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Austin Kleon is the New York Times bestselling author of a trilogy of books about creativity in the digital age: Steal Like An Artist, Show Your Work!, and Keep Going. Before all of that, he’d been a librarian, a web designer, and an advertising copywriter. Discover Austin’s path to becoming a famous author, how he successfully navigated that pivot, and the vast web of influences that inspire his creative work and daily life.
More from the episode
- Austin describes the “catalytic moment” he met cartoonist Lynda Barry, and how it transformed his creative practice.
- Why obscurity, especially at the beginning of your creative career, can actually be a positive thing.
- How does working in public view continue to feed his creative process?
- What is Austin’s “perpetual motion machine” for producing new material, and how did he discover it?
- When do you know if a creative work is finished? Is it ever?
About Austin Kleon
Austin Kleon is the New York Times bestselling author of a trilogy of illustrated books about creativity in the digital age: Steal Like An Artist, Show Your Work!, and Keep Going. He’s also the author of Newspaper Blackout, a collection of poems made by redacting the newspaper with a permanent marker. His books have been translated into dozens of languages and have sold over a million copies worldwide. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and sons.
Connect with Austin
Quiet: The power of introverts a world that won’t stop talking
Click here to view the transcript!
Austin Kleon: It was true of Hemingway. And it’s true of the guy that’s writing in his basement. It’s like every time you finish something, it’s like, well, now what? The people who survived that “what now?” are the people who have creative routines. They have processes in their life to continually work, no matter what’s going on to do their thing, to have a creative habit, like Twlya Tharp would say.
What does it really take to become successful as a writer or artist?
There are a lot of destructive myths out there about what a creative career is supposed to look like. We’re told we shouldn’t care about worldly success or money. We’re told that if we’re good enough, everything would magically fall into place. That’s a lie and it keeps us struggling, baffled, and hungry for any shred of information that might shed light on how to keep making the work we love. That’s why I get any two artists or writers or any creatives really together in a room. And it’s a foregone conclusion that the conversation will turn to money and the nitty gritty reality of being a professional, creative.
I’m cartoonist and creative business. Coach Jessica Abel.
In my own life. The studio visit back channel conversations with other artists where we share our insights and hacks anxieties and red flags have been critical to any success I’ve achieved.
And now. I’m bringing that conversation to you. This is the Autonomous Creative.
Austin Kleon is the New York Times bestselling author of a trilogy of illustrated books about creativity in the digital age, Steal Like an Artist, Show Your Work, and Keep Going. Before all of that, he was a librarian, a web designer, and an advertising copywriter.
In his book Show Your Work, Austin brings up a model for thinking about creativity that musician Brian Eno refers to as scenius, as opposed to being a solo creative genius. A scenius is more like the communal form of genius. When we talk about being a creative genius, it takes us out of context. It encourages an egocentric model for creative work that can be harmful to us and to other creatives.
On the other hand, the idea of a scenius puts us back in context as part of a larger creative ecosystem where we’re all learning, borrowing, and collaborating with others, consciously or unconsciously.
Austin and I met briefly in 2008 when I was on a book tour with my husband and co author, Matt Madden for my textbook about comics, Drawing Words and Writing Pictures. Austin sketch noted a talk we gave, and then he sent us the blog post, which put him on our radar. Later when we saw his books appear, we were already interested in what he had to say. It was an early hint of the kind of curious and connected artist Austin is today.
I can’t wait to talk about Austin’s deep connections to a vast web of influences. And how in turn, his work has become a kind of nexus for his readers and subscribers. And we’ll get straight into it right after this.
This episode of the Autonomous creative is brought To you by the Creative Engine. I talk to working creative people all the time, both on the show and in our membership, the Autonomous Creative Collective, and one of the biggest challenges they struggle with is procrastination.
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Now let’s start the show.
Jessica Abel: So, Austin, welcome. I am so excited to have you here today.
Austin Kleon: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, wherever here is in this kind of
Austin Kleon: Which I love.
I’ve reading a book about physics. So I’m, my brains are all scrambled. I’ve been reading Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time. And so, you know, I’ve been thinking about space and time and it’s, it’s not helpful in day to day life. It just scrambles. It’s like the brain scrambles. So
Jessica Abel: Yeah, I’ve been reading, um, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry of The Future.
Austin Kleon: Oh yeah. Yeah.
Jessica Abel: Which is like this big thinky, speculative fiction book about climate change. And how do we get out of the trouble that we’re in? And what’s really interesting about it is that it’s– it’s like, he has so many ideas he wants to cram into this thing. They’re whole chapters that are just like, you don’t know, who’s talking, they’re just telling you about a plan to fix something. There’s like one thing after another. It’s awesome. And exhausting. So anyway.
Austin Kleon: I found that Rovelli was really good hangover reading. Like I, I found that like, I know, I know this is very strange, but it’s very on point with Rovelli, cuz he talks so much about theory of relativity and how time changes depending on where you are and what you’re doing. And I found that his work in particular was really great hangover reading.
There was something about being sort of impaired or gentle with yourself that I was able to like digest this text correctly and it was, it was like a very strange- I loved that because I’m, I’m a huge believer that you just, um, books are about the right place and right time and really art in particular, you know, it’s, it, you mentioned context before, and it’s so much about being in the right place at the right time, but there are, I’m obsessed with the idea that there are situations in which certain books will be best for you, you know?
And that’s why I’m really interested in like Eno’s concept of ambient music and this idea of making art for situations. And I think about that sometimes in my books about like, well, what, what situation does this book read for?
Jessica Abel: I think that is, that is such a perfect intro into how I wanna talk to you today. So thank you for that, because I feel like you wrote books, in the order that you needed them, essentially. You wrote books about where you were at in your own creative journey, which in turn then makes them kind of perfect for the, your readers to read in a certain order and kind of go through this journey with you.
So I actually wanted to kind of organize my questions a little bit that way around like, not all your books, obviously, but like your big three, and try to sort of form questions around those parts of a creative life, if that makes sense to you.
Steal Like an Artist
Jessica Abel: Cool. So let’s start with Steal Like an Artist. So, Steal Like an Artist, how would you define it?
Austin Kleon: I think Steal Like an Artist is just a book about how to be an artist. It’s kind of a, just a general. I mean, it’s funny cuz like the word creative. I wasn’t really aware of the, that there was like a creativity section in the bookstore. Like, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that there were books about creativity.
When I made Steal Like an Artist, I was just thinking about what do I wish I had known when I first started out trying to be a writer or trying to be a cartoonist or whatever. And I just was kind of… and, and that’s the thing to know about that book is that it was written as a talk first for some students who were barely five years younger than I was, if that. And so it’s sort of like, it’s sort of me trying to speak to myself in the past. But the big idea of Steal Like an Artist is that you’re just kind of a mashup of what you led into your life and that the way to be original, or to find your voice, is to actually borrow 6 to 12 different voices when you’re starting out.
And eventually you kind of find your own through imitation of other people and, and you kind of become your own kind of Frankenstein’s monster in, in the course of like trying and imitating and copying and taking little bits and pieces from other artists, you discover the voice that you have.
And I think that’s what, so it’s about being active. Like we, we sort of like, this stuff happens sort of subconsciously no matter who you are, but it’s sort of a book about try to, to bring that to the surface and get people to be intentional about it.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. And actually one of the things I was observing as I went through this was, as I went through, you know, thinking about your work and preparing for this interview was that, I mean, of course I also stole from 6 to 12 or more artists on my way through. Um, but I feel like you engage so deeply with your material and the fact that you had a life stage when you were a librarian, seems like it’s so relevant to this, and you also have talked about starting as a fan.
