How to Succeed in Writing part IV: Steal your Way!


“Where do your ideas come from?” has to be the dumbest question a reporter/interviewer can ask an author.  If they asked the author where did your idea for this particular novel come from, that might be a question that could yield some interesting results, but if an author were to give an honest answer it might take some of the mystique away from the piece their trying to promote in the interview.  The honest answer, most assuredly, would be that these stories had humble and inconsequential origins.

The more general question is a dumb one, because no writer has a personal vault of ideas from which they draw inspiration.  They’re just making stuff up as they go along like the rest of us.  They’re no different than us, they’ve just focused their energy in one particular area for so long that some ideas popped out. I don’t know what the interviewer expects, but the answer they receive is usually vague and long.  The author usually doesn’t know anymore what to do with the question than the interviewer.

Some authors use the question to mystique their piece up a bit, but most of these mystique oriented answers are as fictional as the writer’s pieces.  Hemingway liked to tell interviewers that he traveled to exotic hotels in Paris, France to write his novels.  It could, quite possibly be true, but I’m thinking that the birth of these novels was a lot more mundane.  I’m thinking that the truth is that his novels were born in dark, dusty basements where he sat alone thinking about all of his adventures.  I’m thinking that most of his grand ideas came from the same place most authors’ ideas come from: long, laborious hours spent doing nothing but writing–only to have some little gem pop its little head out of all of the clutter that he’d written through the years.  He did, after all, say that 99% of what he’d written was wastebasket material.  The truth, that is not as mysterious as most writers want to admit, is that great writing leaks out the cracks of laborious hours spent alone, reading and writing, and crafting, editing, and editing again.  That’s how it’s happened for me, anyway, and I think if you stripped away all of the promotion and mystique writers try to add to their productions, most writers would agree, but writer Austin Kleon doesn’t agree.  He says that all ideas come from other people’s ideas, and if you’re not stealing them now, you probably should be.

Originality is dead, Long Live Creativity

Austin KleonAuthor Austin Kleon has a book out called Steal Like an Artist.  The book declares there is no way to be original anymore.  It’s all been done before, so why is everyone climbing all over themselves trying to be original?  “Get over yourself,” he says, “and this idea that you’re a creative genius, and get busy writing something good.”

Author Christopher Booker’s book “The Seven Basic Plots: Why we Write Stories states that there are only seven basic elements to stories: 1. Overcoming the monster.  2. Rags to Riches.  3. The Quest.  4. Voyage and Return.  5. Comedy.  6. Tragedy.  7. Rebirth.

The Internet Public Library lists seven different types of conflict:  1. Man vs. nature. 2. Man vs. man. 3. Man vs. the environment.  4. Man vs. machines/technology.  5. Man vs. the supernatural.  6. Man vs. self.  7. Man vs. god/religion.   Some have listed addendums to these basic plotlines and conflicts, but the gist is that all of the basic plots and conflicts that can be dreamt up have already been dreamt up hundreds of thousands of times before, dating back to Homer.  Your voice should be in great supply in your novel, of course, but you can stop driving yourself up a wall trying to be brilliantly original.   It’s almost impossible.

Austin Kleon’s method of stealing is to take single words from newspapers or Google.com and use them as idea building blocks.  He chooses a word, at random, and he blocks out the rest.  He then tries to build an idea from a series of these words to try to create an image.  The incredible and Bowieincomparable Thin White Duke, David Bowie, used this method, as did William S. Burroughs.  You can get visuals, and a more thorough explanation, of this method on Kleon’s website in the link below.{1}

Have you ever read a novel, a plotline, or a scene that you thought you could do differently?  Have you ever thought:  “I loved that scene, but I wish they would’ve done this…”  We’re not trying to do the author one better when we do this, we’re just trying to personalize a scene that touched us in some manner, and every author that we steal from should be complimented by our theft.  Their brilliance inspired thought in us after all, and if someone stole from us in this manner, we know we’d feel complimented.  While it’s not important that we avoid our influences in this manner, we should do everything we can to conceal them.  We do want to edit them out as much as possible, so that they might not even be able to spot the influence

Where do my ideas come from?  My favorite brand of fiction involves idiots doing stupid things, and in that regard, I have found that I am a font of inspiration.  My friends also provide me great material, as most of them are as stupid as I am.  We all do stupid things.  TV shows have capitalized on this.  YouTube went from being a video-sharing site to a staple in our daily life based on this principle.  Phillip Roth once considered retiring from fiction with the idea that even his creative mind couldn’t top the non-fiction out there.  We can still write great fiction though, we can steal great fiction, and lift from life.  We just need to see it when it smacks us in the face.

I’ve stolen stories from the water cooler at work, from within the walls of my humble abode, and the bar where I sat trying to escape the walls of my home and the water cooler at work.  They’re dumb stories that no one wants to read.  They’re senseless stories that no one will care about, because they’re so senseless that no one can follow them.  They’re accidental stories, that no one will want to read unless we put enough pluck and circumstance into them to make them illustrative, intelligent, and hilarious stories about human nature and life in America today.

SeinfeldThese little stories are everywhere in life, they’re the minutiae that Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld opened up for the world.  Those two weren’t the first to do this, and they obviously won’t be the last, so we all need to jump on board and tell the world how stupid we are.  Stupid, little stories like “The Leans”{2} are the stories I’m talking about that we ignore in our attempt to write the next The World According to Garp.  There isn’t much to them, and they don’t necessarily feed the ego that writers have of being the next great writer, but there are times in our writing careers where we need to walk softly with our big stick.

You have to feed the female dog if you ever want her to fatten up is what I’m saying.  Creating fictional accounts of what “really” happened (my definition of creative non-fiction) taught me more about storytelling than crafting original stories did.  Crafting original stories is, of course, the goal, but if you can juggle the two you may be on your way to a behemoth.

But how many original ideas strike us in one month?  How many times do we have flurried inspiration that leads us to twenty pages of excellent fiction, and how many of these stories hit the proverbial brick wall after twenty pages?  Aspiring writers need to learn how to hone that muscle that will eventually get struck by lightning.  We need to learn how to flesh out ideas.  Is there a better way to hone that muscle than stealing another author’s idea and making our own, or fleshing out our foibles and our friends’?  If there is, I haven’t found it yet.

I’m all about getting over humps.  I’m all about writing anything and everything that is entertaining.  I don’t believe in writer’s block.  When I hear someone complaining about a block that has slammed down in front of them, my first thought is why don’t you just walk around it?  It’s not like it’s the great block of China or anything that has created a border to completion.  It’s just a block, and there are hundreds of ways around it if you just settle down and look at them for what they are.

{1}http://www.austinkleon.com/2011/09/24/steal-like-an-artist-at-the-economists-human-potential-summit/

{2}https://rilaly.com/2010/01/27/the-leans/

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