January 5, 2016

Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon

I’ve mentioned before that some of my writing soapboxes are that all ideas are recycled and if you want to become like the greats, learn by copying and imitating them, so Kleon’s book has appealed to me since I first heard about it. Lucky for me, my awesome CP bought the book for me for Christmas and moved it way up on my to read pile!

Overall message, scope, or purpose of the book:
Steal Like an Artist focuses on ten ways that you can “steal” from successful artists in order to improve your own craft. The ideas aren’t particularly new, but I think that the presentation and many of the perspectives are.
Favorite take-aways:
I’m not going to list the ten steps—go read the book!—but I will point out a few of my favorite ideas.
·      Questions are often more important than answers – He talks a lot about surrounding yourself with your heroes, discovering everything you can about different processes, and always asking questions. MY FAVORITE quote in the whole book is about letting your curiosity rather than “research” dictate your direction. He says: “Google everything…You’ll either find the answer or you’ll come up with a better question” (19).  Brilliant. I wish I could go back and use that phrase in every freshman English class I ever taught about writing research papers.

·      Even if there are no new ideas, you make them new – I’ve often used the phrase “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Well, he shot down that quote immediately. He made the idea even better. He says, “merely imitating your heroes is not flattering them. Transforming their work into something of your own is how you flatter them. Adding something to the world that only you can add” (41).

I love that the entire book is about recycling ideas and transforming them into something unique that only YOU can add. He doesn’t downplay the importance of individuality—he celebrates it as if each artist is a link in a very important chain.

·      Be boring – A lot of artists talk about travel and socializing and clinking whiskey glasses with the Hemingway wannabes of the world. While Kleon does mention the need to get out and travel and see new places and perspectives, he also focuses on the realities of life. Money. Health. Logging progress. Carrying a notebook. The nuts and bolts that allow you to actually succeed and stay sane while doing it. I appreciated this insight. It wasn’t depressing—it was a way of saying, here’s how to stay happy and grounded while pursuing the arts (in which many people are depressed).

·      The book is SHORT – It’s a small book with not very much on each page—a few thoughts from Kleon, a quote or two, an artsy diagram—BUT it’s packed with insights. Like I said at the beginning, it wasn’t anything particularly new, but Kleon’s take, at least for me, was eye-opening and optimistic. He made me excited about creativity. He made me think about my own processes and what doesn’t work and why. He made me eager to read the book again—and because it’s so short, that isn’t hard to do!

·      Readability – The book flows well, and it’s interesting and insightful. I loved every second of reading it—both times. Kleon is smart and funny and seems like a guy you’d want to have lunch with.

·      Perspective – I love that this book blends the feel-good type writing books with a lot of practical application. I finished reading the book, thought about it for a few days, and then read it again. It gave me some great new insights about the creative process, and it left me feeling excited about my own goals again. Sometimes I finish reading a craft book and feel overwhelmed by all of the ways I’m failing. This one gives a lot of bite-sized goals that anyone can use to improve their creative life a little bit at a time.

·      The book is SHORT – Yes, this is a pro and a con. I loved the brevity and fast pace, but there were a few ideas I wished he’d gone more in depth on or made connections better. One example is where he draws a diagram of lines. He starts the page talking about all ideas being a remix, then says “here’s a trick they teach you in art school…” Draws two lines, mentions the negative space as its own line, and then moves on to talk about genetics. Of course I can deduce that the negative space is your own work—the space combining the two lines—or other ideas, but since I’m reading his book, I wanted to know what HE meant by it. There were a few places I wished he’d gone into a little more detail with examples or explaining what he meant by examples that were there.

·      Quality – The second time I opened the book—after I’d had it less than a week—it fell apart. The binding popped and pages came out everywhere. I was sad. I love the content, so I’m sure I’ll keep it on my desk like a weird version of one of those calendar cubes where you pull off a page each day, but I wasn’t at all rough with it, and I wish it had lasted longer. Like, at least through the second read.

What it adds to the Writing Conversation:
Like I said, the idea of imitation isn’t new, but Kleon distills it and gives examples in ways that no other person has (that I’m aware of). He’s succinct, entertaining, informative, and I finished the book feeling like I had some great new tools to become a better creative type. It even made me brush off my old drawing tools to see if I have any residual talent in that area.

Buy, Borrow, or Pass: Buy it. Now. Just do it. It’s an inexpensive little book, and I guarantee at some point in your life, you’ve paid much more for far less.

I liked it so much that I ordered the companion workbook. I’ll let you know how that goes once I’ve had a chance to get into it.

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