“We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that’s how you will find your voice. And that’s how you begin. And then one day someone will steal from you.”
Francis Ford Coppola
Being original doesn’t actually mean starting from scratch. That’s what it looks like on the surface. Dive into the water and see the iceberg for what it is — There aren’t actually any completely new ideas. There are only remixes and remasters. Pretty much everything you need to know has been told somewhere, some time ago. But it feels like it’s something new because it’s told in a way that it has never been told before.
To quote writer André Gide, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”
Musicians build their music on existing songs and change them to fit the culture of the young today.
Lawyers change old laws and rewrite them to tailor to contemporary needs.
All great and original figures in this world start by patterning themselves after their heroes. They steal from them.
That’s how we all learn anyway. We can’t learn without observing and emulating.
There is a difference, however, between stealing and imitating.
To steal is to take parts of their work and style that matter most to you, suit it to yourself, and improve on what it lacks.
To imitate is to simply, well, imitate. You’re not honoring their work. You’re simply ripping it off.
And by the way, stealing isn’t about stealing a style for the sake of stealing. It’s about stealing the thinking behind that style — So that you get a glimpse of how your heroes view(ed) the world.
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal;
bad poets deface what they take,
and good poets make it into something better, or
at least something different. The good poet welds his theft
into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from
that which it was torn.”
I’ve been reading a lot about Bob Dylan.
Dylan has a knack for learning and picking up everything that interests him, from people’s mannerisms to their accents.
When I was a Dylan novice a couple of years ago, I thought he was probably one of the most original guys to have ever existed — The way he put his ideas across in his songs, the way he pissed off journalists by joking around and speaking in riddles with a cigarette in hand.
I thought he was the only person doing what he was doing. He was this poet-musician.
Little did I know that Woody Guthrie was Bob Dylan before Bob Dylan. Less famous, perhaps.
Guthrie was his biggest hero. Ever.
He learned all of his songs and sang them in folk bars. Guthrie’s autobiography was like his bible.
He dressed like how he dressed, smoked his cigarette like Guthrie, posed in pictures like Guthrie, and spoke and sang in Guthrie’s accent.
Dylan started writing his own songs by taking a Guthrie song, playing its melody and changing its lyrics as how he would have written it if the song were his.
But Dylan couldn’t be Guthrie. He was Bob Dylan. A different, unique soul, as is all of us. As time progressed, Guthrie’s flavors were still inherent in his work, but tweaked with Dylan’s own voice and personality. As it all evolved, Dylan became the Dylan we know now— It was a natural process. It’s a common story, too.
Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like An Artist related to basketball player Kobe Bryant :
“When Bryant stole a lot of those moves, he realized he couldn’t completely pull them off because he didn’t have the same body type as the guys he was thieving from. He had to adapt the moves to make them his own.”
As you see, nothing is completely original. It all starts with a hero that you admire and having your work based on theirs.
That’s what it means to stand on the shoulders of giants.
Since you can never be them, you will be you. If you do it right and well.
I’m gonna end this article with a quote by cartoonist Gary Panter.
“If you have one person you’re influenced by, everyone will say you’re the next whoever. But if you rip off a hundred people, everyone will say you’re so original!”