Atomic essay #11 - Stealing like an artist

Recently, I read Austin Kleon's Steal Like an Artist, which discusses in simple terms ideas to inspire creative work.

Recently, I read Austin Kleon's Steal Like an Artist, which discusses in simple terms ideas to inspire creative work. His central idea is that too many creatives think that inspiration happens like a seductive cuddle from the Muse; in fact, inspiration, he argues, comes from stealing from other artists and the world around us.


Apprentices learn from watching masters closely. At the beginning, a real novice might simply try to copy stroke-by-stoke or stitch-by-stitch. There's nothing wrong with this, but if we're to really create something that's our own, we need to study the thinking behind the creation, not the creation itself. As Kleon puts it: 'Study the thinker, not the work.'

Naturally, we do need to be careful here. I don't believe we should be putting any artist on a pedestal. If we're thinking about disciplinary English we're on shaky ground, because how you feel about the writer (or a given writer) depends on what critical frameworks you ascribe to. Instead, then, this approach is about looking closely at how an 'artist' has crafted something well, and trying to parse what made them create that thing in the way that they did. It's therefore advisable to study thinkers and artists one admires – though, through close interrogation, one might unearth things one doesn't like, and one might change one's perspectives entirely!

All of this is part of the nature of the fun. When one imitates like this, one commingles ideas from the imitated subject with one's own self. What ends up being created from this is 'new'.

This approach is a useful starting point for anyone who wants to create anything, and if I think back over anything I've created, I can trace the influences. In the more gauche juvenilila I can see lots of copying – oh, that time when I tried to be Bret Easton Ellis! – but in the 'better' works I can see how I've learned from the works I've studied. Anything I write is a remix. We aren't a long way from T S Eliot's 'Tradition and the Individual Talent':

“The poet's mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.”

Further, if you're a teacher, you can apply this to your own modelling. Model your thinking to students – make your creative processes explicit to them, then hand it over to them. (You can read more about my approaches to this here.) But there is more – we teachers should encourage our students not just to follow our modelling, but make them aware that there is so much out there for them to study, imitate, feel things about, and muse upon. The more they read, watch and experience, the more diverse ideas they'll encounter. How a teacher can do this is another matter, one I'll continue to ponder. But, I think, for all of us that wish to create, we can start by looking at something already and ask ourselves a very simple but very useful question:

What can I learn from this?

Stay curious. Make things. See what happens.