Austin Kleon [ Mindset ] I like to start out all of my talks saying that all advice is autobiographical. It’s one of my theories that when people give you advice they’re actually just talking to themselves in the past. And this book actually is a book in which I am talking to a previous version of myself. I wrote it all down as if I could stick it in a time machine and send it to the 19-year-old me.
One thing I always like to say is YMMV, your mileage may vary. There are no rules. You take what you need and you leave the rest. As the man said.
Before I talk about “Steal”, I wanted to just talk about, talk quickly about my first book “Newspaper Blackout”. “Newspaper Blackout” started in 2005 when I was right out of college and I was facing a horrible case of what we call writer’s block. I would sit at my desk all day and stare at that Microsoft Word screen and the little cursor would just kind of blink at me like it was taunting me. And writing had once been a great joy for me. It had once been a great amount of fun and now it wasn’t fun anymore. So one day I was sitting at my desk and I looked at the recycle bin and I noticed a huge stack of newspapers. And I thought to myself, I don’t have any words and right there next to me are millions of them. So I thought it might be okay if I stole a couple. This is what I did, I took one of the markers I used for drawing and I started making boxes around interesting words that jumped out at me. And I started connecting those words into little phrases and funny sayings. And when I was done I blacked out everything I didn’t need. And this is kind of what they look like after I scan them into the computer and play with the levels a little bit. It almost looks like as if the CIA did haikus. And I called them newspaper blackouts.
And slowly, ever so slowly over time I would post them to my blog or in my blog and they would get mentioned from other blogs and kinda spread around the Internet. And eventually we collected them in the first collection of “Newspaper Blackout”. And that came out about two years ago.
I really thought I was ripping off the government. That’s John Lennon’s FBI file on the left and a blackout poem on the right.
But as happens on the Internet when you put your stuff out there, you hear from your readers. And I got a lot of e-mails and comments from readers telling me just how unoriginal my idea actually was. And the fella they pointed to the most was the brilliant British artist Tom Phillips. In the mid-60s Tom Phillips walked into a bookstore, picked up the first book he could find for three pence and took it home and he started marking the pages much like I do in “Newspaper Blackout”. And he’s actually done this for 40 years. And his work is incredibly ornate, some of the pages get very beautiful and colorful and they are very intense. And the project is called a humument if you want to look that up later.
So the funny thing was I started doing some research into Tom Phillips.
And it turns out that he actually got the idea from reading a 1965 Paris review. A review with the writer William Burroughs. Burroughs was talking about his cutup method of writing in which he took a piece of existing text, cut into pieces and then rearranged them so he got new combinations of text. And he called that the cutup method.
What was interesting when I started researching Burroughs is I found out that he actually got the idea from his buddy Brion Gysin. Brion Gysin was preparing a canvas for one of his paintings and he sliced through a stack of newspapers and he saw the way the strips looked and the different word combinations that came out from rearranging those strips. And what he thought was this might be an interesting method of making poetry.
But the more research I did, the more I found out that there was actually a fellow who had made poetry from the newspaper even before then. Tristan Tzara in the 1930s. He walked up in a Paris theater with a hat and a newspaper, cut up the newspaper into pieces put the pieces in the hat and pulled them out one by one and read them as if they were a poem.
I traced things all the way back to the 1700s. To a neighbor of Benjamin Franklins called Caleb Whitefoord. And what Whitefoord would do, back in those days the newspaper was very new so the columns were very skinny and the text small. So what Caleb Whitefoord would do is he would sit in the pub with his buddies and he would read the newspaper allowed but he wouldn’t read the columns top to bottom he would read across the columns. And he would get all kinds of funny combinations and new juxtapositions.
So not only was my idea totally unoriginal it turns out there’s a 250-year-old history of finding poetry in the newspaper.
But instead of getting depressed. Instead of stopping there, I decided to keep on and steal everything I could from those people that had come before me.
And that is where the second book comes into play. Every artist gets asked the question where do you get your ideas. And the honest artist answers “I steal them.” How does an artist look at the world ? Well, first you figure out what’s worth stealing . And then you move onto the next thing.
That’s about all there is to it.
And when you look at the world this way you stop worrying about what’s good and what’s bad. There is only stuff worth stealing and stuff not worth stealing. Someone once asked David Bowie if he thought himself to be an original. And he said, “No, not at all I’m more like a tasteful thief”. He said that the only art he’ll ever study is the stuff that he can steal from.
Everything in the world is up for grabs with this worldview.
If you don’t find something worth stealing today you might find it worth stealing tomorrow or a month or a year from now.
The writer Jonathan Lethem, he has said that when people call something original 9 times out of 10 they just don’t know the references or the original source material involved.
There was another writer who said, “What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.”
What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.
This itself is actually not a new idea. It’s right there in the Bible. Ecclesiastes chapter 1 verse 9. “That which has been is what will be done and there is nothing new under the sun.”
