Beyond 10 Books: Thoughts on Steal Like an Artist

Now that the 10 books project is over, I’m ready to start venturing beyond that particular list to start looking at a wider range of books on writing, storytelling, and creativity to see what, if anything, they have to say about the role of research in the creative process. Today I’m starting with Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon.

A gift for a young, aspiring writer

I said once before that, of the 10 most popular books on creative writing, Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott was the one I’d most likely give to an aspiring young writer as a gift. But if I was allowed to go off-list, Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig and Steal Like an Artist would be my other choices.

Steal Like an Artist is more about creativity in general than writing specifically but a lot of the advice here is in line with what you see in typical creative writing books as far as seeking and following inspiration and reading/learning a lot in order to create a lot. The main difference is that Steal Like an Artist is a lot more digestible than a lot of creative writing books, which are more like textbooks or memoirs. It’s a compact book filled with not just creativity-related wisdom but also fun drawings and inspirational quotes. It’s something you can pull off the shelf on a day when you’re feeling particularly uninspired, read in an hour, and feel a little better about creative life.

Which is to say, I don’t personally agree with every piece of advice Kleon gives. For example, he gives some general advice about money that you can’t really argue with but he does invoke the specter of the dreaded $4 latte, which has become the go-to boogeyman of young people’s saving habits, especially now that it’s more like a $6 latte. (Sallie Krawcheck, founder of Ellevest, has a pretty good takedown of this advice called “Just Buy the F—ing Latte” that’s worth seeking out.) Still, Kleon’s overall point about saving money and having a day job are well-taken. I also might have raised my eyebrow at the “Marry well” advice even though he’s careful to make it clear that this could mean anything from a life partner to a business idea. Really, this just seems like an excuse to give a shout out to his own wife (which other writers have noticeably failed to do), so I guess I can’t begrudge him that.

Anyway, another reason this book would make a good gift is because it’s very quotable.

 

“Don’t worry about doing research. Just search.” (p. 20)

So my real interest when I first read this book was to see what, if anything, it might have to say about the role of research in the creative process. The above quote is a little misleading out of context. I wouldn’t say that Kleon is against research in the same way Bridget Whelan, for example, seems to be in her book Back to Creative Writing School. Instead, he brings up research as part of a larger discussion on cultivating inspiration and a sense of what he calls “creative lineage.” In other words, surrounding yourself with good stuff to collect and generate good ideas. He also gets at how curiosity begets curiosity and learning about one artist you like can lead to learning about the artists that person liked and so on.

So telling the reader “don’t worry about research” is more about not putting pressure on yourself to have a specific purpose or aim beyond finding out what you like so that you can find out what you want to produce yourself. You follow a topic because you’re interested in it and it inspires you in some way, not because you feel an obligation to learn everything about it. I suppose an argument could be made that what Kleon is talking about when he says “search” is still a type of research, but I can see the overall point he’s making, which is basically that you don’t have to wait until you know everything before you get started.

 

“You’re ready. Start making stuff.” (p. 27)

This is pretty different from most popular creative writing books, like On Writing and Writing Fiction and Reading Like a Writer, which tend to prioritize discussions of grammar and mechanics before getting to the creative stuff. It makes sense on some level but my own feeling is that if you wait until you know all of that stuff before you get started, you’ll never get started.

So similar to Anne Lamott, Kleon is more about just diving in which is a big part of why their respective books (along with Wendig’s) would top my personal list of recommended reading for aspiring writers, especially those who are really just starting out or otherwise unsure of themselves. It’s like what they say about running. You don’t need the fancy gear or to have textbooks’ worth of knowledge about how the body works to be a runner. If you did, no one would ever run (unless they were being chased). You just have to put one foot in front of the other and keep repeating that until you get somewhere (or come back to where you started which, as Terry Pratchett once pointed out, is not the same as never leaving).

 

“Terrible stories in which nothing interesting happens” (p. 46)

There are so many different takes on the “write what you know” advice. Kleon’s is basically the above, that writing what you know leads to less interesting work. His advice instead is to “write what you like.” Or write what you want to read. The example he uses to illustrate this is that time he wrote his own Jurassic Park fan fiction because he couldn’t wait for the sequel to come out.

First, I was really happy to see fan fiction (fic, fanfic) make an appearance in a book of writing advice and for it not to be referred to as “training wheels” to prepare a writer for “real writing.” I mean, Kleon does kind of imply that that’s the case, but he still manages to avoid being condescending about fan fiction the way other writers tend to be on the rare occasion it does come up. Fan fiction is a legitimate genre unto itself. Nuff said.

Second, every time a writer gives their own spin on “write what you know,” I kind of wonder why they don’t bother to give the reader any sense of the work (aka research) that goes into writing what you don’t know. In Kleon’s case, I think the lack of exploration is excusable in part because, like I said, this is a very compact book rather than any sort of deep dive into the creative process. But also his advice to “write what you like” is pretty firmly in line with his earlier advice related to creative lineage. He gets points for consistency.

 

Go to the library

Kleon does bring up the library a couple of times, first when he talks about collecting ideas and later at the end of the book where “go to the library” is an item on his “what to do next” checklist. Like Bradbury, Kleon treats the library as a place to collect ideas (for inspiration) and also as a place of solitary contemplation, away from electronic distractions. Which, okay. The library comes up so rarely in these books that I’m not about to complain when the two writers who do bring it up have essentially nice things to say about it. But it’s interesting to me that it’s never talked about as a site of research. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising, considering that talk about research is almost as rare as talk about libraries. But still. It’s a strange disconnect.

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