Austin Kleon exists at the brilliant intersection of word and image—but as a schoolkid in the small town of Circleville, Ohio, the two were neatly torn into “art” and “English.” It stayed that way for Kleon until he had an epiphany while studying a Charles Dickens novel at Cambridge University. As he told The Great Discontent,“I was trying to explain what the book was like, so I took out a piece of notebook paper and drew a map of London; as I drew, I said, ‘Here is what happens when the characters are in these parts of London, and this is how the narrative maps.’ It was a really crude map, but my professor looked at it and said, ‘This is better than anything you’ve turned in for me.’ That crummy map was better than any of the writing I had done! I knew that I had to bring drawing back into my life, so I bought a sketchbook and started drawing again.”
After graduating from Miami University, Kleon began making poems by redacting lines of text in the newspaper—leading to his first book, Newspaper Blackout. And then, he gave a talk outlining 10 things he wished he had known when he was younger, dubbed “Steal Like an Artist.” It went viral, and launched Kleon’s career as we know it today—the sage of word and image, author of the subsequent books Steal Like an Artist;Show Your Work!; and his latest, Keep Going, which Kleon says he wrote because he needed to read it.
Rather than wax philosophical about Kleon, here, we steal his words (within Fair Use limits, of course). What follows is a sampling of his books—and the many wisdoms you can find therein.
Every artist gets asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” The honest artist answers, “I steal them.” How does an artist look at the world? First, you figure out what’s worth stealing, then you move on to the next thing. That’s about all there is to it.
When you look at the world this way, you stop worrying about what’s “good” and what’s “bad”—there’s only stuff worth stealing, and stuff that’s not worth stealing.
Everything is up for grabs. If you don’t find something worth stealing today, you might find it worth stealing tomorrow or a month or a year from now.
Nothing is original.
The writer Jonathan Lethem has said that when people call something “original,” nine out of ten times they just don’t know the references or the original sources involved. What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.
It’s right there in the Bible: “There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
Some people find this idea depressing, but it fills me with hope. As the French writer Andre Gide put it, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”
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.
(Bonus: Click here for Kleon’s TED Talk on artistic thievery.)
We’re all terrified of being revealed as amateurs, but in fact, today it is the amateur—the enthusiast who pursues her work in the spirit of love (in French, the word means “lover”), regardless of the potential for fame, money or career—who often has the advantage over the professional. Because they have little to lose, amateurs are willing to try anything and share the results. They take chances, experiment and follow their whims. Sometimes, in the process of doing things in an unprofessional way, they make new discoveries. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities,” said Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki. “In the expert’s mind, there are few.”
Amateurs are not afraid to make mistakes or look ridiculous in public. They’re in love, so they don’t hesitate to do work that others think of as silly or just plain stupid. “The stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act,” writes Clay Shirky in his book Cognitive Surplus. “On the spectrum of creative work, the difference between the mediocre and the good is vast. Mediocrity is, however, still on the spectrum; you can move from mediocre to good in increments. The real gap is between doing nothing and doing something.” Amateurs know that contributing something is better than contributing nothing.
… Sometimes, amateurs have more to teach us than experts. “It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can,” wrote author C.S. Lewis. “The fellow pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago he has forgotten.” Watching amateurs at work can also inspire us to attempt the work ourselves. “I saw the Sex Pistols,” said New Order frontman Bernard Sumner. “They were terrible … I wanted to go up and be terrible with them.” Raw enthusiasm is contagious.
The world is changing at such a rapid rate that it’s turning us allinto amateurs. Even for professionals, the best way to flourish is to retain an amateur’s spirit and embrace uncertainty and the unknown. When Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke was asked what he thought his greatest strength was, he answered, “That I don’t know what I’m doing.” Like one of his heroes, Tom Waits, whenever Yorke feels like his songwriting is getting to comfortable or stale, he’ll pick up an instrument he doesn’t know how to play and try to write with it. This is yet another trait of amateurs—they’ll use whatever tools they can get their hands on to try to get their ideas into the world. “I’m an artist, man,” said John Lennon. “Give me a tuba, and I’ll get you something out of it.”
The best way to get started on the path to sharing your work is to think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment to learning it in front of others. … Don’t worry, for now, about how you’ll make money or a career off it. Forget about being an expert or a professional, and wear your amateurism (your heart, your love) on your sleeve. Share what you love, and the people who love the same things will find you.
When I’m working on my art, I don’t feel like Odysseus. I feel more like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the hill. When I’m working, I don’t feel like Luke Skywalker. I feel more like Phil Connors in the movie Groundhog Day.
For those of you who haven’t seen it or need your memory refreshed, Groundhog Dayis a 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray as Phil Connors, a weatherman who gets stuck in a time loop and wakes up every morning on February 2nd—Groundhog Day—in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, home of Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog who, depending on if he sees his shadow or not, predicts whether there will be six more weeks of winter. Phil, the weatherman, hates Punxsutawney, and the town becomes a kind of purgatory for him. He tries everything he can think of, but he can’t make it out of town, and he can’t get to February 3rd. Winter, for Phil, is endless. No matter what he does, he still wakes up in the same bed every morning to face the same day.
