Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

How to Be More Creative (without Having to Be Original)

How do we become creative? Do we motivate ourselves to create works of genius? Do we study our way into greatness? No. We do none of that. We steal.

Every Artist is a Thief

As Austin Kleon says,

“A good artist understands that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.”

When I started writing, I wanted to find my voice. But whenever I tried to write in an original style, it wasn’t any good. For a long time, I thought this was what real writers did. They must have been born with some innate talent, some style just waiting to get onto the page.

Turns out, that’s simply not true. We find our voices by writing in other people’s voices. We hone our craft by stealing from the work of others.

Saving history by stealing it

There is an old Irish myth that illustrates this. In the story, a young monk named Columcille steals a manuscript from an abbot in hopes of copying it. When the young monk’s theft is discovered, the abbot demands it.

Columcille refuses, and the case is brought before the high king who demands the monk return both documents. The young monk impulsively tells his father, who is also a king, and what ensues is a battle leaving the abbot dead and the monk plagued with guilt. To atone for his sins, Columcille is banished from Ireland and lives out his exile on a small island named Iona, just off the coast of Scotland.

At Iona, Columcille spends the remainder of his days paying penance through acts of service to the church and western culture. He and his band of monks spend their time copying ancient documents and preserving them for posterity. Like their founder, they copied the work they loved, preserving it for future generations. They were stealing, too.

Iona soon became a refuge of western culture, one of a few sites in the world where art and culture were preserved while barbarian hordes tried to destroy it. The documents those monks copied would prevail through the Dark Ages, saved from destruction and preserved for the future.

A band of Irish monks rescued western culture from near annihilation. How? Not by doing original work. They copied manuscripts of ancient documents, which they inherited from the Romans. And the Romans, of course, stole their culture from the Greeks. While the Greeks borrowed from each other.

And on and on it goes.

Creativity is stealing

Creativity is not about coming up with something new and original. It is about borrowing ideas from a variety of sources and re-assembling them into a better or at least different package.

This process is hard work. It involves studying what others have already done and adapting it to your own purposes.

If you do this well, you won’t merely crib other people’s work and pass it off as your own. You will build upon it, and make it better. But be careful here, as far too many creatives have gotten lost in the pursuit of originality and damaged their work as a result.

Creativity is stealing. When you “steal like an artist,” you follow in the footsteps of history’s greatest creative minds. But before you become an artist, you must first become a thief.

Here’s how it works.

1. Study

First, you must study the work of those who came before you. You must become a student of other people’s work.

When the famous choreographer Twyla Tharp started dancing in New York, the dancer dedicated herself to studying every great dancer who was working at the time. She patterned herself after these professionals, learning what she could from them, copying their every move. “I would literally stand behind them in class,” she said, “in copying mode, and fall right into their footsteps. Their technique, style, and timing imprinted themselves on my muscles.”

Tharp understood that honing her dance skills would begin not with coming up with an original technique, but with copying what others were doing. She imitated the greats and after years of study created a style that was all her own — at least, that’s what people thought.

“That’s the power of muscle memory,” she wrote in her book, The Creative Habit. “It gives you a path toward genuine creation through simple re-creation.”

The way you establish your authority in a certain field is by mastering the techniques of those who are already authorities. And what eventually emerges over time is your technique.

2. Steal

Then you must steal the work. You must copy your way into creativity, deriving your inspiration from others and calling it your own.

For generations, writers have done this by copying the words of their favorite authors verbatim.

Hunter S. Thompson did this with the work of his idol, F. Scott Fitzgerald, when he wrote out the pages of The Great Gatsby to get a feel for “what it was like to write that way.” He also admitted in an interview to stealing more words and phrases from the Bible than from any other source, because he liked the way they sounded.

Great artists do not try to be original. They copy the work of both masters and peers — word by word, stroke by stroke, they mimic what they admire until those techniques become habitual. “Skill gets imprinted through action,” Tharp once said. We create by copying, and as we do, the skill becomes embedded into our memory.

So, how do you do this, ethically?

Well, first you give credit where credit is due. You list your sources. You acknowledge your influences. And you steal from not just one place but many places. And you recombine all that work into a hodgepodge — a mosaic — that other people will dare to call original.

The work of an artist, then, is not so much about creating things as it is about curating them.

3. Share

Finally, you share the work with others. This is the point at which the work you steal becomes generous. If you follow the example of greats artists like Michelangelo and borrow from the past, adding your own artistic flare, you are doing more than borrowing — you are creating.

