Copy (But Not Perfectly) to Be Creative

Every teacher I’ve ever had told me not to copy. You can’t learn anything by stealing from other people, right? Everyone wants you to be “original” and to create your own ideas. As a teacher, I can attest to this being all hogwash.

Copying is the only way we learn to be creative. When I have my students write essays, I start by telling them to steal the ideas or concepts they like and put them in their writing. The catch, you have to either attribute what you steal, through citation, or you have to mess with it by paraphrasing. 

This is doubly so when it comes to anything artistic. The only teachers in high school who ever let me copy anything were my art and creative writing teachers. We spent quite a bit of time drawing from life or being inspired by other writers.

A quote from one of the best artists I know, Jack Kirby, illustrates this point: “If you think a man draws the type of hands that you want to draw, steal ‘em. Take those hands.”

But a funny thing happens when you steal with the intent to be creative. If you copy something line by line, that’s not art. That’s a photocopier. You need to take a bit from here and a snippet from there. Combine them in new ways. Now, the Frankenstein monster you’ve fashioned, is where creativity is born. 

Scientists have even proven this through a case study. The researchers split thirty college students into groups — each asked to draw an original artwork each day. One group was a control, and slogged through dull object after object. The second group were given images of abstract artists and asked to “copy the picture onto a blank piece of paper while imagining the painter’s intention.”

The act of copying pushed the participants to compare their own style of creation to someone else’s. It freed them up to consider other ways of doing things. 

I often see a line in a story or poem that I absolutely love. There are notebooks filled with these snippets. Yet a strange thing happens as I progress with my own writing. Often this stolen line gets mutated into something unrecognizable from the original. In the process of fitting it into my style of writing, it has to change. (Sometimes it gets deleted entirely, its sole purpose is to serve as inspiration.)

When you copy, you’ll quickly find the differences between you and the original artist. You both have different skill levels and a different worldview. So of course what you create will be different. I can’t draw like Mike Mignola or write like Stephen King. So even when I attempt to steal, it comes out wrong. But wrong in a delightfully creative way. 

I’d just attended the Animé Los Angeles convention and was able to sit in on a panel of voice actors (the ones that dub English versions of Anime or do video game acting). One quote by Chris Tergliafera stood out as I listened. He talked about how “Media inspires media.”

What he was getting at was this — some of the best voices we hear in cartoons are usually a bad impression of a famous person. In other words, copying. But it gets changed on the route from our brains to our hands (or in this case, voices).

So you have permission to steal. Just remember to mess it up. The more you bungle something up, the more it becomes your own. 

Tim Kane

3 thoughts on “Copy (But Not Perfectly) to Be Creative

  1. I’ve always been surrounded with artsy people and sciencesy people, so I grew up with the idea that nothing comes from a void. You have to take what others created to build on top of. You learn to paint a picture by copying a painting of someone better at painting than you are. You advance your research by reading the research papers of more experienced scientists. So I was pretty shocked when I got to college and the professors insisted that everything had to be original and we had to prove that it did not include anyone else’s work. It just seemed so backwards to me.

    1. It is backward. These are people who imitated themselves and felt guilty about it so now they’re forcing everyone else to be original when they couldn’t do it themselves.

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