Steal Like an Artist

A good friend of mine recently loaned me this excellent (and short) book, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by writer and artist Austin Kleon. In it, Kleon lists the things he wished he’d learned in college, things like “Don’t wait to know who you are to get started,” “Be nice (the world is a small town),” and “Creativity is subtraction.” As you can tell from some of my earlier blog posts, I’m especially fond of that last one. Limiting your options and stripping your work down to its essence are great ways to raise the quality of your output.

Obviously, with a title like Steal Like an Artist, Kleon spends a good part of the book talking about stealing (er, borrowing) effectively, and has great advice about doing so ethically and in a way that serves you and your work. His central thesis is that nothing is original and all great work is inspired by something else. The trick, he says, is to borrow things you can legally and ethically use, like techniques, moods and colors, and then work with them until you make them yours. Don’t try to become John Williams, take some aspect of his work that moves you and filter it through your personality and experience. Learn from him and then move on.

One specific technique Kleon discusses (also embellished upon here in his Tumblr) is to use your inability to remember something perfectly to copy an idea and make it your own. I find myself doing this frequently—if I hear an unfamiliar piece of music and feel inspired by it I’ll quickly turn off whatever it is I’m listening to, often before the musical phrase has finished. This way I can’t even be 100% clear about what the notes were. I’ll then work from my memory of what I thought I heard. The coolest part is that I often find out later that that my recollection was quite different from the phrase I actually did hear. When I listen to the two side by side I’ll find that I’ve ended up in a very different place.

Before reading Steal Like an Artist, I felt like I shouldn’t be too open about using this technique. I knew my results were unlike their inspiration and I was always careful to never plagiarize or violate copyright, but I still thought that the technique was a dodgy one at best. Now I know it’s a fairly well-known method for stimulating your creativity. Thanks, Austin!

As I mentioned earlier, the book is short (I read it in an hour or two), but despite its length it’s absolutely full of entertaining advice and ideas. Being both a writer and an artist, Kleon is great at making pretty much the entire book general enough for all creative types, composers and musicians included. I never felt like I was being excluded from the party as I have with some other books on creativity. Thanks again to my friend Tommy for turning me on to it and I will definitely be getting a copy for myself.


  1. Joel Douek

    I once heard Carter Burwell explain his approach to temp, which is very similar to this discussion: listen to it only once, then just start writing.