usually immediately prior to a deadline. By the time I’m done working every spare moment on my project right up to (and sometimes a bit beyond) the deadline, I’m so burnt out I don’t want to see my studio for at least a couple weeks. Then, it’s a guilt-laden battle to get back into the creative groove. That’s where a good book about making stuff comes in handy.
Like Steven Pressfield’s War of Art, Steal Like an Artist is a great read to get you out of that slump of self-doubt, guilt, and worry that we artists find ourselves in. Now, it’s been a while since I’ve read War of Art, but as I was reading Steal Like an Artist, I got a more laid-back overall vibe from Kleon than I did from Pressfield. Kleon was much less the drill sergeant telling us to steel ourselves for battle, and more the sagacious dude saying, “Hey man, don’t worry so much. Just do your thing.”
Steal Like an Artist is a quick read (I read through it in about an hour) full of great quotes from artists and creators and fun illustrations. I even dog-eared some pages to steal Kleon’s ideas–especially how he sets up his studio. While the first couple chapters are indeed about stealing creatively, half of the rest of the book is about not worrying about the stuff that we artists tend to worry about: being original; making Great Art; staying focused; validation; being the “artist” personality. The other half of the book is about what you do with the ideas and concepts you’ve stolen.
In light of what I had to say in my first post about how many Christian music artists were unoriginal in their work–that they basically ripped off secular bands–you might have come to the conclusion that I don’t like Steal Like an Artist. Not true. Kleon makes an important distinction between what he calls “Good Theft” and “Bad Theft.” Good theft goes beyond imitating a style to imitating a way of thinking. “If you just mimic the surface of somebody’s work without understanding where they are coming from, your work will never be anything more than a knockoff” (p. 36). And not just one way of thinking. Good theft takes from many influences and compiles and reconfigures those ideas into something new. This is what artists really do. No one, aside from God, truly Creates. We, at best, synthesize existing materials and concepts into something revolutionary and coherent. Steal Like an Artist neatly summarizes how to chose your heroes, draw inspiration from them, and use that inspiration to find your own voice.
Beyond that, this book is full of great tips and reminders to fuel our creativity and actually make stuff despite our busy lives. One thing that really encouraged me was what Kleon calls “Productive Procrastination.” This is not playing video games (at least not for me). One of his suggestions is to pay attention to your daily life and find things that are really boring but give your mind the space to spawn good ideas. “I love ironing shirts–it’s so boring, I almost always get good ideas” (p. 67). Another iteration of productive procrastination is having side projects and allowing them to feed each other and your primary art. This was great for me. I’ve got a spastic brain–it comes up with ideas for a million different things in a million different fields. Like starting a blog when I have trouble staying in the studio long enough to make any art…. But that’s OK. In fact, I’ve found myself more motivated and inspired to get into the studio since being intentional about posting just one thing a week. Which highlights what Kleon was talking about.
Steal Like an Artist has a number of things in it that I will definitely be implementing in my own creative life. This book has lots of great pointers for anyone who wants to be more productive and creative. For costing only about ten bucks and taking about an hour to read, it’s an excellent boost for the person needing a little creative encouragement.
For more from Austin Kleon, got check out his blog!