Steal Like an Artist or Wait for the Idea Fairy?


If you spend a significant amount of time creating–whether it’s writing stories, painting, or whipping up a unique batch of Brazilian cinnamon snickerdoodles, then you’ve probably heard this question:

Where do you get your ideas?

I don’t have a profound answer for that question.  If there is an idea fairy, she doesn’t come to my house.  Probably because of the way I handled those mornings when my kids noticed the tooth fairy hadn’t picked up their tooth.

Well kids, looks like there’s a fairy that needs a little sprinkling of punctual pixie dust, right? Let’s scoot on out of your room so we don’t embarrass her when she finally shows up.

Yea, I’m probably on a fairy Do Not Call list or something.

Anyway, I don’t think the idea thing is magic.  Sure those ideas show up in my head, but I know they get there via bits and pieces filtered in from my kids, the people having a conversation next to me in Panera, the TV, YouTube, the bakery in Whole Foods, the mall, the teenagers in the cafeteria at my son’s school when I spy volunteer.

Ideas come from a mash-up of pieces of my life, especially the curious bits.

Or as Austin Kleon says in his new book, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative

“I steal them.”



Okay that sounds like plagiarism, but the book is mostly about unlocking creativity.

But as it says in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun.  So then what is originality?


“Undetected plagiarism.” ~William Ralph Inge


So what if you’re at the Whole Foods bakery, lured in by the smell of baking bread and as you get closer, you smell cinnamon.

That can’t be regular cinnamon, you think gripping the handle of your shopping cart.

You look beyond the glass counter, hoping for answers.

It’s Samba cinnamon, the person robed in angelic white informs you.  Harvested only once a year during Carnival.

How festive!  So then you’re thinking, What if I make bread? No–cookies, yes cookies.  Cookies rolled in Samba cinnamon and sugar.  No–crunchy Turbinado sugar!

Before you know it you are sipping Darjeeling with a batch of warm Samba cinnamon infused cookies.  Did you make snickerdoodles?  Sort of.  It’s similar, but pumped up by the intoxicating addition of a South American spice.

It’s better.  You created something perhaps, original?


It sure is nice knowing  you can roll with your curiosity rather than waiting for the Creative Genius Idea Fairy.


“All creative work builds on what came before . . . If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.” ~Austin Kleon


Where do you think ideas come from?  Do you steal like an artist?





43 thoughts on “Steal Like an Artist or Wait for the Idea Fairy?

  1. Ha, ha, ha Coleen! Now these cookies aren’t like that turducken you tried to sell us on back in November, are they?

    LOL! I couldn’t help myself. Those cookies sound delicious!

    Okay, I’m going to get serious here. I’ve been reading too many blogs today. I think the Bible is right. There’s nothing new under the sun. That said, we were made to be creative, so our minds are fully capable of taking a known image or story and creating a new twist to it. Our perception is what changes the reality of the idea making it new.

    Did I make any sense here? I hope so. Great thoughts Coleen! 🙂


  2. I’m sure I’ve unintentionally plagiarized a time or two. What writer hasn’t? I think that’s why voice is so important, that and REALLY good characters. There’s nothing like a character who jumps off the page (but that’s partly voice, too, isn’t it?).


  3. I’ve found several ideas through Tweets. Just some random statement a person I follow makes about his or her life — the parental ones might end up in a Picture book while the others are filed away for short story ideas.


  4. Great post, Coleen! I totally subscribe to the ‘nothing new under the sun’ theory. And being an old philosophy major I’ll add — ‘ex nihil, nihil fit’–out of nothing, nothing comes. Recycling id the nature of the universe. Whenever I begin a new story, I read everything I can that relates to the themes and characters and setting to build up a foundation to spring off of. And since we are all individuals, how we each approach a subject will necessarily be unique.


  5. I totally fancy a cinnamon snickerdoodle now. You are so right I mean look at how many re-told fairy tales there are, hundreds! It is way too hard to be completely original anyway.


  6. I don’t know where my ideas come from specifically. I just like to watch people, pay attention, and then make stuff up. Usually when I am in the bathroom ideas pop into my head and I write them down. Although I did try meditating once it gave the idea of a great outfit to wear. It was truly inspired. So the next time I have a big event or feel bored with my clothes, I may try meditating again.


  7. I was in the craft section of the store today, looking for a tiny ladder to put on my hubby’s hat for his ‘crazy hat Friday’ and I started to go through the scrapbook stickers and bam, bam, bam, the scene ideas were coming like crazy. So for me, images give me those precious ideas.

    Excellent post, Coleen!


  8. I think a lot of ideas get sparked by other people’s creativity. And then we make them completely our own. I mean, if we were each handed the same idea, our end products would be completely different, right? And that’s starting with the SAME IDEA. So starting with a part of an idea would make it even MORE our own, right? 🙂


  9. Hello Coleen,

    Excellent post. Everyone is quite correct, there are no new ideas. If I see a great phrase or descriptive sentence/paragraph I re-write it in at least five different ways. This often helps to spark the creative process. However, nine times out of ten I don’t use them in my work.

    When it comes to ‘new’ ideas I tend to receive four or five at a time never just one and I’ve no idea why that happens. Since I write Contemporary Romance and Paranormal/Fantasy it might be because the first genre deals with a universal truth – we all need love – and in the second genre nothing is impossible. I tend not to question myself too much about where they spring from.

    Another key is really knowing and living with your characters. What makes them tick can usually be found in their past and what is impacting them in the now. Toss in a fatal attraction and off they go sometimes leading me in directions that I’d never have thought of. My recent completed 2nd draft did just that.


      1. Talking of tooth fairies.

        When my girls were small they used to ask me, “What do fairies do with my teeth?”

        The reply was, “Your teeth are so strong that they use them as bricks to build houses.” Even now I think I must have been inspired, lol!!


      2. That is definitely inspired! The question too. I don’t remember my kids asking what happened to the teeth. They did however wonder how overworked she was considering she occasionally came to our house late morning. 🙂


  10. “Ideas come from a mash-up of pieces of my life, especially the curious bits.” I love this, Coleen! That’s kind of how my ideas come to me, too! And the tooth fairy wasn’t too ‘with it’ at our house either! LOL!


  11. Great question and post, Coleen. I think there’s a fine line between stealing and feeling inspired. 🙂 My ideas pop up frequently and at random. At least, it *seems* random… I bet my inner-muse is inspired in all sorts of ways I’m not consciously aware of.


  12. Like you, I get most of my ideas from bits and pieces of things around me. Nothing ever happens if I sit waiting for an idea to strike on its own, I have to get out there and jump start the process by opening my eyes and ears and hopefully finding a spark that will turn into an idea of my own. I love the quotes you included! I’m definitely looking into Austin Kleons book! =)


  13. I’m with Louise. All my best ideas come from myth, history, archaeology. I update them, but I still think the classic, archetypal stuff can’t be beat. Great post, Coleen!


  14. I just finished stealing wholesale from a friend of mine. Then you left a comment on my new blog. Then I read this post. Weird.

    Thanks for stopping by. I’ll try to make it worth visiting again.


  15. It is true. There are only so many plots. And they’ve all been used before. BUT it hasn’t been used by you. And what you bring to a story idea makes it unique. Anyway, that’s how I look at it. Great post.


  16. This is a top reason my blog is so sporadic. I wait for my ideas to come to me. They usually come through some kind of life experience to personal influence. Though my ideas seem original since I waited for them to pop in my head, they are certainly not original as my blog posts are not the only ones of the like. This must mean I steal like an artist!!


  17. As Jim Jarmusch put it: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery — celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.”


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