Book Review: Steal Like An Artist

Steal this book. No not that book. This one.

Well, you should probably buy a copy. Just because I stole the copy I am currently reading doesn’t mean you should follow me down this felonious path. In all honesty, I will be giving Anne back her copy, although it is totally her fault I stole it. When you give someone the keys to your house and then leave a book called Steal Like An Artist on your coffee table, what do you expect that person to do? Feed your dogs or something?

Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon is an irresistible little book. Its hand-drawn look and small size make it seem much simpler than it actually is. Kleon actually stuffs a lot of wisdom, inspiration and practical advice in a few pages.

We – both people who see themselves as creative and those who don’t – tend to have odd ideas about creativity. I’m not sure where they come from. Maybe childhood, or more accurately the teen and college years. Creativity is that mysterious magical land where we float free and sit in coffee shops and draw and write and play and think things that have never been drawn, written, created, played or thought before. Creativity is a mood that flits in and out of our lives, unbidden. When it is with us we smoke black cigarettes and wear colorful scarves and stay up all night creating and no one understands us. Because artists! When it is gone, we stare at blank screens and dusty guitar cases and know we will never do anything worth reading or looking at or listening to again. Ever!

Or maybe that’s just me.

Kleon makes the case that creativity is a practice, a habit of mind and body, that everyone should engage in. And he demystifies that practice for us in ten quick chapters.  Three ideas resonated with me.


Steal like an artist.

Stealing is a great attention getting word for knowing and using your influences. There are only so many colors, notes, shapes and words in the world. The key to creativity is not in coming up with something new, but to combine those familiar things in new ways.  Early in my writing life I was frozen by the idea that I needed to be original. I couldn’t write anything because every time I came up with something, I immediately connected it to something else. My fear of “just copying” writers I loved kept me from using what they taught me.

Just last night, I was rereading The Truth, one of my favorite Terry Pratchett novels. In it, he talks about the alchemists’ attempts to turn lead into gold by tweaking the amounts of different elements. “The world is made up of four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. This is a fact well known  … It is also wrong. There’s a fifth element, and generally it’s called Surprise.” How you combine and interpret and build on your influences, that’s your personal element of surprise.


Use your hands.

Since getting my first iPhone this past summer, I have been migrating away from paper. Shopping lists, to do lists, calendars, project planning, writing. These are all things I used to do on paper, just a year ago. I love to plan and for years my go-to tool was a notebook. It contained my to do and shopping lists, my current projects, and my long range plans. It also went with me to every meeting and held random ideas and snatches of things I had heard or seen that I did not want to forget. Every day I would review my notebook and process what needed to be processed.

I didn’t realize how much I had given up until I read Kleon write about the role of touch, smell, movement and sound in creativity. I miss my markers and pen. I miss the sound of pen on paper and the smell of ink. I miss the expansive randomness of the blank page.  I miss them so much that before I even finished reading the book I went out and bought a notebook and some sharpies. I am not sure how I will incorporate them into my digital world, but as a start, I used them to create a draft of this post.


Be boring.

Learn to manage money. Keep your day job. Create every day. Make a plan (be still my heart!). Take care of yourself. Be wise in who and what you connect to.

I have been around creative people most of my life. It has always shocked me how many people use being “creative” as an excuse be bad at all of those things. That’s understandable (if irritating) when you look at creativity as a mood or a different way of being. But if you look at creativity as a practice this excuse making is insanely self-defeating. How can you use your mind, body and soul to create if they are not in top form, or at least decent form?  Creativity may access a crazy, chaotic space, but it does so from a safe distance and is grounded in a safe space.


Like a good movie, Steal Like An Artist saves some of it’s best for the very end. On the last pages, you will find a check list to get you moving (I am still wrestling with the idea of keeping a log book), a disclaimer and outtakes.

No matter what it is you create, get a copy of this book. As Kleon says, your mileage may vary. But I am guessing you will find something worthwhile.


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