Artists and creators throughout history have known that, as Pablo Picasso said, “Art is theft.” Every innovator has built on the work of others, using ideas, formats or things in fresh and exciting ways. Originality doesn’t exist. Everything is a confluence of influences, thefts, mutations and interpretations. Even the Bible says, “There’s nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Whether you’re an artist or you’re simply looking to add some creativity to your life, consider these 10 ideas:
1. “Steal Like an Artist”
First, start by looking around for something worth appropriating. If copying, altering or borrowing it has no value, look for another inspiration. Regarding the world through the prism of “Is it worth stealing?” will keep you from wasting time wondering if something has intrinsic or aesthetic value. What matters is whether it serves you. And it needn’t even help you today. Remember what you reject; you might want to pinch it “tomorrow or a month or a year from now.”
“Every artist gets asked the question, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ The honest artist answers, ‘I steal them’.”
Once you acknowledge that what you create will never be unique, any fear of owning and accepting your influences will vanish. You are the sum of your family genetics and of your “genealogy of ideas.” You choose the experts you listen to, the music that moves you, the books that stimulate you, the art that speaks to your soul, and the movies you must see again and again. These influences, along with a variety of others, shape your artistic identity – your creative roots.
“You are…a mash-up of what you choose to let into your life.”
Don’t try to learn the entire scope and legacy of the art you hope to make; you’ll drive yourself crazy with overload. Pick “one thinker – writer, artist, activist, role model” – who profoundly affects you. Learn all you can about that person and his or her influences. Study those influences and learn who influenced them. “Climb up the tree as far as you can go.” Once you’ve climbed high enough, create your “own branch.”
When you’ve established your set of creative ancestors, honor them. Regard yourself as the continuation of their work. Put photos of the artists you love around your workspace. Select what you want these artists to teach you and ignore everything else. Read as much as you can. The books you start out with may not help you immediately, but they will definitely take you to the ones that will help you the most.
“Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.”
Always carry a pen and paper to write down whatever occurs to you wherever you have an idea. Never be self-conscious about it – you are making yourself smarter and more observant. Note the conversations people are having as they pass by. “Copy your favorite passages out of books.” Photograph what catches your eye. Maintain a “swipe file” – a notebook or tape recorder or cellphone in which you store the ideas you steal from other artists and from the world around you.
“The great thing about dead or remote masters is that they can’t refuse you as an apprentice. You can learn whatever you want from them.”
2. “Don’t Wait Until You Know Who You Are to Get Started”
You may not fully know yourself, and if you expend all your energy navel-gazing, you never will. Self-knowledge derives from action – creative action. Nobody can tell you where “the good stuff” springs; it comes from being present and doing your work. Think later – work now.
Behaving like a writer or a musician or an artist will get you to your own style, so “fake it ’til you make it.” Practice makes perfect. Emulate those who inspire you, but don’t slavishly copy their work; because people aren’t able to imitate anything perfectly, the results you get will be uniquely yours. Try to understand your idols’ motivations and worldviews. If you can see the world through their eyes, you’re on your way to getting to the heart of creativity.
“You are only as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.”
3. “Write the Book You Want to Read”
When writers wonder what to work on, other writers or teachers often tell them, “Write what you know.” That is the worst possible advice. Never mind what you know – write what you’d like to read. Write what makes you smile when you read it. Write what makes you want to read more and write more. If you’re stumped creatively, pick whatever is the most entertaining to you – not the hardest or the most profound, but the most fun.
“Don’t worry about doing research. Just search.”
For example, indulge in “fan fiction”: Come up with the sequel to a popular movie or book. Compose your favorite band’s next album. Study your inspirational gurus’ work and figure out where you’d make improvements or additions. “Do the work you want to see done.”
4. “Use Your Hands”
Work produced on a computer is too abstract. To experience all the joy and knowledge that comes from creating, you must use your hands. “You need to find a way to bring your body into your work.” Your brain learns from your body just as your body learns from your brain. Pick up your drumsticks or your paintbrush or your welding torch or just your pen and paper – get the physicality back into your creativity.
“Your morgue file is where you keep the dead things that you’ll later reanimate in your work.”
Author Austin Kleon’s first book was a collection of poetry he made by blacking out lines from newspaper stories with a marker. That gave him full tactile engagement with his materials – cutting newspapers, wielding the marker, combining two different lines to make a third – thus following the crucial creative formula, “1 + 1 = 3.”
“If I’d waited to know who I was or what I was about before I started ‘being creative,’ well, I’d be sitting around trying to figure myself out instead of making things.”
Try making a workspace with two sides, one “analog” and one “digital.” Your computer and electronics live on the digital side. All the work you do with your hands – which can include writing drafts in longhand or drawing cartoons – happens on the analog side. Keeping these worlds separate nourishes your creative impulses.