Now some people find this idea completely depressing. But for me it’s always filled me with hope. As a French writer Andre Gide put it, “ Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening the first time everything must be said again .” See I think if we are free of 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 .
I have this idea that every new idea is just a remix or a mash up of one or more previous ideas.
This is a little trick they teach you in art school, you can play along if you want to. You draw a line on a piece of paper. And then you draw another line parallel to it. Well how many lines are there on the paper? At first you think there’s two, there’s the first line you drew and there’s a second line you drew. But then if you look in between them, there is a line of negative space running in between them. One plus one sometimes equals three.
And here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Genetics. You have a mother and you have a father. You possess features from both of them but the sum of you [Video Skip] You’re a remix of your Mom and Dad and all of your ancestors. And just as you have a family genealogy you also have a genealogy of ideas . We don’t get to pick our families but we can pick our teachers. And we can pick our friends. And we can pick the music that we listen to. And the books that we read. And we can pick the movies we see.
Jay Z actually talks about this in his really great book “Decoded”. And I’m gonna read you a passage from that. He says, “We were kids without fathers so we found our fathers on Wax and on the streets and in history. We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves.”
See you are in fact a mash-up of what you let into your life. You are the sum of your influences. The German writer Goethe says, “We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.” I actually think, I think human beings are collectors but I think artists are especially. Not hoarders mind you. There is a difference. You see hoarders collect indiscriminately and artists collect selectively. They only collect the things that they really love.
There’s also this economic theory out there that if you take the incomes of your five closest friends and you average them the resolving number will be pretty close to your own income. Well I actually think this is true of our idea incomes . You’re only going to be as good as the stuff that you surround yourself with.
My mother used to have this phrase, she used to say, “Garbage can and garbage out.” And it used to drive me insane. But now I know what she meant. Our job as creative folks is to collect ideas. And the more ideas you collect the more you can choose from to be influenced by.
The filmmaker Jim Jarmusch this is what he says you should steal. And this is kind of a long passage I’m gonna read it because I think it’s really great. He says, “Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversation, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows . Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work and your theft will be authentic.”
Now Marcel Duchamp he said, “I don’t believe in art. I believe in artists.” I think this is actually a pretty good method for studying your discipline. If you try to devour the history of what we do all at once, you’re gonna choke. So I think the best thing to do is to start chewing on one thinker you really love. Completely saturate yourself with their work . Study everything there is to know about that thinker.
And then you find three thinkers that influenced your favorite thinker.
And find out everything you can about them. And you repeat this as many times as you can. You build your own family tree and then you climb it as far up as you can go. And then once you build your own family tree it’s time to start your own branch.
See I think seeing yourself as part of a creative lineage will help you feel less alone when you start making your own work. I actually hang pictures of my favorite artists in my studio and a lot of them are dead so they’re almost like friendly ghosts kind of urging me forward in my work. It’s a lot less creepy than it sounds. The great thing about dead teachers is they can’t refuse you as a student. You can learn whatever you want from them, they left their lesson plans in their work.
And I also think it’s really important to school yourself because school is one thing and education is another. The two don’t always overlap. The RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan, I once listened to him on Fresh Air which was strange enough but he said this really brilliant thing. He said, “Rather I went to school or not I would always study.” And that’s the key, whether we are in school or not it’s always our job to get our own education. You have to be curious about the world in which you live. You have to look things up, chase down every reference. Go deeper than anybody else. That’s how you’ll get ahead .
Always be reading.
Go to the library, there’s magic in being surrounded by books. Books are the cheapest, easiest way to steal ideas. And there’s magic in being surrounded by them. Get lost in the stacks, read bibliographies. It’s not the books you start with it’s the book that book leads you to. Collect books even if you don’t plan on reading them right away.
The filmmaker John Waters, he says “There’s nothing more important than an unread library.”
And you have to have a way to save your thefts for later. I recommend that everyone carry a notebook and a pen with you wherever you go. Paper doesn’t crash. You don’t have to charge paper. Get used to pulling it out and jotting down your thoughts and observations. Copy your favorite passages out of books. Record overheard conversations. Doodle when you’re on the phone. I also have this theory that artists need pockets, creative people need pockets.
The artist David Hockney, he actually had all his suit coats tailored so he could fit a sketchbook in there. And the, the other advise that you have to keep in mind with pockets is that you always want to check your pockets for ideas before you do the laundry.
Keep a swipe file. A swipe file is just what it sounds like a file to keep track of the stuff you swipe from others. It can be digital or analog. It doesn’t matter what form it takes as long as it works. You can keep a scrapbook, cut and paste things into it. Or you can just take pictures with your camera phone. See something worth stealing put it in the swipe file. Need a little inspiration, open up your swipe file.
