Steal Without Shame, Part Three
My friend Dave wrote to me a week ago with a problem.
How do we as artists and entrepreneurs transition to the next project?
Dave had just turned in a manuscript. He was trying to get the next idea going. The problem was he didn’t know what that idea was going to be.
For me, the transition is as pernicious a Resistance war as the previous project’s attack towards the finish line. Yes, I know we’re supposed to show up, buckle in, lace up the work boots, and “start the next one tomorrow.” [But] sometimes [we] write and write and it still isn’t feeling right. At the same time, we watch our cash flow dwindle and slowly lose our mojo.
This is what I am fighting right now.
Here’s what I wrote back:
Oddly enough, I was just watching (yesterday) the MasterClass course on writing taught by James Patterson — https://www.masterclass.com — and he was saying how he keeps a GIANT file of ideas and is constantly adding to it. I do that too.
The ideal situation is to have Idea #2 long before you finish Idea #1. My goal is to have a month or two’s work already done on #2 by the time I wrap #1. Then there is no transition. No agony.
This counsel, of course, was a little late to help Dave. So I added this:
I’m a big believer, when you’re stuck, in stealing. I don’t mean outright ripping off or plagiarism, but rather a benign and respectful mass exposure to everything that’s out here, hoping the somebody else’s stuff will trigger an idea that I can run with.
Read read read. Go to movies, concerts, gallery openings. Read new stuff. Read stuff from the ancients. Read magazines, blogs, listen to podcasts. Keeping writing. Keep working on the NEW IDEAS file, but don’t overdo it. Put your brain on “input” instead of “output” until something clicks.
Last, I sent Dave this true story from my days as a junior Mad Man in New York:
In the ad biz, you work in two-man teams—a copywriter and an art director. One is responsible for the words, the other for the pictures.
The first art director I was ever paired with was a gentleman my father’s age, a World War II infantry vet named Zoltan Medvecky. Med was a star, a prize-winning pro. He and I had been given an assignment to do an ad for the international division of Chemical Bank.
I was excited because it was the first time I had ever worked with someone who really knew what he was doing (as opposed to the other junior A.D.s I had till then been paired with.) I was primed to watch and learn.
Med said we should work in his office because it was five times bigger than my cubicle and it had a door.
We came up with a headline pretty quick (actually Med came up with it) and a concept for the visual.
Then Med opened a huge flat file drawer and began poring through magazines and photography books. I asked him what he was doing.
I was shocked. “Stealing? You can’t do that!”
Med thumbed through a dozen books and mags till he came to a year-old issue of LIFE. “Ah,” he said. He had stopped at an editorial piece: a page with one-third white space at the bottom, a single black-and-white grainy photo up top, and a one-line caption beneath the photo.
He stole that layout.
“But, Med, isn’t that cheating?”
“This layout in LIFE,” Med said, “is classic reportorial photojournalism. See? A war photo, with the figures underlit and the light source—the late afternoon sun—coming from one side, throwing the other side into dramatic shadow. See how gritty it looks? A real gravitas shot.”
Med showed me how he had tweaked the layout and made it work as an ad. I had to admit, it looked great.
“We’re taking the LIFE photographer’s straight-up look and reconceiving it, borrowing the aspects that possess gravity—and that no one else has used in an ad—to reinforce the impression we want to convey, which implies real-world grit and competence in an overseas setting.”
Med reached across and put his hand on my shoulder.
“Kid, it ain’t stealing if you put a spin on it.”
That reminds me of Billy Wilder, who “borrowed” from all kinds of German films — “Some Like It Hot” based on “Fanfare of Love. — when asked what’s the difference between “inspired by” and a “remake.”
“Inspired by” means no credit. (And no payment).
A few weeks ago, I found the December 22, 1941 US Goes to War issue of Life Magazine in my parents’ basement. I stole (borrowed) it without being sure how or why I might use it.
Fantastic post Steve, and a good reminder that when I am stuck, exposing myself to other work is the best thing I can do.
Like T.S Elliot said, ‘Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.
Ooo, I like that.
Thanks for another wise post…I’m grateful that smart phones have voice recorders now…that’s where I capture my ideas. No more slips of paper to lose.
That reminds me of “Steal Like an Artist” by Austin Kleon.
I read it daily. Nothing is created in a vacuum. We are all stealing from something or someone one way or the other. It’s just most of the time we are not aware of it, we don’t do it on purpose.
We think ideas are ours just because we don’t remember where exactly they came from. We consume “life” on a daily basis in all its forms: people, events, books, music, design etc. and then art comes out. A remix of every idea we stumbled upon in life. Consciously or unconsciously.
I thought it was Picasso who said, “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” Or perhaps he stole that line from T.S. Eliot!
I love this! Thanks for the professional tip! Can’t hear it enough.
Btw, James’ class is terrific! Reminds me a lot of you, Mr Pressfield! 🙂
My father was one of meds best friends our family would go to his home every summer. It was one place that we all loved and med and him wife pat have a special place in my family’s hearts. I love the story about him that you’re sharing it is the med that I will always remember and love
Thanks. This post is a boost for whenever we’re stuck. It reminds us that we need to keep moving forward.
Since all plots come from three, or seven, basic plots, it’s all variations on a theme. It’s the ‘hero’s journey’ you’ve talked about before. I think the same is true in all arts. Musicians riff off themes – there are only so many chords, after all – and play around with different elements.
Earle Stanley Gardner, of Perry Mason fame, had a plot wheel. He’d just dial up different elements to make a new story. The basics didn’t change.
Among the things I do is playing guitar. I often just sit with one of my guitars and “noodle” at things that come to mind. It might be a chord progressions, or a bit of melody line, or just slapping the strings to produce rhythm.
Sometimes something interesting comes from my noodling. (I have NGS — Noodling Guitarist Syndrome.) And sometimes I’ll be listening to music from my collection or anyplace, really, and hear bits and pieces of what I put together.
“That’s where that come from…” I’ll mutter to myself, not remembering listening to the piece when I was noodling.
This fascinate me. The way our brains work as synthesis machines is amazing.
Maybe not an artist, but Kepler stealing Tyco Brahe’s data after he died to ‘wage war on Mars’. It was inspiring.