If you’ve got a creative block, the vast and wild frontier that is the Internet is both a blessing and a curse: Though there’s bound to be something in your infinite scrolling that will spark an idea for a new project, there’s also the overwhelming sense that everything—every single possible thing—has been done before.
Writer and artist Austin Kleon starts out his new book, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by admitting that yes, it’s true—nothing is original. Accepting that fact, however, is actually one of the first steps to greatness. "If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running from it," he writes, arguing that the idols and ideas you choose to surround yourself with only serve to make your projects more robust. The book is filled with engaging anecdotes and helpful tips taken from Kleon’s experience learning to walk on his own creative feet, as well as quotes and stories from big names, ranging from Gide to Goethe to Questlove.
Kleon took time out of his book tour recently to email with Co.Design about what to do when the ideas aren’t coming, why aphorisms are such good motivators, and why creativity can be so damned elusive:
Co.Design: There is a big market for creative encouragement. Why do you feel people need this kind of encouragement to allow themselves to make, write, and do?
Kleon: Creativity has become a kind of magic that only a few lone geniuses are supposed to perform. Take drawing, for instance—if you give a room of 5-year-olds a crayon and some butcher paper, you’ll get a room full of pictures, no problem. If you give a room full of 16-year-olds a crayon and some butcher paper, you’ll get maybe one or two pictures and a whole lot of blank stares. What happened? At some point, we become aware that there are people who are "good" at drawing and people who are "bad" at drawing. The world starts being split up into those who have it and those who don’t.
There are so few times in our adult lives when we’re given some supplies and the space and the encouragement to make something. During one of my Newspaper Blackout [poetry] workshops, everybody gets a newspaper and a marker and I tell them to just dive in. You’d be amazed at how quickly people take to it. People who don’t even like poetry, they have fun making blackout poems. And the poems! They come up with such great poems. The truth is, creativity is a kind of magic, but unlike at Hogwart’s, any Muggle can learn to use it. A lot of people are waiting for the owl to show up with the invitation. I guess that’s how I see my book.
Your book originated in nuggets on index cards. Why do you think people respond so well to these strong, but often quite objectively simple, statements?
When you get to this world, nobody gives you a owner’s manual. People have been swapping aphorisms for thousands of years. Think about the Bible. Thou shalt not steal. Blessed are the peacemakers. There’s nothing new under the sun. People love a good, catchy, simple sentence that alludes to something deeper. That’s why they love good sentences and poetry and horoscopes and fortune cookies. Advertising copywriters know this better than anybody: "Just do it."
Do you have any particular quote or creative strategy that you find yourself going back to during those long "dark nights of the soul" you mention in the book?
A dark night of the soul usually means I need a good night of sleep. Maybe a couple of them. Now, a dark afternoon of the soul, that’s a little different. A lot of times, I’ll just walk away—literally. Nothing clears the mind like a long walk. A good sandwich can help, too. (Like my dachshund, I’m food- and sleep-motivated.)
You mention having a series of admired-artists’ portraits on the wall in your studio. Who are they?
The cast rotates. I steal from almost everybody I come across. But my favorites, they stick around—to name just a few, I have a picture of Saul Steinberg, a drawing of Charlie Brown by Charles Schulz, and a letter from my hero, Lynda Barry.