Newspaper reporters they actually call this a morgue file. And I like that idea even better because you’re morgue file is where you put all the dead stuff that you’re gonna reanimate later in your work.
In the end you don’t want to feel bad about your theft, always keep in mind Mark Twain’s advice. He said, “It is better to take what does not belong to you than to let it lie around neglected.”
And I also think it’s really important after you start on your path to creative thievery to not wait until you know who you are to get started doing your work.
If I had waited to know who I was or what I was about before I started being creative well I’d still be sitting around trying to figure myself out instead of making things. In my experience, it’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are . Were all ready, let’s start making stuff.
You might be scared to start and that’s natural.
There’s this very real thing that runs rampant in educated people and it’s called imposter syndrome. Now the clinical definition of imposter syndrome is it’s a psychological phenomenon in which people see, in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. But what it really means is it means you feel like a phony. Like you are just winging it. That you really have no idea what you’re doing.
Well guess what, nobody does.
Ask anyone doing truly creative work and they’ll tell you the truth. They don’t necessarily know where the good stuff comes from. They just show up and do their thing every day.
There’s this word called dramaturgy. And it’s actually a fancy term for something William Shakespeare spelled out in his play “As You Like It”, about 400 years ago. He said this. He said, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and entrances and one man in his time plays many parts.”
Another way to say this, “Fake it till you make it.” I actually love this phrase. There are two ways to read the phrase “fake it till you make it”. One, pretend to be something you’re not until you are. Fake it until you’re successful, until everybody sees you the way you want them to. Or number two, pretend to be making something until you actually make something. I actually love both readings, you have to dress for the job you want not the job you have. And you have to start doing the work that you really want to be doing.
I also love this book by Patti Smith called “Just Kids”. It’s a story about how two friends who wanted to be artists moved to New York City and became artists. And you know how they learned to be artists? They pretended to be artists. And my favorite scene from the book, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, they go down to Washington Sq. Park in New York and they’re dressed in their Gypsy gear. And everybody’s hanging out and this old tourist couple comes by and starts gawking at them. And the woman, she taps her husband on the arm and she says, “Robert take their picture I think they’re artists.” And the husband says, “Ah get out of here they’re just kids.”
That’s where the book gets his title.
The point is that all the world is a stage. Creative work is actually a kind of theatre. The stage is the studio, your desk or your workstation. The costume is your outfit your painting pants, your business suit or that funny hat that helps you think. Your props are your tools and your material. A laptop. This script is just plain old time an hour here, an hour there, just time measured out for things to happen. That’s what a script is. And the best way I know of going about faking it till you make it is to start copying .
Now nobody is born with the 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 . Now we’re talking about practice here, not plagiarism. Plagiarism is taking someone else’s work and trying to pass it off as your own. Copying is about reverse engineering.
It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.
We learned to write by copying the alphabet. Musicians learn to play by practicing scales. Painters learn to paint by copying the masters. And even the masters started out learning by copying.
Even the Beatles started out as a cover band. Paul McCartney has said, “I emulated Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, we all did.” And McCartney and his partner John Lennon only became one of the greatest songwriting teams in history when they started writing their own songs as a way to keep other bands from copying their set. The Beatles knew what Salvador Dali knew which is, “Those who do not want to imitate anything produced nothing.”
Now copying. First you have to figure out who to copy. And second you have to figure out what to copy. Now who to copy is actually very easy, you copy your heroes . The people you love, the people you’re inspired by, the people you want to be.
The songwriter Nick Lowe he say, “You start out by rewriting your heroes catalog.”
And now the other important thing about who to copy from: You don’t just steal from one of your heroes you steal from all of them . The playwright Wilson Mizner he said, “If you copy from one author its plagiarism. If you copy from many it’s research.”
And the cartoonist Gary Panter has said something very similar he says, “If you have one person you’re influenced by everyone will say you’re the next whoever. But if you rip off 100 people everyone will say you’re so original.”
What to copy is a little bit trickier.
You don’t just want to steal someone’s style, you want to steal the thinking behind the style . You don’t want to just steal the code, you want to steal the thinking behind the code. And you don’t want to look like your heroes you actually want to see like your heroes .
The reason to copy your heroes and their style is so you might somehow get a glimpse inside their minds. That’s which you really want. To internalize their way of looking at the world. If you just mimic the surface of somebody’s work without understanding where they were coming from your work will never be any more than a knockoff.
T.S. Eliot said it best. He said, “Poets steal.” He said, “Bad poets deface what they take and good poets make it into something better or at least something different.”
I’m actually going to end off with a quote from Francis Ford Coppola. He said, “We want you to take from us. We want you at first to steal from us because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that’s how you will find your voice. And that’s how you begin. And one day someone will steal from you.” And that’s the beginning of “Steal Like an Artist.”
PHOTO CREDIT: austinkleon.com