So can you talk a little bit how maybe those things fed in? Cause I, I was aware of stealing, quote unquote, stealing and borrowing from my heroes and happy to do it, but I never sort of thought about it deeply.
Austin Kleon: Yeah. So I mean, a couple of things were going on from about the time that, like we met each other, which would’ve been 2008 to pretty much from 2005 to when Steal came out in 2012, that was sort of my, that was my post college. I never went to grad school, but that was my like kind of work day jobs figure things out period.
What happened to me that was so, so serendipitous is I got a job in a public library right outta college. And it was the best job. It was like a 20 hour job. And I had benefits. So it’s like one of those county jobs that are just like incredible. In hindsight, it’s like it even had a retirement plan, you know?
So I like was just working this like 20 hour a week job in a public library and then spending the rest of my time blogging and trying to make comics and like playing Zelda, I guess. I don’t know. What is, what is a 22 year old do?
So, um, it was fantastic, but the thing that was really interesting to me about being a librarian is it’s sort of the first time in the sense that you have to really think about readers, about what it’s like to be a reader and to see the other side of… I think every writer should have to either work in a bookstore or work in a library to force them to really think about who are the other people on the end of this that you’re like trying to meet? And to examine your own life as a reader.
Because the thing that sort of happens in college is it’s this very artificial environment, I feel like. It, it could be wonderful and it could be very nurturing, but it’s also artificial in the sense that your professor’s getting paid to read your writing and the other students are paying to read your writing.
So it’s like, you don’t really think about, I never really thought that much about writing something that I’d wanna read. I just never really thought about that as a student. I thought about writing something for my professor would like, or write something that just was, I don’t know.
I just never thought about it in terms of like delivering something that would actually be of service in a sense to the reader, either entertaining them or, or helping them. It was only when I got to, I mean, it was only really until I got to be a librarian and I saw what people actually took out of the library, which is like James Patterson novels and Nora Roberts and Chilton Auto Repair Manuals.
I mean, I was in a suburban library, so it was kind of like you know, it was, was either helpful or entertaining. And it wasn’t a lot of the artsy fartsy stuff like I liked. No one was coming in asking for Teratoid Heights or something like that. Some like rare, rare, uh, art comic or something, you know?
So it, was sort of that moment where I was kind of like, okay. So that was, that was a big deal. And then the other thing that was happening was I just knew I wasn’t good enough yet. I just sort of knew I didn’t have the stuff yet to be really great.
Meeting Lynda Berry
Austin Kleon: But what I figured was if I go to these book events, if I go see these writers and I listen to them and I draw them, in particular, because I mean, in 2005 nobody’s camera phone was very good. So you would’ve had to bring like a big camera to take pictures of people. So I immediately thought, oh, well, it’s easier to draw authors than it is to take pictures of them.
So that’s when I started drawing and taking notes. And then I realized, oh, well, I can put this on my blog. And I quickly found out that if you draw someone or at least in 2005, if you draw someone and blog about their book event, they’re gonna see it because everybody’s got a Google alert on their name.
And so that’s how I met a lot of people when I was younger. And so, for example, one of the great things that happened to me. I was living in Cleveland when I was a librarian, that’s where my wife is from. And I had drawn a Dan Chaon event. Dan Chaon is a fantastic literary horror kind of writer. And he teaches at Oberlin or he taught at Oberlin.
But Dan saw a drawing of mine and said, “Oh, you made me look like a Lynda Barry character. And I said, “Who’s Lynda Barry?” And he was like, “Oh, God. Okay kid.” And we like met for coffee and he was working on a graphic novel, like, a comics class at Oberlin.
So we kind of swapped interests and comics and stuff. And then he said, ” I really think you should come to Oberlin to listen to this woman, Lynda Barry talk.” I said, “Oh yeah. Cool. All right.” And like, I had literally never read anything of Lynda Barry’s and I saw her talk and it changed my life.
Like I literally saw Lynda talk and she, there were a couple of things that artistically were happening at the time, but Lynda really… I realized, oh, pictures and words. That’s my thing. This woman can unite… the way she talks about creative work, the way she talks about uniting pictures and words like this is it. This is what I need. And I got to spend two hours at the bar with Lynda and Dan and it just changed my life. That was it. I’ve run my whole career off sort of that, that was like a catalytic moment.
Lynda and Dan are probably somewhere thinking, oh, great, look what we- you know, like you gotta be careful who you’re nice to. Uh, but yeah, that was a catalytic for me. And then that just sent me on a path of of discovery. But that was, you’re right in that, that idea being a fan first was very clear to me early on, because I just thought this is how it’s done. You’ve gotta study first. And I, I was a student. I was a very A type, like I was valedictorian in my high school.
I went to college on scholarship. Straight A student. Thought I’d be a professor, had a teacher who said, “Don’t go to grad school, just get a job if you wanna be a writer.” And I did that and I never went back to school. So I’m a student who never went back to school in a sense. And so that was, that’s sort of how it happened for me in the early days.
But that was when that sense of like I realized like early on when you’re a young artist, it’s like, you’ve got all these things that older people don’t have, mostly time. You have time and you have nothing to lose too. You’re starting from nothing. So you can kind of take chances in this weird way.
So one of the weird things that happened to me early on, and I don’t necessarily recommend this, but I used to be brutally honest about events I would go to. So I might like make fun of someone like, “Oh, I went to see…” Like there was an event at the Texas Book Festival that I went to see Tom Perrotta who’s a great writer, loved him.
But he just seemed like he was either drunk or he was having a rough night or something. And this moderator was terrible. And, and it, this is what I remember anyway. I was probably wrong, but I wrote about, I did comic about it. I did a cartoon about. I’d never do anything like that now, but what was really funny is a woman who became a friend of mine, saw that. She saw that and thought it was hilarious. And she reached out to me and we became friends. And so then she kind of helped me with some, so it was like, I think when
you’re young, you’ve got a couple
Jessica Abel: Yeah, like willingness to be wrong, willingness to put stuff out there, thinking that you’re gonna be right. There’s like a self-confidence that comes with youth, not knowing what consequences might be.
Austin Kleon: There’s a, and I feel like this was sort of, I don’t know, it’s not pre-social media, but like Twitter wasn’t around yet. If you did something on your blog, you know, you’re not gonna get… But I think like in the beginning, you know, Cory Doctorow talks about this. He’s like, you know, in the beginning, your problem is obscurity. Nobody knows anything about you. But for me, it’s like, well, that’s not a problem in the beginning. In the beginning, that’s great. Because then you can try a lot of different things and you can be experimental and you just don’t have much to lose.
So you just, you know, people are so scared when they’re starting out, “Oh God, what will happen if I put my stuff online?” It’s like, nothing. Nothing will happen because if your stuff sucks, no one will look at it. No one’s waiting for someone to who draws badly to put their,
Jessica Abel: Right, but that’s the problem isn’t it? That’s the problem is like, if nothing happens, that’s incredibly disappointing. Like what you want is something to happen. You don’t want a negative thing to happen, but the idea of putting stuff out there and not getting response is something I hear about all the time.
But I wanted to go back a second because you’re talking about like your trajectory as sort of heading towards academia, you know, somebody who’s obviously already really oriented toward reading and really cared about sources. And then you become a librarian. A lot of people, I know that stage of researching and just being overwhelmed by the awesomeness of all of these things stops them. And I really feel like when you talked about Lynda Barry being catalytic, I think there’s something- it’s more than just, this is words and pictures, but one of Lynda’s core tenets is just sit down and draw. Draw now. I don’t care. Just do it now. Start now. Do it now.
