Transcript for Austin Kleon on "Steal Like an Artist"

Jim Fleming: Read any good books lately? Well, if not, maybe you should write the book you want to read. That's just one of the pieces of creative advice that writer and artist Austin Kleon offers in his book, "Steal Like an Artist: Ten Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative." Kleon talks with Anne Strainchamps.

Austin Kleon: The title is a play off of something that's actually misattributed to Picasso, "Good artists copy; great artists steal." As far as I can tell, Picasso actually never said that, it was actually T.S. Eliot, he was talking about poets. I was shocked to find out how many artist really use that term, stealing, and it's not just artists, it's people of all fields. Someone like Steve Jobs or Kobe Bryant. He talks about stealing basketball moves when he was watching tapes when he was young. Someone like Francis Ford Coppola will say, "You steal when you're younger and then you add something new to the pot and then pretty soon people are stealing from you."

Anne Strainchamps: It's so interesting though because you're talking about people who we think of as some of the great creative geniuses and we have that idea that what's really valuable in art or business or entertainment or whatever your form of art is, what's really valuable is originality.

Kleon: Yeah, and in human history, the whole concept of originality, it's kind of an invention of the nineteenth century. We really don't have this idea of a lone creative genius until the Romanticists really come along. Before, someone had a genius or they had geniuses that kind of like guided their lives, but then when Romanticism comes around we have this idea that there's like this person that's kind of ordained by the gods with this unique, creative ability. I guess my big quest with the book is to just kind of up end that a little bit and to say, "Actually, nothing comes from nowhere," and that all these creative geniuses that we think of, they were all thieves and they all borrowed liberally and they took things and they reworked them and their genius, if you can call it that, that is the way they took their influences and gave us something new.

Strainchamps: So you take this concept of stealing like an artist, if art is theft then there should be a skill to it. And you almost turn it into almost a lifestyle. So, can you start going through some - if you're a young artist starting out and somebody says to you, "No no no, don't worry about being original, just go out and steal," what do you do?

Kleon: Well, it's almost like a conceptual thing. It's almost like a way of thinking about what you do. My big thing that I tell young artists is that you are a mashup of what you let into your life. And that actually comes from something my mother used to say to me, which used to drive me insane. She used to say, "Garbage in and garbage out." That drove me so crazy when I was young, but now I realize that she was dead on. There's a DJ named DJ Spooky and he says, "As a DJ, you're only going to be as good as your record collection." So what that means as an artist or a young artist, you're only going to be as good as the stuff you're surrounding yourself with. And that includes not only the books your read, the art you look at, your teachers, but it also includes your environment, where you choose to live, your friends, it's everything. You're literally a mashup of what you let into your life.

Strainchamps: Ok, well so as a young person, let's say you say, "Great, I'm gonna make sure all the music I listen to is really great music and I'm only gonna read the best literature." Then what? I'm gonna sort of wake up one morning and make great art?

Kleon: I think what happens is after you start gathering your influences, then you start copying. And we're not talking about plagiarism here. We're talking about learning the moves. Like, if you're Kobe Bryant, you watch the tapes. You know, you see Jordan's moves and then you try them out on the basketball court. Now what happens is, as you try to copy these heroes, you start realizing that you're not quite built like them. I'm using the basketball metaphor because I think it's easier. You start realizing that you're body's different. That you have to start adapting. You're incapable of perfectly copying these heroes. That you have to make adjustments to suit your own personality. The stuff that you have, through your life influences, starts seeping in. And then, after you start copying your heroes, you start combining them together to get interesting combinations. And then finally, I always think of it as like you take something form one hero and you take something from the other and pretty soon you have this Frankenstein monster of your work. And then part of your job is to start transforming that monster into something smooth, something that kind of stands on its own.

Strainchamps: At what point did you begin doing the newspaper blackout poems?

Kleon: The newspaper blackouts started right after I got out of college. You know, I studied creative writing in college. I actually did go to, like, creative writing workshops. And, the thing about creative writing workshops (and about college in general) is college is this perfect environment for a young writer because you have a captive audience. You've got people paying to read your writing, your fellow students. And then you've got professors getting paid to read your writing and pay attention to it. So you have, like, what every artist or writer dreams of: this captive audience. And then when you get out, you realize no one cares. You know? That you, like, have to start from ground zero and you have to build a readership and you have to do something that people aren't artificially paying attention to you. And so, when I got out of college, I had no outlet anymore. And I just froze up. And I submitted a few short stories to journals and got rejections just like every young writer. And I suddenly realized that I was writing short stories, I mean, I like short stories, but that really wasn't what I wanted to do. I wrote short stories because that's what they teach you to write in college. So, I started a blog and one of the things about having a blog is that you have to fill it with something. And one day I was staring at my Microsoft Word screen and that cursor was just blinking at me, like it was taunting me, you know? And I was trying to pull something original out of my soul and I looked in the recycle bin with all these newspapers stacked up in it and I thought, "Man I don't have any words, but right there next to me are millions of them." So I picked up one of my drawing markers and I just started circling words and blacking out the rest. I thought I was ripping off the government. I thought I was doing redacted CIA haikus, but it turns out there was this long history of people finding poetry in the newspaper. After I started posting them to my blog, people started telling me there was this long history. But instead of getting discouraged that my idea wasn't completely original, I built my own family tree. I research the form. I went back as far as I could go and I stole everything I could from the people who came before and I tried to make my poems better. And in a couple of years I put out my first book, "Newspaper Blackout."

Strainchamps: Do you remember one? Can you recite any?

Kleon: Yeah, probably one of my favorites, or kind of a fan favorite is called "Overheard on the Titanic." It was actually a music review and it's very short, but it goes: "I mean yes, we're sinking but the music is exceptional."

Strainchamps: Austin, when you give these talks to young people now, what do you say at the end?

Kleon: The thing I say at the end is: YMMV. Your Mileage May Vary. I say, there are no rules, have fun, make up your own rules. Take what you can from me, steal what you can, and make your own thing.

Fleming: Austin Kleon is the author of "Steal Like an Artist: Ten Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative." He spoke with Anne Strainchamps.

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