Here’s what I wrote in the “School Yourself” section of Steal Like An Artist:
School is one thing. Education is another. The two don’t always overlap. 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.
Like the RZA said, “Whether I went to school or not, I would always study.”
Whether you’re going back to school or not, learning is the verb of life, and it’s always time to school yourself.
My kids and I are big fans of Jon Klassen’s hat trilogy. Our current favorite read is Triangle, his book with Mac Barnett. My 5-year-old was thrilled when I told him there’s going to be a sequel called Square, but when I told him it wasn’t out yet, he got so impatient that he decided he’d write his own sequel, Rectangle.
It reminded me of the Bradford Cox story in Steal Like An Artist:
Bradford Cox, a member of the band Deerhunter, says that when he was a kid he didn’t have the Internet, so he had to wait until the official release day to hear his favorite band’s new album. He had a game he would play: He would sit down and record a “fake” version of what he wanted the new album to sound like. Then, when the album came out, he would compare the songs he’d written with the songs on the real album. And what do you know, many of these songs eventually became Deerhunter songs.
When we love a piece of work, we’re desperate for more. We crave sequels. Why not channel that desire into something productive?
I posted the Cox story on Twitter and novelist Austin Grossman said of his book Soon I Will Be Invincible, “I got tired of waiting for a Watchmen sequel so I wrote one.”
Tired of waiting on a sequel? Write your own and see where it goes.
PS. My 2-year-old hasn’t drawn a sequel yet, but he is working on fan art:
Whenever somebody asks me to draw a line between inspiration and rip-off, I can’t really do much better but send them this chart from Steal Like An Artist. It’s a kind of graphic summary of what T.S. Eliot said in The Sacred Wood (which also serves as an epigraph for the book):
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. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.
In other words, despite the common saying, imitation is not flattery. It’s transformation that is flattery: taking what you’ve stolen and turning it into something new.
I don’t think whether something is good or bad theft is really that complicated. If it feels cheap or wrong to you, it probably is. I advocate an “elevator gut check” for one’s own work: If you met the artist you’re stealing from in a stalled elevator, would they shake your hand or punch you in the face?
Here’s a photo of Steal Like An Artist on sale at a Target in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by my cousin.) Sure, it’s on sale at all kinds of places, including some of the best bookstores and museum gift shops in the world, but there’s a kind of weird fun knowing that my aunt saw my book while doing her grocery shopping and texted it to my mom. (And a kick for my mom, I imagine: There’s not a whole lot of social currency in small-town Ohio when you tell your friends your son is a writer.) Even my wife said she got a little thrill seeing it in our local store.
In this Sunday’s New York Times, Jason Segel gives it a shout-out in his By The Book interview:
The book is 8 months older than my oldest son, and he reads chapter books, writes songs in Garageband, and tells poop jokes. He has a whole life of his own now! So does the book. I was 28-years-old when I wrote it. I’ll be 35 next year. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like it was me who wrote the thing. How strange to see it still making its way out into the world, to have people reading it for the first time. I am lucky. And grateful.
“A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”
One of the quickest ways to develop more original work is to stop stealing from people who are alive and start stealing from the dead.
My advice to people has always been: copy old shit. For instance, the style of Every Frame a Painting is NOT original at all. I am blatantly ripping off two sources: the editing style of F for Fake, and the critical work of David Bordwell/Kristin Thompson, who wrote the introductory text on filmmaking called Film Art. I’ve run into quite a few video essays that are trying to be “like Every Frame a Painting” and I always tell people, please don’t do that because I’m ripping of someone else. You should go to the source. When any art form or medium becomes primarily about people imitating the dominant form, we get stifling art. If you look at all of the great filmmakers, they’re all ripping someone off but it was someone 50 years ago. It rejuvenated the field to be reminded of the history of our medium.
The musician M. Ward once talked about how he doesn’t steal from his peers as much as he steals from their record collections. “I am very influenced by the people who influenced my influences, and I am influenced even more by the people who influenced them.”
A really great artist often needs the attitude of a scholar. She needs to be willing to dig into the past and go deep.
“Don’t live in the present,” was Rebecca Solnit’s recent advice to writers.
Live in the deep past, with the language of the Koran or the Mabinogion or Mother Goose or Dickens or Dickinson or Baldwin or whatever speaks to you deeply. Literature is not high school and it’s not actually necessary to know what everyone around you is wearing, in terms of style, and being influenced by people who are being published in this very moment is going to make you look just like them, which is probably not a good long-term goal for being yourself or making a meaningful contribution. At any point in history there is a great tide of writers of similar tone, they wash in, they wash out, the strange starfish stay behind, and the conches. Check out the bestseller list for April 1935 or August 1978 if you don’t believe me. Originality is partly a matter of having your own influences: read evolutionary biology textbooks or the Old Testament, find your metaphors where no one’s looking…
In other words: steal old stuff.
Where was this one when I needed it?
Can’t see the video? Watch it here→
Took the family to Houston last weekend to see some new Wayne White paintings. (Owen’s first art show!) While we were there, we stopped at the terrific Brazos Bookstore. The folks there were super nice and asked me to be part of #FirstLineVine—so I read the first line of Steal Like An Artist. Shortest bookstore reading ever!
“The key to eternal happiness is low overhead and no debt.”
Anybody who tells people to “do what you love no matter what” should also have to teach a money management course.
Low overhead + “do what you love” = a good life.
“I deserve nice things” + “do what you love” = a time bomb.
A good life is not about living within your means, it’s about living below your means.
When Instapaper creator Marco Arment was asked about his business model, he said, “I sell an app for money, then I spend less than I make.” Sell something for money, spend less than you make. Is there a better model?
“The trick is,” film executive Tom Rothman says, “from the business side, to try to be fiscally responsible so you can be creatively reckless.”
The 80s underground band The Minutemen used to call this “jamming econo.” They knew the music they wanted to make would probably never be mainstream, so they kept their day jobs, made their records for cheap, learned how to fix their own tour van, and hauled their own equipment.
Live frugally so you can do the work you want to do. Save up some “screw you” money, so you can quit a job you hate to take a job you like better. Turn away venture capital money and bootstrap so you can keep control over your business.
To “jam econo” might not be the flashiest way of life, but it’s the best way to stay free.