5. “Side Projects and Hobbies Are Important”
The things you do when you’re avoiding activities you think you’re supposed to be doing will invariably turn out to be your most important work. That’s why you should never restrict yourself to one project at a time. The activity you pick up to distract yourself from your main work may be what your heart most desires. When you have several projects going on at once, you can “practice productive procrastination” on one by working hard on another. And “if you’re out of ideas, wash the dishes.”
“Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying.”
Don’t ignore something you’re passionate about to focus on something else. Your work and your interests can meld to create something totally new. Don’t discard what moves you, including hobbies. A hobby is creative work that won’t bring you money or fame, but “it makes you happy.” If you like to play the guitar, for example, go jam with your friends on weekends. All these aspects – your hobbies, passions and procrastinations – are manifestations of your creative self. “Don’t worry about unity – what unifies your work is the fact that you made it.”
“Your hands are the original digital devices. Use them.”
6. “The Secret: Do Good Work and Share It with People”
When you toil in obscurity, you get to make all your mistakes in private. Plus, you can do whatever you want. Work hard at your art every day. You will get better. And when you do, share it. At one time, you had to find a gallery to show your art or a club that would let your band play or a magazine that would print your articles. Now it’s simpler: “Put your stuff on the Internet.”
Sharing your work online requires two steps: 1) “Wonder at something” and 2) “Invite others to wonder with you.” Think about things and ideas that move you or are on your mind. If nothing’s on your mind, don’t worry: You will find ideas to discuss simply by putting yourself out onto the web. The Internet is a potent “incubator” for work you may not even know you’re about to start. Some people fear that going online will drain their creativity, but it’s more likely that the Internet will inspire you.
“A hobby is something that gives but doesn’t take.”
Absorb and learn all the necessary technical web skills. Create your own website; learn about social media and blogging. Spend only as much online as makes you comfortable. If you don’t want to share your full concepts, instead offer some tips or links to help others. Don’t worry about people poaching your ideas: “You can share your dots without connecting them.”
“You don’t put yourself online only because you have something to say – you can put yourself online to find something to say.”
7. “Geography Is No Longer Our Master”
Location means little today. The world is your world, and the world you make is the world people come to visit. No matter where you live or how alienated you might feel from your surroundings, a community of like-minded souls is only a click away. If the physical world discourages you, create your own realm. Fill your area with art, movies, music and books that make you feel whole. “All you need is space and time – a place to work, and some time to do it.”
And whether you’re ready or not, you eventually have to “leave home.” You must shed your normal routine and most-loved places to go spend time around people who don’t think like you. Going to new places makes you new and makes your “brains work harder.” As for where to go, “bad weather leads to better art,” so consider someplace where the summers are hot and steamy or the winters are dark and cold. Find a place where artists, writers and filmmakers congregate. It helps if the local cuisine rocks. “You have to find a place that feeds you – creatively, socially, spiritually and literally.” And, wherever you go, your online community will still be there.
“Freedom from financial stress also means freedom in your art.”
8. “Be Nice”
The world is so small now that, more than ever, manners matter. If you speak poorly of someone online, they will know it all too soon. To crush your online enemies, pretend they don’t exist. To gain new buddies online, say something kind about them. If somebody makes you mad, don’t respond; head for your workspace and let your anger fuel your work. Find people online who are “smarter and better than you,” and, when you find them, listen to what they’re talking about. If, over time, you come to realize that you are the smartest person who’s doing the best work, find somewhere else to hang out.
“In this age of information abundance and overload, those who get ahead will be the folks who figure out what to leave out.”
You will go through long stretches during which no one will care about anything you do, say, build or post. To get through those lonely days, create a “praise file.” Keep emails or tweets or notes that say nice things about your work. Delete anything unkind immediately. Save your praise file for a day when you’re feeling down or discouraged. Then read through all that wonderful encouragement – and believe every single word.
9. “Be Boring”
The biggest problem with pursuing the myth of the self-destructive artist is that, sooner or later, you will self-destruct. Your energy is precious. Apply it to your art, not to burning yourself out.
Taking care of yourself also means taking care of your finances. “Do yourself a favor: learn about money.” Track your expenditures. Keep away from credit cards, expensive coffee and fancy electronics. If you can’t make a living from your art, employment will keep you sane and properly disciplined: “A day job gives you money, a connection to the world and a routine.” If you cover your expenses, you never have to compromise on your art for money. You can create what you want until your work is so good you can live off the proceeds of selling it.
But how do you find time for your creative pursuits if you have a job? Surprisingly, a routine helps you be more productive, because a schedule lets you identify the finite amount of time you have to devote to your passions. Diligently work that period of time every single day, even on holidays or when you’re ill. Soon enough, you won’t even notice you’re working.
10. “Creativity Is Subtraction”
Paradoxically, restrictions – even conceptual ones – can focus your creativity. Author Dr. Seuss took on his editor’s dare to write a children’s book using just 50 different words; Green Eggs and Ham is now a classic. Cull what’s unnecessary from your work, but leave what’s brilliant. Use what you have now to create. Cut back on your most ambitious ideas. Less is more.