This is what Jim Henson did when he borrowed his unique style of puppetry from the likes of Burr Tillstrom, creator of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, and other influences. Tillstrom won the admiration of both children and adults with his performances, which involved him standing behind a stage with a curtain to conceal his movements while the puppets acted out the skit. It was a simple arrangement; one Jim would borrow from and adapt to suit his needs. Later in life, he would credit Tillstrom for doing more to bring puppetry to TV than he ever did.

When you steal like this, you are passing something on for posterity; you are paying the work forward. Using the material around and available to you, you end up doing something new. And when people start calling you genius, the best thing you can do is honestly point to your influences.

So, how do you become creative? You start by stealing. It’s just that simple. But simple doesn’t always mean easy.

Who are your creative influences? How can you steal from them to create something original? Share in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • Thanks for your post, Jeff. It’s so easy to waste valuable time and energy on trying to be “original” and then give up all together. Here’s a post I wrote a couple of years ago, but come back to often to remember: I’m planting seeds, not building monuments. Have a great one!
    http://www.amylaynelitzelman.com/seeds-not-monuments/

  • Awesome Jeff! Thank you from this Contemplative Monk 😉 What a story! You nailed me!

  • darinshrock

    This is great Jeff! I tend to feel pressure to be completely original, and it’s an impediment to good work. Thank you for your insight.

  • Jeremy

    “The actual and valuable material of all human utterances is plagiarism”: http://themundanemuse.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-actual-and-valuable-material-of-all.html

  • Lindsay

    Thank you. I needed to hear this today. I get so caught up in trying to re-invent the wheel that I forget that my interpretation of other’s work is often much better.

  • Diane Young

    Everything’s already been said. You just have to find a fresh, new way to say it.

  • frank fusco

    To steal from many is called research. To steal from one is called plagiarism. Great article, Jeff, and thank you for making my “research” meaningful.

  • This article is awesome. I’m feeling very inspired. My influences are V.C. Andrews, Harold Robbins, and Jackie Collins.

  • “When you steal like this, you are passing something on for posterity; you are paying the work forward.” I loved that sentiment, Jeff. Great piece!

  • Kevin Ford

    Jeff, this is brilliant..and true…we step up on the shoulders of who came before us….as our children and future generations shall, hopefully, have our creations to grow forward from.

  • The painter Richard Diebenkorn idolized the painter Henri Matisse. So much so that he “borrowed” certain themes, palette colors, etc in his work. And yet it was different. One can see the influences, but also the originality of Diebenkorn. We steal, then we modify. Another great post, Jeff. Thanks!

  • I’m totally going to steal this blog post!

  • Gary Markham

    Thanks Jeff for this message as I have thought of stealing from those who influence me but thought it was wrong. My influences are Brad Thor, Joel C. Rosenberg, Tom Clancy, George Lucas and JRR Tolkien

  • rharrell

    Good, thought-provoking article. Thanks. My influences include the Bible (Years of memorizing verses do not go to waste), JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, the Brothers Grimm – and a host of others.

    I have experienced this in another medium. At university, my major was sacred music with a conducting proficiency. A few years later I was choir director for my church, and my brother – who had gone to the same university – visited the church. Following the service, he remarked, “It was fascinating to watch you conduct. There were certain things you did that came directly from your professors. For different motions I could say, ‘That’s Dr. Garlock, that’s Dr. Gustafson, that’s Dr. Gingery, etc. – but the way you put it all together and added your own stuff made it uniquely your own.”

    That, it seems to me, is the key to “ethical stealing”: you make it uniquely your own and pass it on to others.

    • I like those influences!

      • rharrell

        So do I. I came to CS Lewis through his non-fiction work. The very first book by him that I ever read was “Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature”. Tolkien’s introduction to “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” inspired me to try writing some alliterative poetry of my own. As a German teacher, I read Grimms’ Fairy Tales in the original German.

  • Shelly Gandhi

    Very interesting and thoughtproviking article…even if you are highly gifted having an army of artists your respect and/or admire in your head keeps the motivation on….i try to write and find it very difficult to not copy the writers I read (becasue they are so good)…so I prefer not to read specially close to writing…I instead prefer to maybe look at indirect inspiration from music, sport, business or visual artists…it makes the writing easy and is not copying…nature, future are all untold stories waiting to be imagined

  • Michael Adewunmi

    Thanks for writing this Jeff. I have always thought that I need to write things totally on my own. I have heard the statement “steal like an artist” before now but I just don’t know how.

