Writing Tips

Creativity means building on previous work; here’s how.

There is a very familiar quote; it is something about standing on the shoulders of giants.

Let me more accurate

If I have seen further” Isaac Newton wrote in a 1657 letter to Robert Hooke “It is by standing on the shoulders of giants”

It is easy to look at artists, writers, musicians and imagine that all their work was born solely out of their minds.

That is rarely the case.

In the course of my journey as a writer, the meaning of creativity has been exposed and redefined.

Creativity does not necessarily mean originality.

Creatives have learnt to study the work of people before them, mastered the best of what they had done, figured solutions out, tweaked and created their voice, style and expertise out of it.

Embracing this is in fact liberating and I’ll explain.

Original ideas are rarely existent.

No matter how novel or original you think an idea is, when you dig deep, you would discover that bearer of that idea was inspired by a past event or stood on the shoulders of a giant.

Creativity does not emerge from a vacuum.

Innovation does not.

Our duty as creators is not to break our heads over discovering a rare idea or something that has not been done before.


What is creativity?

Building on previous work.

Standing on the shoulders of others.

Creativity is not coming up with a new idea, or an unprecedented thought.

A few illustrations of what it means to build upon previous work is given in two popular examples: the Company, Apple and the most notable writer, William Shakespeare.

Before that, let’s look at case study of Austin Kleon.

Imagine creating poems from newspapers?

Austin Kleon took newspapers, looked through the words, highlighted only the words that resonated with him and blacked out the rest of the page.

The result was what he called the blackout poems.

He created something from an already existing work.

According to him, he had a block and that was the only way he could create.

Ironically, Austin Kleon wasn’t even the first person to start something like that.

In his research, he discovered that for 250 years people were creating poems out of newspapers. He went ahead to make a family tree adding these artists and illustrating the giants before him.

Now that is a typical example of how you can build on the previous work of other people.

The fill director, Jim Jarsmacuh puts in the most elaborate and yet perfect way

“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.’”

The most liberating lesson I leant as a writer is this: though the work I’m doing that has been done before, it doesn’t undermine my creation.

I have learnt to study the work of writers before me.

•To be inspired by them
•To imitate
•To collect
•to ‘steal’

And in doing this, I find my expertise, style and voice.

Let’s go to the story of Apple

Apple borrowed ideas from previous of work/inventions.

As much as they are considered innovators and it is easy to assume that a lot of their ideas are theirs, this is not the case.

When Apple launched and unveiled the idea of an Ipod in 2001, there was someone called Kane Kramer who developed the idea of a plastic music box in 1959. He tried to file for a patent in 1981. He couldn’t pull afford to pay for it and he lost the patent.

When pitching it to investors, Kane described it as a potential for immediate delivery, digital inventory, promotion of new artists

Sounds familiar?

Amazingly, Kane Kramer took this inspiration from Sony Walker.

Apple also borrowed the idea for the iPad from Microsoft (the MS Tablet PC debuted in 2001), the smartphone (IBM had a working prototype in 1992), and iTunes (SoundJam beat them to the punch in 1999 and were later bought by Apple).

You see?

Apple has also borrowed other ideas, and built on them

We have up to seven billion people living on the planet and millions that have come before us, the idea that you are coming up with an original idea is almost impossible and that should not be the pursuit of any artist.

This is what artists and creators do- find something that resonates with you, look for a multiple sources, collect these ideas and build something for yourself.

Hear Steve jobs

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”


Shakespeare is known as probably the greatiest writer that ever existed. He wrote essays, poetry and drama and even though he wrote them at the 16th Century, till today, his plays are still being celebrated and read.

As a matter of fact, a lot of people have mentioned that the way Shakespeare borrowed ideas from other people, his works may not have survived the modern copyright laws.

I guess we would never know.

Parts of Anthony and Cleopatra are copied verbatim form Plutrachs life of Mark Anthony.

Hamlet was drew inspiration from Gesta Danorum , A twelfth century work of Danish history.

Holinshed’s Chronicles, a co-authored account of British history from the late sixteenth century, tells stories that mimic the plot of Macbeth, including the three witches.

And even in this, looking back there are still a lot people behind the scenes.

I mean, even Facebook is presumed to have been built on Friendster.

All these try to point to the fact that we don’t have to be original to be creative.

What Shakespeare did was remarkable; he drew inspiration from original texts and somehow they can’t compare to the plays he had written.

Most of the originals were dry, lacked engaging languages and he took them, overhauled and brought poetry and drama to their scenes.

That is creativity

The possibilities

Are you saying that people should not and cannot come up with their original ideas? You might ask

No of course

However the future of creativity lies in the possibilities.

Each invention and innovation opens a new door; a new possibility

Shakespeare could write all he wrote because there was a previous giant that opened a door to the use of language and literary devices.

Steve jobs could build Apple because there were already laid technological advances by other giants before him

So the question for creatives should be “what new doors can I open as result of the previous work of other giants?”

Advances are only possible if there was a giant that laid the ground for a work.

The expertise and work is out there. It’s in books, in poems, in essays, in stories, in interviews, in podcasts.

Lean on them.

In whatever you are trying to do, you have a giant that you can learn from.

How can I build on previous work?

Consume what you want to create.

Read the kind of books you want to write.

Take inspiration from anywhere

Listen to the conversations of people.

Fish for stories

Lean on the stories, inspiration and great ideas of people from the past.

Turn it into something for yourself

If you read essays day after day on topics that interest you, you automatically build up information that you eventually merge together to help create your unique work.

This goes to buttress the point that we are not necessarily creative- but we create creativity

What will you build on today?

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Jumoke Oyeniran May 19, 2021 at 7:08 pm

This post is exactly what I need at the moment. Many thanks.

Debby Keys May 19, 2021 at 7:27 pm

Thank you so much Jumoke. I’m glad you read. I’m gladder that it helped you. ❤️


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