Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon- Retro Review & Top Ten by Jason Griffith

Dear creative students, Austin Kleon has some advice for you:

“The classroom is a wonderful, if artificial, place: your professor gets paid to pay attention to your ideas, and your classmates are paying to pay attention to your ideas.  Never again in your life will you have such a captive audience.”

While Kleon clearly articulates this passage for college creatives, his quote could easily be adapted for students of all ages.  But, he doesn’t mean it as a cold admonishment of how the how hard the “real world” is for artists.  Instead, it’s meant to be empowering.  The sooner you learn to create for you and not for anyone else (not even a teacher), the better (and more genuine) your work will be.  And, Kleon suggests, “you want attention only after you’re doing really good work.”

Steal Like an Artist includes 10 lessons for writers, painters, musicians, and other creative minds.  These are slickly packaged in a well-designed, inspirational, and easily digestible book chalk full of drawings, photographs, diagrams, and quotes from minds as notable as Picasso to Steve Jobs to Tom Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan.  It’s kind of like a TED talk in a book.  Oh wait, it is a TED talk in a book.  Steal Like an Artist grew from Kleon’s popular TED talk of the same name:

Kleon’s lessons are potent for students and teachers alike in this era of social media.  With Twitter, Google Reader, and a dozen other venues, “you can build your own world around you.”  We can take our artistic idols and research their inspiration to see where their ideas came from and on and on.  In this way, not only can we identify our creative lineage, but we have them at our fingertips just a few taps on the screen of our Smartphones away.  We can surround ourselves with a family tree of influences and build our “swipe file” of the things in their work worth copying.

But stealing?  Shouldn’t we in the English Language Arts realm be encouraging original thought and guarding against the dreaded (capital P) Plagiarism?

Kleon responds by writing, “the reason to copy your heroes and their style is so that you might somehow get a glimpse into their minds,” which reminds me of the burgeoning mentor text movement and the idea that students can learn much about their own writing from the works they are reading.

Furthermore, “plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own.  Copying is about reverse-engineering.  It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.  We learn to write by copying down the alphabet.  Musicians learn to play by practicing scales.  Painters learn to paint by reproducing masterpieces.”

This quote reminds me that, sometimes in the name of combating plagiarism, we ELA teachers insist upon rigid forms like five-paragraph themes and inflexible structures which make essays by multitudes of students look eerily the same in design.  Is this approach more or less original than copying the structures of several published and celebrated writers who we revere?

Kleon reminds us throughout his book that “nothing is original… all creative work builds on what came before.”  This sentiment is also a foundation for effective ELA teaching.  From our past experiences as readers and writers, we can design better learning conditions for our students.

In his preface, Kleon suggests that “All advice is autobiographical.”  In other words, when we give advice, we are actually talking to previous versions of ourselves.  Some of my best teaching ideas have come from examining how best I learn (or would have learned).  And, just as Kleon recommends that you “write the book you want to read,” we could adapt that advice to, “teach the lesson you’d like to be taught.”

To start building your swipe file, a top ten list…

10 Swipe-able Traits From Swipe-Worthy Writers

1.  Branch out.  

I loved The Giving Tree, and Shel Silverstein’s poetry books like Where the Sidewalk ends are hallmarks of my childhood (I’d read them to my parents during car rides).  But my respect for Shel grew even more immense when I also learned that he was a guitar playing songwriter who penned the hilarious “A Boy Named Sue” for Johnny Cash and “Cover of the Rolling Stone” for Dr. Hook.

2. Go multimodal.

Speaking of versatility, Stephen Chbosky wrote The Perks of Being a Wallflower for which he also wrote the screenplay of (and directed) the film version, and in the meantime, he was writing television scripts for shows like “Jericho.”

3. Or… Stick with what you’re good at.

In an interview with The New Yorker, recent Nobel laureate Alice Munroe talked about how she imagined the short stories she started out writing were practice for a future novel.  When the novel never came, Munroe grew to be okay with “just” writing (Nobel-worthy) short stories.

4. Or… Quit while you’re ahead.

Perhaps unlike many others, I love that Harper Lee never wrote another book after To Kill a Mockingbird.  Reportedly, she said there was no way she could outdo a Pulitzer so she didn’t feel the need to try.  In this day and age of uber-marketing and name/brand exploitation, Lee’s steadfast humility is refreshing.  It’s even cooler that she stopped signing autographs when she learned that people were selling them.

5. Work at being funny.  

At the 2012 PCTELA conference, I asked Lisa Yee, a winner of the Sid Fleischman Humor Award, what she could say about writing funny.  She invoked Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedian documentary which shows just how hard professional funny people have to work for their laughs.  Since funny doesn’t always write funny, written laughs take some elbow grease.

6. Or… Keep it scary.

I loved Where the Wild Things Are, but the illustrations freaked me out as a kid.  It was like the monsters could turn on Max at any time.  I only came to understand this dichotomy as an adult when I read an interview with Maurice Sendak giving this advice to would-be tale-tellers.  There’s no better way to engage a child’s imagination than with a tasteful touch of scary.

7. Write about your past indiscretions.

Jack Gantos won a Newbery medal for Dead End in Norvelt.  He was also convicted of a felony after getting involved in a drug smuggling operation as a teenager (A story he captured in his autobiographical Hole in my Life).  When Jack visited the Capital Area Writing Project’s Young Writers Academy, he got a kick out of me telling him my students had wondered if he was going to show up in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs.  Instead, he talked to me about what his daughter was reading in her 8th grade English class.

8. Don’t be afraid to play with the big boys.

As a young girl amidst older, accomplished writers like Lord Byron and husband Percy Bysshe Shelley during a summer in Geneva, Mary Shelley had no qualms about jumping into a contest to write the scariest horror story.  Almost 200 years later, Frankenstein and his monster endure through countless adaptations, spin-offs, breakfast cereals, etc.

9. Take rejection as a sign of progress.

Besides being a great memoir, Stephen King’s On Writing is such a practical guide for aspiring writers.  I especially appreciated how he’d tack up his many rejection notices right next to his typewriter and just keep tapping down his ideas believing (with great foresight) that each rejection was one page closer to a breakthrough.  Before he was a mega-selling super author, he was just another poor, hardworking soul with a stack of letters reading “maybe next time.”

10. Read a lot of different stuff… a lot.  

When Junot Diaz, Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, suggested at the 2009 NCTE convention that kids should read mostly comic books until the age of 12, it struck a chord.  When I was that age, I was an avid reader of both comics and classics, and the call to expand the canon resonates.  Diaz’s bottom line is that to be an effective writer, you’ve got to read… a lot.  After all, who’s going to read all this stuff we’re writing?

Jason Griffith (@JGriff_Teach) currently teaches 10th grade English at Carlisle High School in Pennsylvania after teaching 8th grade for nearly a decade.  A National Board Certified Teacher as well as a National Writing Project Fellow and Teacher Consultant with the Capital Area Writing Project, Jason was the 2012 recipient of NCTE’s Edwin A. Hoey Award for Outstanding Middle School English Language Arts Teacher.  In his free time, Jason trades ideas with Kelly, his talented artist-wife, he coaches the high school swim team, and he hopes that his next creative non-fiction submission will be a breakthrough.