Great Artists (and Writers) Steal

Great Writers Steal

This is Day 6 in the Great Writers series.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but stop trying to be so original. Your genius is hiding in someone else’s ideas, someone else’s project.

You’re so consumed with being creative that you’re neglecting the first rule of creativity:

Just create something.

When a reporter asked Bono how U2 got their unique sound, he replied (to paraphrase), “We were just trying to copy everyone else, but we weren’t good enough. This is what came out.”

Stealing 101

Good artists copy. Great artists steal.

A good writer curates. She scoops up all the little pieces of inspiration around her, melding and mashing them, putting it all together in a hodgepodge mosaic that makes something new.

Sometimes, we don’t even realize we do this, but we all do it. Great artists borrow from other artists. They meld together pieces of the chaotic mess we all call life, and they end up with a whole new creation.

So today, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to steal.

The challenge

Find a quote or a painting or some form of inspiration — and steal it. Make it your own. Attribute it — give credit where it’s due — but don’t be afraid to use it. Let someone else’s work springboard you into your own.

Give up on your pursuit of originality and genius and just find something that inspires you. Borrow from your friends and heroes and mash it all up into something that looks, feels, and sounds like you.

Who knows? You may find a style all of your own. You may even find — as Bono did — that a whole group of people end up copying you… as you copy someone else.

The irony is thick, ain’t it? Crazy, but it works. This is all art is — piecing together enough random pieces that you eventually have something original.

Professionals are comfortable with this; they embrace it, while amateurs waste their time trying to being creative.

So let’s hear from you: What’s something you’ve stolen recently? Where did you find the inspiration? Share any relevant links, pieces, whatever in the comments.

Update: If you’re blogging through the series and want to share your work each day, you can do that here: Great Writers Link Up.

211 thoughts on “Great Artists (and Writers) Steal

  1. Jeff – whoah! This totally works! Speaking of stealing… I went on my daily evening walk an hour ago to find something that inspires me along the way to write about. As I was walking and reflecting on this challenge, I GOT IT! I “stole” YOUR idea and made it my own :). Let me explain – as I began to look around for something inspiring, it occurred to me that that’s very easy. In order to take this challenge to the NEXT level, I began to look for the most mundane thing and challenged myself to find inspiration in THAT. Next thing you know I’m taking pictures with my phone of the most ordinary things that suddenly looked different… that stood out. I was amazed! So there – I stole your idea but made it my own! Thank you!! 
    Challenging you all to do the same – “kick it up a notch,” as Emeril Lagasse says. 🙂

  2. There hasn’t been an original thought in thousands of years.  There are simply new ways of expressing the same ideas over and over.

    Copying is boring (for the copier and their audience).  Re-interpreting is intriuging and fun as it’s the old idea spiced up with each individual’s unique world and life views.  And each of us is very different.

    In my land of personal development, there are many thousands of people out there copying the same old ideas.  There are far fewer who have the guts to do it their own way.  There are so many personal development concepts that I’ve read over and over and never really understood.  And then I read something by one of “the few” and the true meaning hits me between the eyes.

    Interpret originally!

  3. Well, I’ve been writing my own stuff instead of writing here, but I did want to say publicly how much benefit I’ve gotten from this series already.  Practical, actionable, and generous! I love seeing how the blogroll has grown!  

    I did declare myself to be a writer — and a photographer. I got up at 4:30 in the morning and wrote for two hours. (That post will show up on Wednesday). After some intense meditation, planning, and work, I’ve revitalized an old blog (, and FINALLY started my blog about my image-making and photography.  I also launched my photo website (even though it isn’t perfect.) So, yes, I’m practicing in public.On my apxos blog, I finished writing a piece I started three years ago (!!) with a quote by Stephen Nakmanovitch about lollipop trees.  Then I came here and found out I’d already finished today’s assignment!Your word “stealing” provoked a smile.  I call it “standing on the shoulders of giants” (which is stealing from Sir Isaac Newton, who stole the idea himself from Bernard of Chartres… and so it goes.) Stealing is a good way to get past a blank piece of paper, and it gives someone else’s voice a chance to be heard and valued.  More love than theft, I think.So thank you, and thanks to everyone who has been writing words of encouragement here.  You’ve given me permission to stop waiting for permission.  I’m a writer, and I’m having fun. I hope you all are, too.

