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.