And I feel like that might be the thing because you could have- I call that the collect phase of like this framework I use, the Creative Engine. Basically the collect phase is where you’re doing research and you’re learning about stuff. You’re going to grad school, you’re compiling notes, you’re, all that stuff. And the vast majority of the creative projects that are sitting in everybody’s houses right now, who’s here live on the call, you know, or who’s like gonna listen to this later. They’re in the collect phase. Most of the time. They’re not actually getting finished.
So that flipping over, and clearly you also have a certain, like you tested your threshold for risk early when it was easier to do that, both because you were young and because you were unknown, right. And kind of raised your bar over time. So all of those things come together. So I guess my question for you is A, does that sound right? And B, what would you say to somebody else who’s maybe mid-career now and doesn’t have those advantages or disadvantages, depending on how you look?
What advice would you give to someone else who’s mid-career? + The curse of the expert
Austin Kleon: Gosh, what would I say? So right now Steal Like an Artist is about to turn 10 years old. And we’re talking right now about doing a 10th anniversary edition and what, what should that look like? And like, what’s the message here?
One of the things I take from the book personally, is that you get to a point in your career where you’re like out here and the people who are like, kind of over here still, like, you’re you got to your thing, right? And you’re kind of cruising. The people who are sort of like over here still, it gets harder and harder to remember what this is like.
And I think why Steal Like an Artist works so well is because it’s from someone right here. It’s from someone who isn’t that far off of the starting line, but they feel like they’ve got some things figured out and they feel like they’re on a trajectory. So it’s the old C.S. Lewis quote, where he says, ” A fellow student can teach you as much as the teacher can, because they’ve just figured out the problem.” So
Jessica Abel: Well, and they know what the questions are. Like, they, they actually know what the questions are. So it is a, time capsule, right? Like, Steal Like an Artist is a time capsule of you’re learning at that time. And the question really, it’s a really good question. Like do you? How do you update that? I mean, as a teacher and coach myself, like I’m constantly dealing with this, what they call the curse of the expert, which is what you’re talking about.
I have gone through a whole bunch of changes in my creative work, in my sort of organizing of my creative life, all the things that I teach about and to go back to that place that I was in when I was 25 or whatever. It’s hard. It’s hard to get myself into that mental space. Coaching helps because you’re talking to people in the moment and you can kind of enter into, you know, you’re having conversations with people who are in that moment. And so it revivifies it, but writing is hard, you know, it is.
Austin Kleon: Yeah. And I would say, that is something that should probably be, I should probably foreground is that I don’t really see myself as a teacher or a coach. Like I don’t do any kind of direct. Most of my stuff is just the artifact of my own study. There, there is a kind of, the only way I can really do these books is to just ask myself what I’m trying to figure out.
And so they’re very selfish in a sense. They start from a point of, what I’m going through. I think they, that it’s both good and bad. I think it makes the rawness and the feeling that people get from the books is from that. But do I address people’s questions directly? Not necessarily.
Honestly, I get very impatient with direct questions these days, because part of my problem is: figure it out! Oh, if you wanna be creative, you think that your heroes sat around asking people questions? You know, I, I get a little impatient sometimes with this idea that there’s a, there are guides to the stuff that you can just pick up, you know, like, cuz in the early days for me it was just like, what did my heroes do?
And I was looking around. I was like, well, none of my heroes went to grad school so why should I go to- you know, and I’m asking these questions. Of course, then I’m also contextualizing people. I’m trying to think, well, what was different for them? So like, when I think about Vonnegut, who was one of my heroes when I was younger, I mean, I loved his stuff and I loved his writing and stuff.
Well, I’m looking, I’m like, well, there was a, there was a market for magazines back then and people actually read novels in the sixties and you could make a lot of money doing this. So like, there’s a, you know what I mean? So it’s like reverse engineering what your heroes did, but then trying to extrapolate lessons from them that are decontextualized…
Jessica Abel: relevant to you
Austin Kleon: they’re relevant to you.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, .
I do think it’s problematic though, to go and like look at the outside of how people, like what you can see, you know, all these articles about how people work and whatever. It’s the same curse of the expert type of thing in a different guise really. where it’s like, the same thing you’re talking about where it’s like hard to figure out what say to people who are where you were 10 years ago. and should remember, it’s a, it’s a act of remembering in some way.
Austin Kleon: I don’t have the patience to do what you do. I cannot. I’m not a helpful person. People are always, people, this is really funny. So this is the thing that I, so when people read my books, it is me at my most helpful and kindest. It is everything that I have, and it is packaged in a way that it’s like here, but in my day to day life, I don’t care that much about what people do.
And I know that’s really awful for people to hear, but I think it’s a good lesson in that I am sort of, I’m figuring this stuff out, I’m leaving this stuff for you. If you can use it, use it, but I’m on my own. Like, I’m doing my own thing. I’m on my own sort of quest and I just don’t care that much what other people do. And I think that’s the problem with being a teacher, you know, when you’re trying to do your own creative work, there’s a terrible balance between helping other people and trying to do your own work because the artist doesn’t really care about much other than their own work.
Jessica Abel: I mean, certainly in the moment when you’re In when you’re doing it. Yeah.
Austin Kleon: I mean, now that’s why, for example, for me as a dad, I like reading books by mothers about making art and raising kids, because I think that tension, historically, that tension wasn’t there for dads, first of all. But for me it’s like, I don’t know, I guess it’s the punk rocker in me that there’s this balance of like F you world when you’re working. You also wanna help, you know, I feel torn between these poles.
I feel like that’s what the work sort of runs on, but I’m sort of in my everyday life, I mean, my friends think it’s hilarious that I write wrote these books because they know me as this kind of like not, I wouldn’t say misanthropic, but little curmudgeonly, a little grumpy, you know, on the whole. And they think it’s hilarious. And I was like, well, but these books are my way of giving. These books are, when I make these books, it’s sort of redeeming my, I’m just trying to be helpful.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. And, but I mean, also think, I feel like it’s people have been asking you for this kind of advice since you were right outta school, right? That’s why you did the first talk. yeah, Then you have a chance to do it your way, put it all together and present it. And I remember you saying something about feeling like really mixed feelings about being in the self-help section.
Austin Kleon: Oh yeah,
Jessica Abel: which, I completely understand. I mean, I actually wrote a self-help book on purpose, but even so I was like, how do I feel about this? You know, I don’t wanna set myself up as the person with all the answers. I don’t feel good about that. Um, but on the other hand, I have, unlike you, I have like this really deep pedagogical bone that goes like my instinct goes way back to way before I was teaching. And I would write sections on my website, like how to use these brushes or how to
Austin Kleon: Yeah. Do you have teachers in your family? See, I was raised by a mom who was a high . School principal and my dad was a 4-H agent and my aunts were teachers. So I like come from teacher stock.
Jessica Abel: Well, maybe you were scared
Austin Kleon: Well, the problem is, I don’t really believe in a lot of the kinds of teaching that we do in this culture.
Jessica Abel: Hmm.
Parenting, teaching creative kids
Jessica Abel: Uh, yeah, that’s something else I wanted to ask you about.
Austin Kleon: Teaching someone something without their will to be taught is a tricky- i, I believe less and less in direct teaching as time goes on. I’m… like around the house. I don’t really think of myself as a teacher. And I don’t think of this house as school. I think of it as a library. I truly, with my kids, I’m, I’m sort of trying to create an environment in which they can learn for themselves. And, and I’m their librarian. I’m their DJ. I’m their It’s like, I’m, I’m trying to create a space and resources and time for them to sort of explore their own stuff and to be a resource for them when they’re ready. But I specifically try to not make this house like school,
Jessica Abel: Yeah, No, I hear
Austin Kleon: and curriculum and stuff like that.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. When I started reading about you, you know, when you started talking about unschooling and obviously when your older kid was, and he’s eight now, right?
