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.”