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  • Writer's pictureKatherine Ladny Mitchell

Book Review: Steal Like an Artist - 10 Things Nobody Told You about Being Creative

Updated: Mar 4, 2022

Confession: I am not a huge fan of informational books. Maybe that's partly from educational burnout or because I'm a bit lazy and tend to look up online articles or videos for the information I need rather than reading a treatise on the subject.

That said, I recently picked up a finish-in-three-short-sittings guidebook which I found instructive for my particular coordinates in the ever-winding writing journey.

Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon is not only helpful, but also playfully illustrated and offered artistic advice I hadn't heard before. And before you're put off by the title, Kleon is not advocating for plagiarism, but rather for artists to use a humble life-lens through which to see the value in the work of others.

Kleon hangs his clever prose and quippy quotes on ten main points. (Even I have enough patience to read through ten points.) Most of these have to do with artistic habits which enhance the quality of one's work and overall life. The main three I wanted to share with you are as follows:

Point 3: Write the Book You Want to Read. So, I've finished my first sci-fi novel, and it's screaming for a sequel. As I'm trying to come up with my basic plotline, this advice has come in handy. Sometimes I get to a fork in the literary road and ask my Alpha reader/cheerleader/husband, "Do you think my protagonist should do A or B?" And most of the time after I've verbalized the conundrum, I know which plot would be more exciting for me to read.

Writers need to wear two hats: the giving hat and the receiving hat.

I need to view my work not only from the creative angle (This is eloquent!) but also from my reader's point of view (This is wordy!). Such perspective forms the essence of rewriting.

Point 4: Use Your Hands. I suppose one could argue typing is technically using one's hands. And let me tell you, editing this last novel for multiple hours a week has made me take a few things like posture and wrist health much more seriously. (Alas for the days of yore when I could painlessly edit from a lounging position on the couch. Sigh ...) But Kleon makes a distinction between the analog flow of real-life sensory creation and the more limited 2D polishing work on a lap top. He recommends hashing out the essentials of a project with things you can hold in your hands (post it notes, markers, whatever your medium). He even has two desks: one for creative work and the other for polishing.

I can attest to the truth of this point. Looking back, I did not actually start Ephemeral on the computer; I started on the backside of a large map of proposed building plans.

I got out my blue ballpoint pen and made a rough plot outline with enough crossed-out blurbs and wiggly arrows to put an OCD person in therapy.

It was messy. It was ugly. But from the ashes of my musings blossomed my characters and plot. In keeping with that theme, I recently bought a large sketchbook in which to hash out my new sequel. If I don't feel like outlining, I can just turn the page and do a character sketch in real time and real life.

For those who may be interested in a more-interactive-yet-still-digital writing desk experience great for roughing out a first draft, I would highly commend Scrivener to you. It's a writing program that allows you to have multiple scenes open at once, takes snapshots of old drafts (in case you want to explore something new without saving a million versions of the same scene), and even has digital "index cards" for notetaking.

Point 6: THE SECRET: Do Good Work and Share It with People. My second confession of the day is I don't like feeling tied to the "obligatory blog." I'd much rather retreat to my mental workshop and hammer out those novels. Besides, there's so much talk out there; why add to the noise unless I have something brilliant to say (which isn't often)? But Kleon sees blogging and maintaining an online presence as a motivator to fill a container rather than slavery to an unpleasant chore. If I think about it, I really admire writers who not only create sellable works but also share their knowledge and expertise through their blog posts and newsletters. They take time from their busy schedules to give back. Gotta tip my fedora to that.

As I go about creating literary order out of chaos, I plan to take Kleon's points to heart. Who knows? Maybe they might help my work flicker a wee bit brighter in this dark, dark world and catch the eye of someone who'd benefit from it.

Thanks, Austin!

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