Actually, the title is Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. And it’s fantastic. I can’t believe this book was published in 2012 and I’m just now discovering it. And I discovered it by accident! Every so often I browse my local bookstore and find something great and that’s exactly what happened this week. The cover jumped out at me because a) I love lists b) the book is an odd but convenient size and c) I usually enjoy non-fiction New York Times Bestsellers. The book’s 5×5 size caught my attention because I was hoping that the author, Austin Kleon, championed the same “less is more” attitude I have when it comes to writing. I’m always telling my students that using fewer words is better. Less is more. Kleon agrees.
I knew this book was a solid choice when it started with a quote. I love quotes. Using the words of other people to make a point and/or an argument is something I’ve been doing for years. I constantly used the technique throughout my high school and college English classes and applied it to the countless newspaper articles I wrote for the Glendale Cherry Creek Chronicle.
When the first page of Kleon’s words had something I wanted to underline – yes, I still annotate the books I read and always will – I knew I had found a literary soulmate: “It’s one of my theories that when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.” No truer words. I thought this guy must be my age. Yep! Kleon was born in 1983. In fact, he’s barely three months older than me. And as I continued reading, I realized that, like Surfer Girl described Hank Moody in Californication, Kleon is “just an analog guy living in a digital world.” So am I. An analog girl living in a digital word. (#xennial) Moody’s response to Surfer Girl is, “I might steal that.” Perfect.
In terms of aesthetic, I love the way Kleon integrates his own words and original artwork and photographs with quotes from others. Additionally, his incorporation of black and white charts and drawings allows him to cleverly get his various points across. There is a lot to be said about the power of mixing fonts, stories, and words. In terms of content, because the author keeps things short and sweet, every sentence matters. I found myself underlining and taking notes all over the place – just like I imagine he did while writing this book. He also writes how (I assume) he talks which I find to be the most authentic form of expression.
In section six, Kleon addresses something that I struggle with as a person making a living as a writer: giving away your secrets. Because writing is subjective and not technically a tangible product, I don’t always want to give away my writing methods and tricks. But Kleon has a different take: “People love it when you give your secrets away, and sometimes, if you’re smart about it, they’ll reward you by buying the things you’re selling.” I wasn’t convinced – until the next page where he says, “If you’re worried about giving your secrets away, you can share your dots without connecting them.” Fair enough – but I’ll have to be smart about it.
The gem of section seven is the part where Kleon talks about geography. “It helps to live around interesting people, and not necessarily people who do what you do.” Most of my friends are in the service industry because I live in a resort town and that’s ok. I don’t always need to hang out with writers. On page 109, Kleon says, “write a blog post about someone’s work you admire and link to their site.” That’s literally what I’m doing right now. https://austinkleon.com/
I appreciate Kleon’s ability to use himself as an example throughout the book. Like he says in the beginning, advice is really talking to yourself in the past. On page 124 he explains that he takes jobs that allow him to learn skills he can use in his work later. I’m going to steal that advice and pass it along to my students. Also, who doesn’t love a fun fact? Apparently, Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat using only 236 different words, so his editor bet him he couldn’t write a book using only 50 different words. Dr. Seuss won the bet by writing Green Eggs and Ham which is one of the bestselling children’s books of all time. Less is more.
The best of Kleon’s words:
“All creative work builds on what came before.”
“Whether you’re in school or not, it’s always your job to get yourself an education.”
“You have to be curious about the world in which you live. Look things up. Chase down every reference. Go deeper than anybody else – that’s how you’ll get ahead.”
“Always be reading. Go to the library. There’s magic in being surrounded by books. Get lost in the stacks. Read bibliographies. It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book that book leads you to.”
“Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover where our own thing lives.”
“Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use – do the work you want to see done.”
“The computer is really good for editing your ideas, and it’s really food for getting your ideas ready for publishing out into the world, but it’s not really good for generating ideas. There are too many opportunities to hit the delete key. The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us – we start editing ideas before we have them.”
“The classroom is a wonderful, if artificial, place…Never again in your life will you have such a captive audience.”
“If you ever find that you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.”
“Neil Young sang, ‘It’s better to burn out than to fade away.’ I say it’s better to burn slow and see your grandkids.”
“Live within your means. Pack your lunch…Get the education you need for as cheap as you can get it.”
“The small details will help you remember the big details.”
“In the end, creativity isn’t just the things we choose to put in, it’s the things we choose to leave out. Choose wisely.”
Top 10 Things I learned (or was reminded of):
1) Steal what speaks to your soul.
2) Show up and do what you love to do. Every day.
3) I’m not the only one who comes up with good ideas while walking my dogs.
4) Music matters to a lot of people in the same way it matters to me.
5) Having a good partner helps make me the best version of myself.
6) I’m not the only person in their 30s who brings a laptop and a notebook everywhere.
7) Inspiration can come from the most interesting and accidental places.
8) The power of fonts hasn’t changed.
9) Remixes can be good.
10) Read the books you want to read.
There is something to be said about the fact that I was only halfway through Steal Like An Artist when I decided I needed the next two installments in the Austin Kleon trilogy. Show Your Work and Keep Going are scheduled to arrive via Amazon by tomorrow night.