    Eachtime I think about it, it’s always wrong to me. This post cleared the air and Its clear many great artists have done this before.

    I tried to stop studying the work of awesome writers because I thought they had their voice and I’m supposed to keep struggling through blank screen to find mine. This is daunting especially for newbies.

    Thanks for sharing this Jeff. Great article on “stealing” ):

  • And reading this just immediately cleared my writers block, cause now I know what to do!

  • As of now my creative influence is Vsauce host Michael Stevens. I am working on a video which I will probably do with his style and presentations.

  • Tammy Herzig

    Feeling like I have to be original is the ultimate creativity buzzkill

  • Jay

    When I happened upon the writer I consider one of my strongest influences, Calvin Trillin, I not only enjoyed his style and subject, I also had an “aha” moment: in his voice I heard my own. It resonated with me and pushed me to begin writing my own content, honing my voice over time.

  • Danielle Bernock

    You are one of my creative influencers and I stole from you here. How did I do? http://www.daniellebernock.com/loves-manifesto/

    • You did great!

      • Danielle Bernock

        thanks!

  • Ben Weaver

    Thanks for this, Jeff! I’m still very new to this whole “writing thing” and my inspiration doesn’t have to be as inspiring as I think it does.

    • You’re welcome, Ben. Thanks for reading!

  • Courtney Edwin Gary

    Hi Jeff, I prefer to say that imitation is the best form of flattery. When I love an artists work, be it music or word, I imitate it as though it is my own. I look at it as a surfer on a great wave driving him ashore…he uses the energy to reach is objective.

  • Charles Robinson

    Hi Jeff, Very good post, and very true. But perhaps a better way to describe the process is a saying we had 50 years ago when I was working on my PhD (and probably before that) – “Stealing work from one person is plagiarism, stealing from many is research”.

    • Very witty, I might steal that saying from you 😀

      • Charles Robinson

        Research, my dear Smith, research.

  • At least now I feel better about sharing other people’s works on chronic disability as I encounter a great writer’s work!

    • Oh, yeah. Sharing (with credit) is always good.

  • I just apologized to the blogger of MyShrpa.com, for stealing the title of his e-book, The Millennial Way. My e-book is entitled The Life Major Way at thelifemajor.com. He replied to my apology email, by stating he stole the title of his e-book from Jeff Goins. The point of my story is that this world is too small for anything to be original. And, I agree with Jeff’s blog post, stealing is the best way to create great work!

    • Oh, wow. That’s amazing! I love it.

  • Sam Carlson

    One of my greatest influences is the late Wallace Abbey. People who knew or worked with him thought he could do anything. He was an executive for a rather large railroad, and at a difficult time. A few years later, the difficult times were gone. Shortly after, he became editor for a national magazine that was at the top of its field. He wrote some excellent pieces. But what influenced me is his writing style. It was a light hearted writing style, often humorous, and easy flowing, even when the subject matter was dead serious. He wrote a few books, and I have one. It’s called The Little Jewel, and it’s very comprehensive. No, it’s not fiction; just the opposite – it’s all fact, and well researched, leaving no stone unturned. Yet the light hearted, humorous writing style shows through. Latch onto a copy if you can, and start reading it. Mr. Abbey’s fine writing style shows up in the first sentence.

  • Hey, Jeff. I really admire your article. The best artist is a person who can steal the works from many favorite authors and curate it into a creative result. I used to think too high of being an original writer on my blog but time is the game changer. Now, I start to think about being a great artist which change the way of my writing.

    Here’s a post that inspired by your article but talks about content writing tips that don’t have to be new.

    https://www.hanibuku.com/awesome-content-writing-tips/

    I just wrote this post after reading your excellent article! Is this stealing like an artist?

    Thanks for your awesome article! I’m officially a Thief 😉

    • Congrats! And thanks for stealing. 😉

  • Trin Carl

    I like this article Jeff. It’s like the movie “Pursuit of Happiness.” The character didn’t just get to the top by making phone sales to everyone on the list. He made it to the top by making calls more efficiently, skipping lots of low valued customers and reaching out to high potential ones instead.

  • Good point Jeff. The word stealing is a bit harsh but it’s normal. It’s just a matter of being even more creative and making a better content.