As artists, we’re constantly on the lookout for new inspiration. Sometimes that inspiration comes from other art, and sometimes it comes from odd places — an aging house cat, or a grocery store display, or a particularly terrible car commercial. But most often, it’s the artists who came before us that we look to take from and emulate.
Bob Dylan famously said, “Good artists borrow, but great artists steal.” At least he was said to say that. Most likely he stole it from someone else.
Artists do steal. The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin stole from countless bluesmen. The classic early 20th Century blues belter Ma Rainey stole from the raunchy vaudevillians that came before. Bruce Springsteen stole so completely from Dylan that he made it his own. Stanley Kubrick stole from filmmaker Max Ophuls, and Stephen King stole so exhaustively from Ray Bradbury and HP Lovecraft that he is himself now being taken from. Paul Thomas Anderson started his career by imitating Scorsese and Altman; nowadays, with his films taking on a more elliptical and mysterious approach, he’s claimed to be taking from any number of black and white films on Turner Classic Movies.
In my own artistic career, I’ve learned it’s best to steal from the best — to go back to the first well. If you steal from a secondary source, you’re basically regurgitating already chewed food. You want primary sources … or at least as primary as you can get. Shakespeare, of course, stole from everybody in his day, but is considered a fairly reliable primary source. And James Joyce is a reliable primary source, even though he was in turn influenced and swayed by any number of writers that came before.
The point is, of course, to not rely on secondary sources of inspiration. Don’t steal from Green Day — steal from The Sex Pistols, or better yet, Muddy Waters. Don’t take from Patty Smith — or even Jim or Van Morrison … visit Rimbaud. Don’t write a Brett Easton Ellis kind of book, write a Saul Bellow kind of book, or maybe, if you’re feeling randy, even a Balzac kind of book.
Try to steal from — to be influenced by — the things that became iconic in their time. It matters. Your own voice will be so much more vital, so much more necessary, than if you look to watered-down and anemic sources of inspiration.