  4. This may sound cliché, but I steal a lot of my inspiration from the Bible. A lot of my posts are based on something I read in scripture. My quiet time is a spring board for creativity.

  5. I’m a little confused. I don’t think I understand. Are we recreating? Or stealing a topic? Or… Im a little confused on this idea. Can anyone explain? Sorry if I sound ignorant. THANKS!

  6. I used a story I read on your blog! Thanks Jeff.

  7. I just earlier today  finished Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, From Cocaine to Foie Gras by Jeff Henderson. Henderson made a similar statement in his final chapters about stealing. Great chefs don’t create from scratch. They start with the basics then add a twist to the familiar. In so many ways, my first novel, “Dark Eyes, Deep Eyes,” takes the stories I’ve heard or read about heaven and hell then blends them into the afterlife journeys of two men.

  8. The Everything is a Remix series is required internet watching

    But even more so, I feel that every artist should read Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist. When I read this book, I feel like the floodgates of creation were opened in my mind. 

  9. How exciting Jeff to see everyone’s comments and enthusiasm. You have created a dynamic writers colony!
    I steal from the bible all the time…do I need to confess? As I’m a devo writer, scripture is often my springboard. But I just posted a blog at in which I quoted a fellow devo writer. He asked “Are you drifting off course?” And my response was my post.

  10.  something i learned from a professor in college:

    take a poem you find interesting, and write it down…backwards. words in reverse order. now read it like a regular poem. sounds kind of silly, right? now look for combinations of words and phrases in this new poem that you find evocative. use them as a jumping off point for your writing.

    this exercise, while it doesn’t always produce amazing things, does force you to think about words and feelings and how closely those two are tied together. also, it’s kind of fun 🙂

  11. Loved the Bono quote! And this advice is so true. We all bring to the table what we’ve read, experienced and been inspired by but your personality and style are going to come out too in your own creation.

  12. Already ahead of you there, Jeff!  I’ve been doing this for a few years now.  I used to carry around a little notebook and would jot down things that really interested me, things that I thought I could change around and turn into story ideas.  Now I do the same thing with   my cell phone.

    Just last weekend, for  example, my husband and I were at the Biblical Arts Museum here in Dallas.  In one wing they had these incredible  sculptures by Frederick Hart.  He takes acrylic, carves it  into geometric shapes that look they came from another dimension, and then somehow gets religious images inside that do cool things.  For instance, in “Omega,” you see the head of Jesus staring at you.  Fine.  But as you walk around the block of acrylic on its pedestal, the head seems to turn around so that it’s looking at you no what angle you view it from!  And since the block itself is carved in a funky shape you can, from certain angles, see multiple faces of Jesus.  It was one of the coolest things I had ever seen, so I whipped out my phone and recorded a little video of me describing it.  Now I’m hoping to incorporate something like it in a sci-fi/fantasy story I’m working on.  Quantum theory says that simply by observing sub-atomic particles, you make them do weird things, like changing their course.  Maybe my artwork, then, will change simply by observing it.

  13. Aw, I see you’re a fan of U2 as well!  I’ve been studying their creative process for quite a while.   Here’s a couple of posts I’ve done on it.

    Writing from emptiness (and this often produces wonderful stuff):

    and U2’s creative process:

    and…. a post using their lyrics to Breathe:

    “A good writer curates. She scoops up all the little pieces of
    inspiration around her, melding and mashing them, putting it all
    together in a hodgepodge mosaic that makes something new.”  That’s exactly what I do — and I love doing it!

    Thanks for the cool post, Jeff.  Give the little one a squeeze. 🙂

  14. When I was thinking about how to approach my subscriber list about changes in my newsletter, I received an email from an Internet marketer that expressed exactly what I wanted to say. I “stole” his email message and tweaked it to suit my audience and situation.  I added a P.S. disclosing the inspiration for that email and urging my subscribers to download his manifesto. That relieved any guilt that was trying to well up inside.

  15. I’ve found my inspiration from “The Valley of Vision: a Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions.” It will serve as a springboard for my picture book which tells the story of Job in rhyme. Getting up at five in the morning is addicting, Jeff!

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