How to Be Creative? Steal a Little

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Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. - T.S. Elliot

You don't need to be a genius, you just need to be yourself. That's the message from Austin Kleon, a writer and artist who believes creativity is everywhere – especially in the age of the Internet. Kleon got his start in 2005 when he was fresh out of college and suffering from an epic case of writer's block. "I couldn’t come up with any words, so I looked at the stack of newspapers in the recycle bin next to my desk and figured I’d steal some." The result was Newspaper Blackout, a best-selling book (and site) of art and poetry made by redacting newspaper articles with a permanent marker. Brilliant.

More recently Kleon has written another best-seller called Steal Like An Artist - an illustrated manifesto for creativity in the digital age. Kleon's central tenet: "nothing is completely original. All artists' work builds on what came before. Every new idea is just a remix or a mashup of two previous ideas."

Steal Like An Artist grew out of a talk Kleon was invited to give to students, which was a list of 10 things he wished he'd heard as a young creator. (#6 is The Secret: Do good work and share it with people.) As future young creators all over the country leave schools for the summer and look for their calling, it seemed like a good time for a creative reality check.

Has the Internet changed everything when it comes to being creative? Not everything. It’s still ridiculously hard to do really good work. What the Internet helps you to do is get that really good work in front of a large group of people at a very low cost. It’s a tool you can use to form a posse, regardless of your geographic location, and it helps you to let that posse into your process, to open up and let your posse influence your work. It can also be an enormous waste of time. Like all tools, it’s not good or bad — it just depends on what you use it for. I certainly can’t imagine having the career I’ve had without the Internet.

Now that you've started the #stealacrossamerica tour, are there any new rules you'd add – or any you'd change? Christopher Hitchens said the great thing about writing a book is that it puts you in contact with people you should’ve talked to before you actually wrote it. He said being a writer is “a free education that goes on for a lifetime.” One thing the Internet does it let you come into contact with more of those people, and what you can do is extend the life of a book after it’s released. I think Steal is a perfect package of my thoughts when I wrote it, but I feel like the book is continuing to evolve online — people send me quotes, I find new quotes, I have new ideas — and I tweet and blog that stuff. It’s never finished. A glance at my Steal Like An Artist tag will show you what a new edition might look like.

What's the one thing you'd encourage everyone to do to be more creative? Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started. A lot of people think they need to have something to say or know where they’re going before they do something creative. The opposite is true: it’s through your work that you discover who you are and where you’re headed.

You quote Kobe Bryant in your book: “When I go out on the court I’m honoring all the guys that I stole from who came before me.” Who are you honoring when you steal? I steal from everybody, but especially my heroes who have nailed the art of pictures and words, together: Lynda Barry, Kurt Vonnegut, Saul Steinberg, Charles Schulz...

What have you stolen lately? My friend Clive Thompson just used the term “tag surfing” to describe browsing people’s blog tags. I love that phrase, and I’m stealing it.

Your cartoons are optimistic and fun. What are your personal favorites and why? My favorite work is always the work I haven’t done. It’s perfect because it isn’t here yet.

If you were a Venn diagram what would it say? Pictures. Words. The Web.

Follow Austin on Twitter @austinkleon.