Austin Kleon: He’s eight.
Jessica Abel: When you started thinking about any kind of school related stuff, you were just like off in that direction towards unschooling. I’m like really envious, I have to say, cause I always thought that sounded so amazing to do my own kids. Ah, it’s hard. And like my own kids, like when I try to make space like that for them, you know, it gets filled with Video games. Like they just don’t you know they’ll come their own stuff to do a little bit, but you know, the self-motivation at that age, it’s, I dunno, it’s really tough. And of course, you know, there there’s the time balance, but what I wanted to ask you about with it was not so much advice or how to make my children wanna learn things which isn’t-
Austin Kleon: none, so it’s good. , that’s why I won’t
Jessica Abel: No advice about that.
Austin Kleon: I mean, you know, My publisher’s like, please write a book about raising creative children and I, I can’t do it. Sorry. They’re all diff- there’s a great, Colson Whitehead tweet. And he says, “My parenting book is called good luck, sucker. Everyone’s different.” And the chapters are labeled like breastfeeding or sleep training. And every, and the text of every chapter is “Good luck, sucker. Everyone’s different.”
Jessica Abel: Just ask him if you can use that.
Austin Kleon: It’d be a great zine. Right?
Jessica Abel: Yeah, totally.
Artists being maladjusted
Austin Kleon: the thing that I discovered very early on as a parent, is that everything that’s good for kids is good for you. I, I mean, it’s just like, they need the same things that we need as creative people. They need nice spaces to go to. They need lots of uninterrupted time. They need good materials to work with. They need big stacks of books and walks and fresh air and all this stuff. And so, you know, the book I’m trying to do in my head is just how to create an environment in which you got a better chance of this stuff happening,
cuz that’s what I’m really interested in. But I don’t know. The school thing is very difficult because you have to have something to replace school with.
Like school has sort of become the community that we send our kids to, but you have to have something to replace it with. And so we are, as parents, we don’t have a, we don’t have a real bustling, especially now, we don’t have a real bustling social life. We don’t go to church. We don’t have a gigantic community to plug them into. And we also don’t have quite the energy that, so, you know, my kids do go to, they went to school last year. Well, before the pandemic, they did go to school for like half a year and it was going great. My wife and I loved our life once we sent ’em to school. Take long walks and go to lunch, get everything done in the morning, you know, it was great.
But I think that, like, I feel like the early years of just being around, like I was freaked out the other day, cuz my oldest is a loves music. He loves video games. And so I’m trying to get him to make video game music, which he loves to do. So he makes video games, plays video games, makes video game music, which is great. I’m okay with that. As long as there’s like a creating element to it, it’s not just consumptive. So, but I was looking at photos when he was a baby. It’s just like every photo he’s holding the music instrument. It’s like, well, of course. You know, it’s just so like, they sort of come here with proclivities and whatever, but it was like, I really believe in DNA and daily life.
It’s like what you get, what you come here with, and then what you’re put in, your context. So, I don’t know. It’s weird with my kids. The other question that I really have for people who want creative kids, I’m like, are you sure you do? Because teachers say all the time. “Well, I want creative, I want creative problem solvers and deep thinker” blah, blah, blah. And then when you ask ’em who their favorite kids are, it’s never the most creative kid in the class. It’s the kid who like, does what they’re told and like takes orders and stuff. I mean like creative people don’t, they’re gonna throw problems at you.
They’re like veloci- they’re even more velociraptor like than regular children, because they’re, there’s a, I think that there’s a, there’s a maladjustment to being a creative person. You look at the world and you’re like, well, why is it this way? That’s sort of the root of creative work because if you didn’t have that initial impulse, like, “Well, there’s something missing here. Isn’t there?”
Then why would you ever make anything? Why, why would you, like if you’re okay with the world? Why would you make anything if you were like content, you know? And so there’s, I think there’s often a- I, I find that, you know, you have to kind of be a little… people ask like, well, why are artists so, you know, why are artists the way they are or whatever?
It’s like, well, , a lot of them it’s cuz they don’t fit because the world is, they don’t have a place to plug in. There’s not the right, they’re a little bit outside of it and they, there’s a little bit of maladjustment there.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. Well, and I
Austin Kleon: lost in.
Jessica Abel: Your observations about like education and how people are channeled into certain kinds of behavior and not allowed to kind of find their own way, something that then I end up dealing with my art students and undergrads and older students and clients where they’re having to reinvent. Right. They’re having to figure out what does it mean to make your own decisions about things
Austin Kleon: They have to deschool themselves
Jessica Abel: Yeah, it’s really, it’s, it’s,
Austin Kleon: Because, you know, you’re given all your assignments at school. People tell you what to do, tell you what to work on, tell you what the right answer is.
Jessica Abel: And remind you a lot. and like are consequences for things not showing up and all that
Austin Kleon: Yeah. And when you’re here, when I’m here, nobody tells me anything. I feel lonely all the time. It’s like, oh God, it’s just me. What do I do? And it never gets any better. That is the thing that I am trying to tell. Like, look, you think that when you get to this point, you’re just gonna, and it’s not true because no matter how famous you get, no matter how successful you are after you do something, what is everyone gonna ask you?
Well, now what? Literally every project you do, it was true of Hemingway. And it’s true of the guy that’s writing in his basement. It’s like every time you finish something, it’s like, well, now what? You have to ask that over and over again. And so it became very clear to me early on that the people who survived that question, the people who survived that “what now?” are the people who have creative routines. They have processes in their life to continually work, no matter what’s going on to do their thing, to have a creative habit, like Twlya Tharp would say.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. Yeah. And that’s actually, we’re skipping over the middle, but that’s the Keep Going part, right? That’s
Austin Kleon: Yeah. That’s, so that’s where Going came from.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, is this idea of like, what do you do once you have a couple best sellers and people are like, what’s next? What are you gonna do? And you have to sit down by yourself, in your studio and figure out what’s next.
And even if you don’t have best sellers, even if you just finish a project, then you have to, you know, I, I talk to people all the time who feel like there’s this sort of, you finished big thing. It’s amazing. It’s so cool. You finished it. You’re so proud. And you just fall off a cliff after that. It’s like, even if you have a routine and you know, you still, you have to come back and go, now it’s all empty. All of this stuff got used somewhere.
Austin Kleon: And the most brilliant people, it happens to everybody. Like I remember reading Bell Hooks and I was like, she’s Bell Hooks, I can’t imagine being able to write like her and have her mind and whatever. And she says every project I’m adrift every time a project’s over the, the actual fabric of my life disintegrates. And I’m like, what’s the meaning and purpose? But it’s true of everyone. I, it just, unless you have a perpetual system where you just work and work and work. And that’s
Jessica Abel: Well, and I would argue, I would argue that even then there’s that yeah. That “now what?”, like you come back to your studio and you know, you’re there and you’re gonna be working, but you’re not sure on what exactly. You don’t really have… and the problem I think that you can fall into cuz you, I think it’s really important creatively to allow that space and that, the anxiety of not knowing what’s next and show up anyway, because there are two things that can happen.
One is you stop, your routine falls apart, and then who knows when the next thing’s gonna happen or the other thing is you pre-fill it, that’s my problem, where I’ve already set up three or four more projects that are just waiting to just flood in. And there’s never a break. There’s never a pause to really think like, is this the right thing? Should I be going in this direction.
