Friday, March 16, 2012

Steal Like An Artist

I like Sophie’s carefree creativity. It’s as refreshing as it is amusing. But is it completely original? Much as I love the little bunny, I’m going out on a limb here when I say, no. Bear with me and follow the logic.

Children are natural mimics. They have to be - it’s the way they learn most new skills. They don’t just hatch and begin to use a spoon, or speak fluently, or ride a bike. They copy, they imprint, they absorb, and then they make these skills their own. Sophie’s wonderful sense of story is most likely an amalgamation of all the countless stories Claire has read to her, of the funny songs maybe her daddy has sung to her, and yes, to a great extent it's due to her incomplete understanding of how things really work. She has a foundation to base her fantastical, whimsical, yarns on. She didn’t pull the ideas from thin air.

Pablo Picasso once said, “Good artists copy and great artists steal.” His friend, Igor Stravinsky, said much the same: “A good composer does not imitate, he steals.” Two men with the same sentiment — two great creative minds who understood that creativity started with a kernel that might not have been wholly original with the creator.

There’s a fine line between inspiration and imitation. One is acceptable, one is not. One is considered inventive, the other infringement. What makes Sophie’s stories inventive is that she has taken an idea - say the story of the Three Bears - and made it her own by putting them in diving suits & air tanks and giving them a picnic in a coral reef. Pure genius! But the Three Bears? She’s seen those furry critters before, hasn’t she?

Writer and artist Austin Kleon wrote a book called “
Steal Like An Artist.” Seems contradictory, dirty, wrong, doesn’t it? We don't steal ideas, we're much more noble than that. Kleon makes his case, and I think it’s a good one. His argument goes something like this:

Good Theft will honor the original idea, while Bad Theft only degrades it.

Good Theft makes a study of it, understands the bones of it. Bad Theft only skims the surface and has no real understanding.

Good Theft steals from many. Bad Theft steals from one.

Good Theft gives credit where credit is due. Bad Theft plagiarizes, claims credit.

Good Theft transforms the original into something wholly new, perhaps better. Bad Theft only imitates poorly, shallowly.

Good Theft is “a remix” of the old and the new, a blending of ideas. Bad Theft is a “rip off.”

I don’t particularly like the word “theft” here. It’s a negative word. But I understand what Kleon is getting at. We all get our inspiration from somewhere, or something, or someone. We’re not living in a vacuum. In fact, it’s quite the opposite in this age of lightening-fast exchange of ideas. We can’t help but be influenced by the things we see, hear and read. That influence can be used in powerfully creative ways, or it can be misused miserably.

Steven Johnson, author of
Where Good Ideas Come From, says that “Chance favors the connected mind.” Successful creativity is the direct result of being connected to those sources that inspire and drive you, that challenge you, that feed your intellect. (Remember Kleon's "Good theft steals from many?") For Johnson, creativity is the result of many sources, over time, coming together to create lightening.

Sophie hasn’t got all the connections we adults have. But she has the raw, unfiltered imagination to use what connections she’s been given. If a 3 year-old can do it, then we can too. Go ahead. Steal like an artist. Or a preschooler.


  1. Hmm. Well, I do get your hypothesis, and I agree there's a basis to believe that even 3-year-olds are often expressing what they've absorbed from elsewhere. I see this nowhere more than in her imaginary friends, who are described in detail, and do and say things that surprise me greatly because I can't think where she would have seen or heard them. For a while we thought she was channeling some psychic power or something- and then we realised she was amalgamating what she'd read in books and seen on TV.

    But as to the stories she invents herself- obviously they're slightly derivative, because stories are the way she understands her own world, and especially because the application she's using is one that features pictures of characters from her favourite TV show. When she stops to think what's going to happen next, she's drawing from those sources for inspiration.

    But on the other hand, she's perhaps not doing so as much as you might interpret (g). She's heard the three bears story- but for Sophie, that's not the three bears in that picture. That's one bear- Big Ted. Yes, you can see three of him, but for her there aren't three. He just happens to be there three times. I admit, it's hard to get my head around at times. I think she sees them as alternate personalities of the one bear- kind of like the good me who eats salad for lunch, and the bad me who follows it up with ice-cream and cookies.

    So, not so much a case of arguing that she's entirely original, but a reminder that especially at this age, it's all about the interpretation. And for her, three days later the same picture can tell quite a different story. It's that flexibility that's particularly interesting :)

  2. I was fairy sure I'd mangled Sophie's interpretation of the bears. (Sorry Sophie!) But the point I was hoping to get across was that no matter how old we are, or how creative we hope to be, it's all about making connections and drawing inspiration from them.

  3. I love that idea, of making connections. Some people write in more of a derivative style than others - reading Neil Gaiman's short stories, I can see this a lot. Each story seems to be written either in his own voice, or in the style of a different author he was inspired by. Mostly homage-like. It's neat! I wonder if I could do that many different voices?

  4. Have to laugh at the whole "imitating" the voice of authors you admire b/c I've done it - subconsciously. I look back at some of my stuff and I can see who I was influenced by at that moment in my writing journey. I haven't done it as an homage - but could. It would be fun. :)