I listened to Austin Kleon this week, first his Ted Talk on Stealing Like an Artist, and then his interview with Chase Jarvis on the same topic. Plus I just bought his books, Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work.
I’m pretty sure I read his books back in the day (omg – that was a decade ago!) but I didn’t get it. Yes, I thought to myself, of course all writers and artists build on the foundations of what came before them. Yes, of course all writers and artists are influenced by the people they like and their work will reflect that. Yes yes yes. But…so what?
What I didn’t understand what that had to do with me, or how I should actually use that nugget of insight on purpose. It seems daft now, looking back. I used to think I was a fast learner, but apparently not. The older I get, the more I realize how slow I actually am.
I like old-school soap operas. I like Gothic fiction. I like the original Dark Shadows TV show from the 1960s. I like death and psychological torture and secrets and attics and basements and abandoned buildings and run-on sentences and all the weird twisty gory stuff of nightmares.
And I’m not the only one, or nothing like that would ever get published or filmed or aired on TV! But it does get published and filmed and aired. I’m not alone.
And even if the style is a horribly out-of-fashion now, so the fuck what? It was kind of already out-of-fashion in the 1960s and 1970s, too, when Dark Shadows aired and at the height of television soap operas.
H. P. Lovecraft, the king of weird fiction, purposefully used an out-of-fashion literary style in his prose in order to try to capture that out-of-fashion Gothic feel, and he was writing in the early 1900s. In other words, it was out-of-fashion already then.
What does this all have to do with what Kleon says? I think the point is that if I like old-school, soap-opera-ish, Gothic melodrama, then I should steal everything I like about it and put it into my own work. It’s valid, simply because I like it (despite what parents, my children, and teachers have told me). What I like to write about and how I string words together is valid.
I shouldn’t give a single minuscule fraction of a fuck about whether or not anyone else likes it. I’m not writing it for them. I’m writing it for me. It’s mine. I’ll share it — or not — as I like, later on.
I think this is hard to learn, hard to hold on to, because we — humans — are, after all, social creatures, and we want to fit in with family and friends and society at large. And some of us — whether by nature or nurture — are even more attuned to that perception. What the people around us might think of us holds a lot of weight. But in order to be fully creative (and fully ourselves), we have to unlearn that inclination, let go of that external pressure, and march to our own internal drummers, everything else be damned.
So now, when the doubts creep in, the whispers in the dark that say what I’m doing is lame and stupid and old-fashioned and a waste of time? I will lock those voices in an old steamer trunk and bury them in the basement with all the other dead bodies. I’ll still hear their heartbeats, but at least they won’t be able to jeer at me with their giant spidery faces.