Austin Kleon: Well, I blogged the other, I mean, just yesterday I was telling people look like I’m an extroverted, I’m the weird extroverted writer. So like, I would much rather talk all day than write. So I could do this kind of thing every afternoon and fill my life and I’d never make anything again. You know what I mean? Like it’s, so it’s so much about like I have to sit down and do that stare at that blank page, you know, or that blinking cursor.
Jessica Abel: do you stare pages? Is that how you do it? Or how, what do you do for your Keep Going routine? Like what’s the piece of it that is most crucial to you to, to make the next thing.
What do you do for your Keep Going routine?
Austin Kleon: So I’m influenced by two Davids. The first one is Henry David Thoreau, so I fell in love with Thoreau a few years ago, I read a wonderful biography about him by Laura Walls.
And I started reading his journal. And the thing I took from Thoreau is you, you know, a lot of people when they read Thoreau, they’re like, oh yeah, you’re supposed to go out in the woods and live a whatever. And it’s like, no, that’s not actually the message of Thoreau. The, the message of Thoreau is go for a walk every day and look at the world and then come back and write about it.
And so the minute I sort of glea- I gleaned that from Thoreau and I started a diary, an old fashioned diary, right after the 2016 election. I was like, I gotta have a place to put all this stuff. So I started a diary, it’s just a five by seven notebook. It’s kind of thick and chunky. It almost looks like a little Bible or something. And it’s filled with drawings and writing and, but that’s not the most important notebook. The one that’s the most important one is about two by four and it’s this little one that hangs out in my pocket all day.
The thing I figured out from another David, David Sedaris is, um, he unlocked something for me that is just like blew my mind and changed my whole life, which is Sedaris has been keeping a diary for decades. And that’s where all of his work comes from. Just a lot, like Thoreau, see the way these guys worked is they write in their diary every day. And then when it’s time to make an essay or piece, they would go through their diary and take little bits and pieces and form their pieces from that. But the thing I didn’t realize until not long ago is that Sedaris actually has a pocket notebook all day that he’s taking notes in, and Thoreau too kept a notebook and stuff.
And then he writes about yesterday when he sits down to write in his diary. So in the morning he writes about what happened yesterday and there’s something about, you know, a lot of people try to write about their day at the end of the day. You’re too tired. You can’t think, and you can’t sort out what’s important or whatever. But if you sit down in the morning and you write about what happened yesterday, for me, you immediately know what was important and you uncover sort of what you were interested in. And so I have this system where, now where I carry around a pocket notebook all day, scribble a little stuff in it. I sit down in the morning, I do at least three pages, sometimes five, sometimes 10 of handwriting.
And then I take about 30 minutes to an hour after that’s done. I sit down and I try to blog. On weekdays I blog. So I’ll open up a fresh WordPress thing and start typing and find an image to fly in there. And I do that four days a week, so that’s sort of my system. And then out of all that work comes the books because as I keep doing that themes emerge and it’s like, okay, I have this and I have that. And so it’s a very iterative step-by-step, little Lego bricks that become bigger pieces that can fit in to bigger
Jessica Abel: They kind of coalesce, right? They kind of
Austin Kleon: Yeah. And something emerges from that process. But I don’t start out wondering, I don’t start out, you know, with the idea. But to me it was very important to find that sort of perpetual motion machine for producing material.
And I think a lot of that comes from the fact that I’m a writer primarily. I always called myself a writer who draws rather than like an artist who writes, because I fundamentally think that I think like a writer. It’s just the words and pictures, pictures bring words, words bring pictures, you know, it’s, it’s all my wanting to be a cartoonist when I was younger.
So it’s, it’s all kind of, it’s all part of a system, but once I figured out that system for myself, and everyone has to figure out their own systems, but I do think that there has to be some sort of daily work. The people I know who are really good, there’s some sort of daily work. There are people like
Jessica Abel: It’s a kind of way of like keeping a connection with this continuous thread of thought essentially through days and weeks at a if you let it drop, you can kind of lose your place a little bit. It’s not that you can’t get back if you, if you need to do that, but it takes more time. Like there’s the context switching of switching gears into something and coming back to something.
Austin Kleon: That’s a good, that’s a good term. The context switching. But if you have, I mean, the thing I found is like, if you’ve got a notebook, you write in it. If you carry a notebook, you’re gonna write in it. There’s a place
Jessica Abel: That’s not true. I carry a notebook and I don’t write in it. So there!
Austin Kleon: I mean, what the hell are you carrying around for then? No.
Jessica Abel: I want to,
Austin Kleon: Um, Right, right. You- I mean,
Jessica Abel: You have to, you have to actively make that habit. You know, you have to put that habit in place.
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Okay. Back to the show.
Jessica Abel: And I wanted to ask you a question too, that has to do with this, because this is clearly something you’ve built up over time. You had your one notebook and then you added the second notebook and then, you know, the process and everything. Can you talk about a time that you saw yourself veering off track? Like things were not, you were not keeping going. And what did you do about that?
Can you talk about a time that you saw yourself veering off track?
Austin Kleon: Every day of my life. No. Um. For me, it was the 2016 election. I think something came to a head. I was unhappy with the tone of the country, which how could you not be? That felt catastrophic to me politically. I watched my friends lose their minds even more than they do now. And so there was that.
And then personally it was just, I was, it was a struggle we were trying to, you know, we just had little kids. One of the things I do now is I look back and I, anyone who’s got any kids under the age of like four, just hold on. You just, like, it’s just gonna suck for a while.
I’m just like your life sucks cuz you’ve, you know, I mean, I was thinking in 2016. Yeah. My kid, my youngest kid was like one or two. And like, if you have a two year old, like your life, isn’t great. I mean, maybe it is if you’ve got like three nannies and cook or something, I dunno. But like, looking back, it’s just the burnout of being a parent, not getting a lot of sleep, the political climate, and then doing this stuff for 10 years. For me it was just like, I was just burned out.
And that’s really when I had that moment where I was like, I gotta figure out how to do this and I’m either gonna do this indefinitely or I gotta quit and go get a job, you know? And I don’t wanna work. I don’t wanna have a job. So, you like, now that I haven’t had one for a while. So it’s like, that
Jessica Abel: Did you like a sort of, did you do like a sort of investigation? Like, all right, this is the problem. Here’s how I’m gonna, I’m gonna try this. Or was it more organic than that?
Austin Kleon: Everything with me is organic. I don’t really, everything is sort of intuitive. For me, it was just reading about just reading a bunch of old dead people, as it usually is, you know, thinking about death, thinking about time, thinking about what I wanted to do, figuring out how other people did it.
I read a lot of diaries about… I wrote, Keep Going with a second Trump term in mind. I was like, what are my friends gonna do if there’s a second Trump term? That was in the back of my head when I wrote Keep Going, which I wrote in 2018. And it came out in 2019.
I knew something bad was coming. I didn’t know it was gonna be this bad. Like, I didn’t think about a pandemic, you know, I just figured it’d be second Trump term rise of fascism. I was like, okay, bad enough. I didn’t think about the plague. But there was this feeling that like, I mean, I’m incredibly pessimistic person and especially when it comes to America. We’re in an-
Being a pesssimistic person
Jessica Abel: Wait. You’re an incredibly pessimistic person?
Austin Kleon: Yeah,
Jessica Abel: Politically I can see it, but
Austin Kleon: I’m long term pessimist. I’m a daily optimist. I think there’s a lot you can do with the day. My outlook is comedic day to day. I read a book last year… part of my journey as a creative person is discovering that I have a comedic outlook on life rather than a tragic one.
