“Good artists copy; great artists steal.” - Steve Jobs
Wait. It was Picasso who said “Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal.”
Or maybe Hemingway? “Immature artists copy; great artists steal.”
No, no. It was Igor Stravinsky. “A good composer does not imitate; he steals.”
Jobs, PIcasso, Hemingway, Stravinsky. Nothing to see here, just a few of the world’s great creative minds playing a game of telephone. Even so, their message is clear: a little intellectual larceny never hurt anybody.
Not if it’s done right, anyway.
Here’s a situation you may be familiar with: A former boss told my team we were all to come up with story ideas they’d never heard before. We needed to bring our readers new stories they couldn’t get anywhere else. At our pitch meeting, it became obvious that for a bunch of creative writers, we sure didn’t have many “new” thoughts. The truth is, it was an impossible assignment.
My hot take? Original ideas don’t exist.
Can you tell the difference between the opening of “Ice, Ice, Baby” and “Under Pressure?” Do you prefer Dolly Parton or Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You?” Maybe you love both. Making music that’s completely original is impossible. It’s also not the point.
The same goes for coming up with a “new” story idea. I once wrote a lede I thought was very clever only to read an old piece by a colleague that started the exact same way. To repeat is human. But stealing (intentional or accidental) doesn’t have to be stale. You can still create something captivating.
My favorite example? Clueless. Yes, the 1995 movie about vain Beverly Hills teenagers rollin’ with their homies. You’d be forgiven for not knowing that Clueless is an adaptation of Jane Austin’s Emma. Today, 25 years later, it’s considered a teen classic. Not to mention the $56.6 million it made at the box office and rave reviews from critics.
Amy Heckerling didn’t love Jane Austen. She didn’t plan to make an adaptation. She just remembered a book she’d read in college and daydreamed how those characters would act in the world she knew. This is how great artists steal.
Take something that’s affected you deeply and bring it to life as your own. Everything artists create is shaped by the books, music, and movies that have moved them. They take all that emotion, innovation, vision, and tuck it away for later. What makes a piece yours is your experiences and your unique perspective.
Here’s an exercise to get you to stop thinking and start stealing. Take a moment to recall a story you love. It can be anything. Don’t worry about whether it’s “important” or high-brow. Whether you love Shakespeare or Step Brothers, start there.
Now, reimagine that story or the emotion it evokes in you. What does it remind you of in your own life? What can you pull from to make the story your own? What is it you love about the piece and how can you retain those elements? Set a timer for at least 15 minutes and create.
This exercise is also a great trick for getting unstuck. Instead of feeling pressure to create something new, let yourself wander in a world you already love. It’s a call that fan fiction authors and cover bands everywhere have gladly answered for decades.
And if you’re lacking inspiration, here are few stories that inspired me in the past year. As creatives, the most important work we can do in our down time is to consume other people’s great work. Then steal with abandon.
Most inspiring stories I read in 2020
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferante
Exhalation by Ted Chiang
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
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