A short while ago I mentioned having read Steve Jobs’ biography. Those who know me that I am technical minded, at least in a very limited way, but I nonetheless found it to be an engrossing read, much in the way that Steve Jobs’ and Apple changed our modern society with their technologies, but also for the poetic triumph of a man ousted from his kingdom only to return years later to reclaim the lost empire.
However there was one thing that, for lack of a better word, haunted me. Something that has been at the forefront of my mind and my understanding of artistry where it concerns those that came before us and how we might continue that legacy in our chosen field.
“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”
This statement is ascribed to Picasso a name synonymous with great artistry, taken on by Steve Jobs’ to describe how he took existing technologies and made them better (I won’t get into it here, but I’d advise anyone interested to look up Xerox and Operating Systems). But how could this be possible? How could this make any sense at all? Great artists steal from other artists? Why don’t they just create something anew? Surely the worst sin one can commit in the field of artistry, a field defined as creative i.e. the create things anew, is to steal?
I had to investigate, and I did so as we all do in the twenty first century. I googled it.
Surprisingly for such a profound statement I found scant analysis of this statement, just a few yahoo articles of people who had asked the question with a few token responses. So there was no answer, not really. So then I was left to my second option which was to interpret it myself.
And so a few sleepless nights later, some cognitive dissonance about myself as a writer, and this is what I have come to believe. As I am a writer, I will use this as my example, but I believe it can be extrapolated across all artistic subjects. And the answer is intertwined in the very reason I became a writer.
Why do people write stories? What inspires them? The answer of course is other stories, the ones that came before us. In the same way that no matter how different we are from our parents, we still share their genetic code, and will be imbued with some of their traits. In the same way you will be influenced by the stories you are exposed to at a young age, no matter how much you might want to think otherwise. The way you are touched, compelled or disheartened by the stories you read, that is the way you will understand that people are touched, compelled or disheartened…though hopefully the end result will be enlightened, that you are a better, and perhaps slightly different person afterwards.
So inevitably when you begin to write your own stories they are poor imitations of the works you yourself have digested. You know how it feels to laugh, to cry, to yearn for these characters, these characters who in some ways have become more real to you than the people around you. You present said stories, and said characters to your loving parents, or your teacher, or those others around you. But…your story, though it shares many, many similarities with what you have read, is in fact nothing alike.
For example your story contains a young boy who lives in a farm, whose parents are tragically taken from him, propelling him on a grand adventure with a wise wizard guide, right into the heart of the evil empire. Why is your story nowhere near as compelling?
It is because you have only copied the other artist, without truly understanding what you have copied. The imitation is skin deep. You have neither added nor enhanced to what you have taken, and so the original is, by definition, the superior. This happens very often, and it is what happens to good artists.
Now it is a few years later…you are still dead set on writing a sci-fi adventure. But…someone has since advised that even though you want to write an epic sci-fi story, you should read widely and, strangely, outside of your genre. Why? Why bother, you knowyou’re going to write about space stations and laser battles, just like the one so beloved as a child. So why do you need to read romance novels? Thrillers? Comedies?
You do so, perhaps begrudgingly, or perhaps refreshed at the opportunity. And…you begin to realize something. Hopefully that these stories aren’t half bad, but also that they have some rather good ideas. Clever ideas and then something more profound hits you. These stories are not so dissimilar to the ones you’ve read before, when you reallyunderstand what is being written.
You begin to think about things like pacing…character development…side stories…and so on.
Finally you return back to your genre, not with ten year old eyes and wonder, but a changed adult with the dual attributes of having become better at the technique of writing, but also with a far greater understanding of how and why stories are put together.
You look at that beloved story, of warships, princesses, robot armies, and you realize something utterly, utterly profound. And in the legendary words of Stephen King,
“You read a novel, you put it down and you come to this epiphany. The novel was shit. And even more profound you could do it better. That is when you know you’re a writer.’
But you still want to tell an epic sci-fi adventure, but this time you take only the frame…the warships, the princesses, the robot armies, they’re all still there. But now you add your own touches, from your own reading travels, and slowly, ever so slowly the story becomes yours. You breathe new life into it, and it begins to breathe on its own accord.
So you see this is what it means to be a great artist. You steal the ideas are a wondrous, and you leave those that are no longer relevant, those that no longer make sense, or those that are just plain crap. You take those wondrous ideas and you craft something far, far superior. You make that story your own, rather than making a poor emulation.
I think this is a very, very important lesson for any artist. It is never, even enough to do as good as the last person, you must always strive to be better, or else be stricken from the annals of time, and lost forever in the ether. It’s okay to steal great ideas, so long as you add your own and make them better.
Still not convinced? Okay, here are a few examples of great stories that were originally stolen, and the story they were stolen from. I will leave it to you to investigate on your own…
The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings, ideas stolen from Beowulf
Star Wars, ideas stolen from Dune
A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), ideas stolen from The War of the Roses