And that’s not just like, oh, I’m sad versus, oh, happiness. If you really think about tragedy and the structure of- there’s a book called the Comedy of Survival, it’s out of print. It’s impossible to find. You can just look up my blog post about it for people who are interested. But if you think about tragedy, tragedy is about great people or people who think they’re great, who try to change the world.
They try to like bend the world to their will and they have some fatal flaw that kills them. That is the formal tragedy structure. Comedy is about fools and jesters and people who are very improvisational, they move through life and they, they encounter chaos, but they’re mainly about survival.
They’re mainly about change and being nimble and trickstery, and it ends in, most comedies end in marriage, right. The day goes on. There’s a new beginning. So for me, like a lot of my trajectory as a writer was understanding them. I have a fairly comedic approach to life.
Like I don’t think it’s about doing great. I don’t think it’s about great men trying to, you know, if you think about a lot of the narratives about creative work, it’s about like our great genius who has a vision and he brings it into the world and changes the world forever. Right. I just think that’s bullshit.
That’s not how my favorite writers work at all. Or my favorite artists. It’s people who are very like, they are able to feel the texture of the time and they work really hard on things, but they’re chameleonlike and they’re trickstery and they- it’s someone like David Bowie, right? It’s like, they move with the times and they’re, they’re flexible. And they, I think of someone like David Hockney, who’s still painting at like 80 whatever. And he just wakes up and paints flowers on his iPad and sends it to his friends. There’s that kind of day to day. We’ll see what happens today…
Jessica Abel: But there is also, I mean, I you clearly have the systems you’ve developed, that then you document it in some ways and Keep Going, are very robust and they can keep you going for a really long time.
They also, I think, depend on accretion and like you’re talking about this sort of iterative process, which is forward looking. It’s like, we’re gonna get somewhere with this. then you also have, like you make these, you do this in public, like you do this on a blog showing your work.
And you have four bestseller books. Am I right? Was the first book of bestseller as well?
Austin Kleon: Yeah. A poetry bestseller,
Jessica Abel: Poetry bestseller, that counts. Totally counts.
Austin Kleon: Buy a used Civic, maybe,
Jessica Abel: But the point is that like you have an output that’s public and that is, has a beginning and a middle and an end. Like, I mean, you were making it and then it was published and now it’s the sort of life of the book in the world.
So I think balancing those things is really interesting too, that David Bowie, we know David Bowie, not because he got up every morning and played his guitar, but because he made records and videos and movies and all this stuff. So blending those things seems very, very important.
And I guess the one thing I would ask like you’re talking about being kind of private in some ways and just really hang out with your friends and all this stuff, but then you have this public aspect where you’re sharing on your blog, and then that becomes vastly bigger when you publish a book that then becomes a best seller. How does that work for you? Like how do those things fit together? How do those pieces of your life fit together? I guess is what I’m trying to say.
How to do you fit together your private life with the public aspect of your work?
Austin Kleon: If you think about fame, fame is just more people knowing you than you know people. It’s not really that much more complex than that, there’s a great documentary called Supermensch that was directed by Mike Myers and it’s about his manager, Shep Gordon. And one of the things Mike Meyer says is that fame is the industrial sludge of creativity. That fame is just like a byproduct of doing some of this stuff, but as far as like how that works, I mean, I wouldn’t turn it away. There’s gotta be some kind of ambition gene, you gotta want to be seen.
And some, somehow. I mean, it is, there’s gotta be something somewhere. I mean, I joked the other day, I was like, look, be aware of anyone seeking an audience, just assume they’re a sociopath. I mean, that, that’s the safest, the safest thing to do with anyone who’s trying to be seen by a lot of people is to just assume their a sociopath.
I mean, cuz there is something about like, why do you want your work in the world? Why do you wanna be seen? What are your motivations to do it? Some people don’t
Jessica Abel: Well, what are your motivations?
What are your motivations?
Austin Kleon: Well, I have, so you know, the art tempers it. So the thing that I have figured out about myself basically, is that when I was growing up, I grew up in the middle of a cornfield in a small town, south of Columbus. And I loved this stuff. I loved books. I loved music. I loved art. And I just didn’t know that many people who loved it too. And all I wanted to do was to know a lot of people who cared about the same things that I cared about.
And so when I am putting my work out in the world, I am creating the world that I wish I had had when I was a kid. I am creating the world for myself that I wish I had had. And I’m doing books that I wish I had had when I was younger. And that’s all it really is, is it’s just, I’m trying to live the life that I wanted when I was that age.
Jessica Abel: Well, it’s living the life in terms of making things. But I also feel like, the thing I feel like that is the underlying impulse for, it’s not getting famous, but for being read is having a conversation. You know, you say you love conversations while
Austin Kleon: Yeah. You wanna talk back at people. You don’t wanna just hear what
Jessica Abel: Well, and you want, but you also wanna hear what they say to you about your ideas, right? You want your ideas to form that
Austin Kleon: forth.
Jessica Abel: Yeah.
Austin Kleon: Yeah. It’s a back and forth for sure. You wanna, it’s an intercourse with the world. That’s what Oliver Sacks said. I wanted an intercourse with the world. I wanted to engage. I wanted to be alive. You know, I wanted to know what it felt like to be alive and to be in the world and whatever. But I also think there’s something, you’re driven, you do it because you be dead if you didn’t do it.
If I don’t do this stuff, I am not a pleasant person to be around. I’m just This what I’m here for. And when you find that it’s powerful, sometimes it can destroy you. Sometimes finding out what you’re here for is a burden. I mean, it has been to a lot of people before, but you know, I had a teacher, a professor very early on and he said, you know, the reward for writing, for being a writer, is you get to write. And he was like, that’s it.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. Good to hear that early.
Austin Kleon: Yeah, he said, you know, the majority of you will never make a living off of your writing. So you just gotta decide now. That was senior year. He should have said it freshman year. There wouldn’t be any creative writing majors, but you know, it’s like,
Jessica Abel: Well, there still would be that’s the thing is every thinks I’m the exception to the rule and
Austin Kleon: Sure. The thing that I try to, so every once in a while, you know, I have my own reasons for things, but every once in a while, like if there’s a panel at South by Southwest or we’re at a conference and I meet some, you know, we have a mutual appreciation society as I like it. You get four people at a table who really, or two or three, and it’s the mutual appreciation society.
And I ask, ’em like, well, what’s the best part of all this of your career or whatever? Sometimes people are quiet and I’ll be like, you know what I think it is? And they’ll be like, what? And I’m like this right here, what we’re doing, this is the best, the mutual appreciation society, meeting the people, meeting people, finding your people, that’s part of it. I mean, that’s a big part of it for me.
What about the prospect of being creative in your spare time while earning your income in another source?
Jessica Abel: Yeah, I actually have a good question from Liz that pertains to that, that I think would be a good way to jump off. She says, “I noticed the base of this talk is being a professional artist. What about the prospect of being creative in your spare time while earning your income in another source? This interests me in the value that society places on being a full-time artist, where I also believe that being grounded is important.”
I agree. And I, I feel like the professionalization of art is potentially really destructive in demanding that we make it something. I, I just had this conversation yesterday with a bunch of people in my group where we were talking about like, how do you figure that out? How do you figure out the balance between wanting to have that mutual appreciation society, wanting to be out there in public, wanting people to be involved with your work, and be in a conversation that your work, to have your work play a part in that conversation.
But at the same time, when it becomes, and I’m sure this is something that you have encountered, when it comes about like sales numbers and whatever, whatever like that can really take away from… like your, it’s, like your publisher asking you for a book about parenting. If you were in a different financial situation, you’d probably say, yes.
