Nothing is original, but that doesn’t mean you can’t create something amazing

How Austin Kleon’s “Steal Like an Artist” teaches people to be better creators

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Photo by Amaury Salas on Unsplash

As a young writer, I used to think that every story I wrote had to be “original.” I was flooded by advice that told me to avoid cliches, to create something new, to make the next big thing.

There’s only one problem with that: it’s already been done.

Regardless of your creative field, one common theme I have found in the world of art, is that nothing is original.

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

— Austin Kleon

The thing about art, is that it is like one big conversation. There is a constant give and take between creators — call and response.

Kleon tells us that artists are constantly mixing and matching the ideas that came before them, taking references and molding them into something new, “reanimating them.”

A classic example of this is Arthur Laurent’s West Side Story, which is a modern take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. While the basic story behind Laurent’s musical is one that most of us learn while in High School, the way he modifies it is what breathes new life into it.

Shakespeare’s original families become rival gangs. Swords are traded for hand guns. A classic play is updated to a contemporary New York setting.

In the writing community, we would call Laurent’s musical a “retelling.” He took the play that Shakespeare had created years before and found a way to make it relevant to his present day audience.

Adding in the modern jazz and Latin music Leonard Bernstein used in order to characterize the two gangs, West Side Story is the perfect example creators building upon works that came before them.

In the writing community on twitter, it’s not uncommon to see authors pitching their novels based off of the works they are similar to, like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and so on.

It’s like saying “if you liked this book, then you will like mine.”

If I had to describe my novel, I would have to say it’s a mix of the anime, Angel Beats, and “If I stay” by Gayle Forman. Already, people who either know of Angel Beats or “if I Stay” will know exactly what they are getting into before they even open my book. They will know to expect a book that will deal with themes of life, death, grief and the choices that we must make in life.

This would be one of the many ways I could pitch Saving Grace when I start querying.

I hadn’t watched Angel Beats before I told my girlfriend about my novel, but when I described the premise to her, she told me that it sounded similar to the anime. After watching it with her, I agreed. I was happy to notice where my novel was similar and where it differed, how I had unknowingly stepped into a broader conversation already happening. I was able to look at my own novel and others like it and see what was going on, and how I could add more of what I wanted to say.

It felt like magic.

Mind blowing, right?

Of course, there will always be those who accuse us of stealing from others — of not being “original enough” for their tastes. You don’t have to look farther than to those who accuse Christopher Paolini of ripping off Star Wars, pointing out it’s numerous similarities — ones that Christopher has acknowledged as well. He was, after all, influenced strongly by numerous works of fantasy and science-fiction.

Of course I was inspired by Star Wars! And also Lord of the Rings, and Dune, and Eddings, Fiest, Tad Williams, Anne McCaffrey, Beowulf etc. As with Lucas, I was drawn to the heroic monomyth, and I wanted to write my version of it, as a love letter to the genre.

— Christopher Paolini, Reddit AMA

Most of the genre of Fantasy as we know it are authors drawing upon the ideas from past works such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which gave us the elves, dwarves, dragons and other fantastical creatures we know today. But we don’t accuse fantasy authors of stealing from him.

Tolkien revolutionized fantasy. Other authors drew from that, molded it, and continued to add to the genre over time. They created the standards that authors look to today.

In truth, even Star Wars is just the basic Hero’s Journey — but in space.

When people call something original, nine times out of ten they just don’t know the references or the original sources involved.

— Jonothan Lethem

As artists, we are constantly influenced knowingly and unknowingly by the the world around us. We are constantly drawing on these influences when we create new works, mixing and matching ideas and references until we create something our own.

We make things original by our individual styles, and the experiences we bring to our art.

We are shaped and fashioned by what we love

— Goethe

Art is a balancing act of taking ideas that have preceded us, molding them into something new, and throwing it back into the world for the process to start over again.

Marie Wagar is a queer Science Fiction and Fantasy author pursuing her bachelors in English and a minor in creative writing. She lives in North Dakota with her loving girlfriend and their two cats and enjoys watching marvel movies in her free time. You can follow her on twitter @heybluewrites.

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Author, editor and cat dad with anxiety and ADHD; continuously trying to grow and improve in a world made for the neurotypical.

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