Austin Kleon: Sure. You say yes, until you can say no. Right? I mean, that’s part of the- look, when I started out all my heroes had day jobs. I wanted to be a poet. My first book was a book of poetry. I didn’t have any poet- there weren’t any poets that have ever made a liv- I mean, maybe like, maybe a few. Maybe. But like all of the- Auden has a joke about, you know, you can always make, it’s always been true that you can make more money talking about poetry than actually writing poetry.
So I always felt like I’d have a day job. And I, I thought that’d be fine. I was like, this is great. But every job I took, and this should have been a warning sign, every job I took was so I could pour it into my own work. So it was like, I a librarian first.
And then I was like, there’s something to this internet thing. I’d like to learn how to make websites. That just seems like solid, being able to manipulate this world seems like value. And then I became a web designer. And then when I was making websites for a while, I was like, you know, it doesn’t really matter how good the website is if you don’t fill it with something good.
So I switched and became a copywriter, and then I learned how to sell things with words. And then it was like, and then my career took off. But it was like, it was always with the, I always took jobs I felt like I could learn from, but honestly, now that I’m a little bit older, there’s part of me that’s like, should have become an HVAC installer, you know?
Jessica Abel: I thought a lot about my, my hidden desire to be a contractor. I would love to like build stuff. Yeah. Honestly.
Austin Kleon: I mean, there’s, we bought an old house recently and I’ve had a lot of work done and there’s gotta be something really- it’s, it’s hard work, but it’s satisfying to watch these guys come out and something’s busted and they come out and they fix it and it’s done. Your clients happy or they’re not. Are the steps fixed. Are they not fixed? never of clarity creative work.
Jessica Abel: Yeah.
Austin Kleon: But the grass is always greener.
Jessica Abel: Exactly, exactly. Cuz I’m
Austin Kleon: you
Jessica Abel: Who work, and I know people who work in trades who are artists also and trying to balance that. And so yeah, it’s tricky.
Yeah. I mean, I really, with my students, I always recommend that they, if they’re not gonna be going into entrepreneurship trying to start a business, doing it, you know, going really all in, a job that’s gonna pay better than barista.
Austin Kleon: Yep, absolutely.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. All right. Another question for you. Jenna asks, “Do you have any suggestions for introverts, which is not you, who recognize that making connections with others is very useful for creativity, but you know, “introverts gonna introvert.”
Austin Kleon: Yes, follow Susan Cain and read her book Quiet, first of all. It’s funny. I just read a, um, a woman just said, online that, you know, in her everyday life, she’s not a, it was a book designer and I’m forgetting her name, but she was like, art is my way of communicating quietly. I love that. She was like, the art is my communication in a sense.
Jessica Abel: Except that art doesn’t talk for itself. Right. You’ve said that. And it’s so true that it doesn’t, it doesn’t go out there and do it by itself. So figuring out some way to, some way that feels…
Austin Kleon: You’ve gotta figure out how to, how to do it in a way that doesn’t take too much out of you. I mean, you know, like my wife would be a much better writer than me and she’d be more interesting, but she’s an introvert and she has no will to be in the world. She doesn’t want, she wouldn’t wanna do what I do. She probably thinks monkey. It looks terrifying and unappealing to her.
Jessica Abel: Mm-hmm
Austin Kleon: so I think you have to kind of like, you know, I don’t know for introverts, it’s sort of like, you have to know that the world is tilted towards extroverts, and you have to figure out what’s comfortable enough. You gotta figure out like how you can do what you need to do and not have it suck too much out of you.
But I do think that Susan Cain speaks to this really beautifully in her book. One of the things also that I try to keep in mind about introverts is that part of the problem is that extroverts need to be more, we need to shut up, and let introverts have their time and their space.
And so part of it is getting the people around you sometimes to understand where you’re coming from. Cuz the world is, it’s tilted against introverts, but I think unlocking the power of what you have, like for example, the ability to have a thought in your head without saying it, which is quite a superpower if you’re me.
But I think read Susan Cain and Susan Cain will have like a lot of really good- that’s one of my things. That’s a librarian in me. I know I have weak spots. So it’s like whenever people ask questions, I just can’t, I’m like, check this person out, go over there. You wanna hear about vulnerability? Go talk to Brene Brown. You know, you go, they’ll
Jessica Abel: Yeah, yeah, no, I think, I think that’s smart. So, uh, here’s another question for you,
When do you know that something, a text, a book, a collage is ready or finished?
Jessica Abel: Sabine asked “When do you know that something, a text, a book, a collage is ready or finished? What are the parameters or signs where you decide this question? I’m kind of a process addict.” This is what I was talking about with the collect thing. Right. ” But don’t always know when the mess I’m making is too messy and when and how it’s time tidy up.”
Austin Kleon: Intuition that’s built over years and years of work. I mean, you know, it’s just like, I think it’s when it’s, when it gets worse, when you keep adding to- when it’s getting worse by adding to it. I think that’s one, like, especially with my collages, like it’s like, you know at a certain point, this isn’t getting any better.
And to have an exit for some of these pieces. Like, the collages I make are sort of easy to reverse in a sense. And so it’s easy to like, go back. It’s kinda like having a control Z in analog space, but, um, books, it’s just like, sometimes it’s just when the deadline comes and then you’re like, well, this is done now.
Jessica Abel: I I thought of here was like, when you were talking about your willingness early on, that you learned to just like put stuff out there and just, the lowering that bar for risk and just saying like “So maybe it’s not finished. Whatever. It’s out there.”
Austin Kleon: The other thing I would say is in the digital space, it doesn’t matter if it’s done because sometimes, sometimes I’ll make a blog post, somebody will say, “You forgot this.” And I said, “You’re right. I did forget this.” Fly it in. Nobody knows. You know, I mean, builds over the week or it builds over time.
That is something fun about the digital space is that you put something out there and people are like, eh, whatever. And then you’re like, ooh, cuz there’s something about when you put something out in space publicly, the minute you show it to somebody, you know how it’s screwed up. Like the minute I publish on a blog post, I know what’s wrong with the blog post. The minute I hand my wife, a manuscript page, I know what’s wrong with it. There’s something about that threshold of sharing it, that you figure out what’s wrong with it. And so it’s kind of like, it could be a very helpful thing. It’s very, it’s scary in a sense, but for me it’s like, that’s why I put so much stuff online. To see how people react to it before I put it in the books, you know, and I do
Jessica Abel: Yeah, it’s very valuable. I think.
Austin Kleon: Yeah. And publishing’s changing a lot in that part of the thing that people are realizing with books, in the early days, when you did like a blog to book thing, people would be like, well, why would someone pay for a book that they could just get online?
Now I feel like, well, a book is a service. I have people ask me all the time. Could you just put these blog posts in a book so I wouldn’t have to go through your blog? I mean, it’s, I can’t even get, how would I ever get through this? You’re, you’re providing a service to people. You’re packaging this material in a way that they can actually digest and do something with rather than just having like a blog and stuff.
Jessica Abel: Well, and it’s like what you were saying earlier about the way that your work developed in the first place and, and taking all these influences and stealing from 6 to 12 people. Just taking stuff and copy pasting it, is not what we’re talking about here. It’s a processing of this material, which you’re doing in your blog regularly, your own thoughts as well as other people’s work. But then there’s another layer that goes into making a book, right? You go above that and you have to rethink it through and again, allow it to kind of accrete its meaning over time. You start a blog. gotta- yeah, exactly.
Austin Kleon: That iterative constant change. Get it one way. Edit it. Get it another way. Yeah. It’s just you, the pro- I like the processing. You’re putting it through another round and it changes and it picks up things. It’s like a Katamari ball, you know, like rolls and it picks things and then you kind of pick it apart, you know, . And then you’re like, oh, let me pull this out and put this in another Katamari ball and roll that down this path. It’s a cumulative process, but it’s also a subtractive.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. It’s editing.
Austin Kleon: Yeah. Just old
Jessica Abel: But you’re doing it in public.
And people who do this kind of work. Cause I did that with Growing Gills too, where like a lot of it had already, not all of it, but a lot of it had already been in my blog and I was taking and then editing them together. I’ve since reread the book and realized I should have edited them together a lot more. So maybe it’ll be a second edition at some point, but you know, it’s
Austin Kleon: Always happens.
Jessica Abel: This process of, of really rethinking it as you go through it.
Austin Kleon: Yeah. And I think if you can think of your life more that way too, I mean, you get to a point, I don’t know if it’s like approaching middle age or what, but you realize that you’re just not, you’re never gonna be done. It’s never gonna be done. You’re never gonna hit a stasis point. Constant change is the only constant. Change is the only constant in life and it’s, this is a universe that’s made up of events, not things as Rovelli would tell us. That there, these, it is a universe made up of processes, not things. Verbs and not nouns. And so if you can just get your mind around that for both the creative process and your life just like make you feel, you’re so much better equipped to just know that the constant change is the only constant, right.
That it’s always going to. There’s always, you’re always gonna be in progress. You’re always gonna be in process. And it’s just like, that’s how it’s gonna be. And in some ways the idea of the art artifact as a finished object is an illusion. Because if you think about it, when a book is finished, it is an object in a sense, but the reading experience is never, there’s never a stasis with the reading experience.
So for example, like Hemingway wrote his stuff and it was brilliant and new and fresh when it came out and now like Hemingway’s passé, like people are, “Oh, you wouldn’t wanna read Hemingway.” it’s like, that’s like macho BS or, and then it’ll change, you know, like things change in context, things change over time, even artworks change over time. They change meaning and depending on who comes to them and stuff. And so it’s just that idea that you’re, the idea that anything’s ever going to be finished.
There’s the Paul Valery quote, “Nothing’s ever finished only abandoned.” And there is a sense of that with art sometimes. The question was asked earlier when you know that something’s finished sometimes just when you’re done, when you can’t do it anymore. And then it’s finished, it away from.
Jessica Abel: I totally. Yeah, I agree with that. And I also, I love your formulation of this, that things are not just like a work of individual art. Like Valery, I think was kind of talking about, but the life of a piece of art is never really finished. And that’s the important that it has the world, this conversation. And the conversation is gonna change as the participants in the conversation change and as the information that they have available changes. And to me, that’s immensely freeing because it means there like perfectionism is not possible. Like you can’t be perfect because there is no fixed state to sort of adhere your work to. There’s this like constantly changing matrix.
Austin Kleon: Yeah. And I love the idea, like, the thing I’m really obsessed by is this idea that art is embodied energy. That a piece of artwork is like a kind of, it’s like a book, or a piece, or a blog post, or, it’s like a embodied energy. And that energy is only released by the reader or the person on the other.
And they either connect with that energy or they don’t. And part of embodying the energy is making sure you’re as juiced on making it as you want the person to be on the other end. I feel like so much of it is the channeling of energy. So like Steal Like an Artist. ,For example, I look at that book now and I’m like, I could never write this.
And people are like, what do you mean, it’s your book? I’m like, I could never write this now. I don’t know who this person is. I don’t know where his energy comes from. I don’t know where his confidence comes from. I don’t know this person. I sort of know who he was, but I’m not, I’m not in touch with him.
And although I will say part of the book when I pick it up now, some of that embodied energy, I remember who that person was and what, you know, so it’s the time travel of that too is weird. But to understand that books are sort of crystallizations of thought in a particular moment in time for the and you either build a sturdy structure that lasts throughout time or that sort of sails with the, you know, or you don’t.
But the things I always try to remember, and again, this kind of pulls the conversation back around is like, you know, like 3000 people bought Moby-Dick when it came out. It sunk Melville, like Melville had been like a popular novelist and Moby-Dick just ruined him.
And then these group of writers in the 1920s found Moby-Dick and started praising it and now it’s the book they make you read in school. And now everybody knows Moby-Dick. It’s just, these things have lives. I mean, it’s just, so… you just can’t control what happens to your work. Once it’s done, it’s everybody- you’re only one half of the equation. And I might say that’s even too big of a ratio. You know, you’re making things for other people to do things with, and that’s always true of any art that you’re doing.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. And it’s, that’s scary. And also sort of empowering, I think in some.
Austin Kleon: It’s scary and it’s empowering. And there’s also that say, well, let’s rip it, man. You know, I’ve always loved, there’s a story about Rolling Stone when they first got started and some of the editors they just said, oh God, you know, at a certain point they were like, people are watching. Oh. And then they were like, let’s pretend they’re not. Go that way.
So there is a sense for me sometimes. I tried to remember that kind of punky energy before I did Steal, like when you just go for it. And that’s part of like, so for me in my career right now, it’s very important to me that I do that next book that I’ve done this trilogy, people like these books, they’re reading them. That’s awesome. Now it’s time for me to go to the next place,
Jessica Abel: Yeah, for sure.
Austin Kleon: It’s time. You just, I don’t know how you do it, if I did, I, I’ve done it already.
Jessica Abel: Exactly.
Austin Kleon: know it’s come from the fearlessness and the sense of experimentation and wonder that happened when I was younger.
And I think that’s what my kids have done for me. They’re not- they’re unafraid of the blank page. My six old when he draws he’s unafraid and to, and that’s what Lynda did for me, when I first met her, is she said, “You can be this forever. You can do this forever if you’re in the right mindset.”
Jessica Abel: I think that’s a beautiful place to leave this. You could do this forever.
Austin Kleon: You could do it forever. Just find another four year old, hang out with for a while.
Jessica Abel: Or Lynda Barry.
Austin Kleon: Or Lynda Barry.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. Which, which is possible because she has wonderful books. So, Austin, thank you so much for joining us today and sharing all this with us. It’s been great. I’m really, it’s so much fun. How can people find you? I know that’s a sort of dumb question with you because it’s, you are everywhere, but tell us.
Austin Kleon: Well I’m old school. The best way to find me is to go to austinkleon.com. And I think most people these days are the most interested in my weekly newsletter that I put out. Every week I send out 10 things that I feel like are worth sharing that week. And I do it every week and it’s free. And of course my books are available wherever books are sold.
Jessica Abel: Yes. The newsletter’s awesome. I love that it sort of, it really, the newsletter and your blog, they really, fully expressed and there were some other questions. People asked some, some things about your daily life and so on. It’s all there, guys. It’s all there.
Austin Kleon: Yeah. I mean, it is kind of all there.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. In a, in a nice way, not in a super way, but like in a, you know, you talk about what this is like for you regularly and you share your sources and you share all the things that you’re thinking about. And it’s just really beautiful to be kind of in touch with you every week, that way. So thank you for that.
Austin Kleon: Thank you. Thank you. It’s the honor and pleasure of my life is to – to be read. I mean, the intercourse with the world, like Oliver Sacks said. So I feel lucky every day.
Thank you so much for joining us today for the Autonomous Creative.
Our show is produced by Matt Madden, our production coordinator is Lousine Boyakhandjyan, and our production assistant is Rhiannon Sunday. Music is by Matt Madden, and I’m your host, Jessica Abel.
You can find all our takeaways as well as any links and extras we mentioned today plus transcripts, in the show notes. Find everything you need at acpod.show.
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