In a moment of despair, Phil turns to a couple drunks at a bowling alley bar and asks them, “what would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”
It’s the question Phil has to answer to advance the plot of the movie, but it’s also the question we have to answer to advance the plot of our lives.
I think how you answer this question is your art.
… The reason is this: The creative life is notlinear. It’s not a straight line from Point A to Point B. It’s more like a loop, or a spiral, in which you keep coming back to a new starting point after every project. No matter how successful you get, no matter what level of achievement you reach, you will never really “arrive.” Other than death, there is no finish line or retirement for the creative person. “Even after you have achieved greatness,” writes musician Ian Svenonius, “the infinitesimal cadre who even noticed will ask, ‘What’s next?’”
The truly prolific artists I know always have that question answered, because they have figured out a daily practice—a repeatable way of working that insulates them from success, failure and the chaos of the outside world. They have all identified what they want to spend their time on, and they work at it every day, no matter what. Whether their latest thing is universally rejected, ignored or acclaimed, they know they’ll still get up tomorrow and do their work.
We have so little control over our lives. The only thing we can really control is what we spend our days on. What we work on and how hard we work on it. It might seem like a stretch, but I really think the best thing you can do if you want to make art is to pretend you’re starring in your own remake of Groundhog Day: Yesterday’s over, tomorrow may never come, there’s just today and what you can do with it.
All excerpts © Austin Kleon / Workman Publishing.
Austin Kleon: In all the creative work that we do, nothing comes from nowhere, you know? There's nothing truly original, as in it just popped up and came out of nowhere. Most of the creative work we do is the transformation or mutation of one or two more ideas.
Curtis Fox: This is Design Matters with Debbie Millman from DesignObserver.com. On this episode, Debbie talks with Austin Kleon, who describes himself as a writer who draws.
Austin: This is the great pain of creative work is that once the thing is done, it's dead to you.
Curtis: His books include Steal Like An Artist, Ten Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, and Keep Going: Ten Ways To Stay Creative In Good Times and Bad. Debbie interviewed Austin Kleon at the South by Southwest Festival in 2019 in front of a live audience. Here's Debbie.
Debbie Millman: Austin, you just told me that you consider yourself to be a writer who draws. Why?
Austin: I fundamentally think of myself as a writer, and I really believe that a writer is a professional reader basically. That's why I became a writer is so I could read books professionally, basically. It's a good hustle, actually. But I also stole that line, a writer who draws, from Saul Steinberg, who's one of my artistic heroes, and a great Romanian, which I'm a quarter.
Debbie: And I am too, by the way.
Debbie: Yes, I am.
Austin: No wonder.
Debbie: You were born in Circleville, Ohio, population 13,314.
Austin: Is it that much?
Debbie: Yes, it is.
Austin: I'm surprised it's that much.
Debbie: Your dad, Scott, was an associate professor at Ohio State, your mom, Sally, was a guidance counselor, educator, and later a principal. You said you hit the genetic lottery. How so?
Austin: Oh, you know, I got intelligent parents who love me, and that's the ovarian lottery.
Debbie: We're just going right there right away-
Austin: I mean, you know, you get parents who are reasonably intelligent and who love you, I mean, that's half of the battle right there.
Debbie: So you're the product of good parenting.
Austin: You are hugely ahead. My mom's going to be so excited that we're about to talk about her by the way.
Debbie: Well it was just really the one question.
Austin: Okay, good. No, I mean my parents, it's funny because Milton Glaser has the best line about this. He said, "I had a mother who told me I could do anything, and a father who said, 'Prove it.'" And he said that's the best school there was.
Debbie: You've said that it was in elementary school that you first became interested in what you've described as the symphony of words working together with images. And then school neatly divided the two disciplines into art classes and English classes. And tell us about the impact that that had on you, because I know that that was something that was perplexing to you, if we can use that word for somebody so young.
Austin: I think about this all the time now. I have two boys. One is six, one turned four today. It is his birthday. It is Jules' birthday.
Debbie: Happy Birthday, Jules.
Austin: And they don't have any kind of disciplines. Like they don't think in terms of what's math or what's English or what's science. Owen is really into the planets right now, so he's really into like constellations and astronomy stuff. And how he processes that is he draws pictures of the planets, he'll write little booklets about the planets, he'll make songs in Garage Band about the planet. There's no-
Debbie: Wow. How old is he?
Austin: He's six.
Austin: I think about how he processes the world. He has no disciplinary divisions. It's totally normal for him to think, I'm going to make a zine about going to Cleveland to visit my grandparents. And then I'm going to make a song about Cleveland. He just doesn't have any kind of idea that if you're a scientist, you're not supposed to like write a song about it, or whatever.
Austin: And to bring it back around, when I was young, I mean, my dream was like just copying Garfield comics on the kitchen floor, and pictures and words were together. And it wasn't until later where that was that pressure, where you're like, "Okay kid, are you going to be an English major or are you going to be an art major? Are you going to do English class or art class?" All of a sudden, things split apart for me, and I felt like I had to choose.
Debbie: Well it's interesting, when does that consciously become part of the way we have to live? If you think about it, children are a lot like dogs in that they live in the moment. They don't start out thinking about the future-
Austin: They also shit on the floor occasionally.
Debbie: This is a comedy act in the making. You can hear that, right?
Austin: I'm sorry.
Debbie: So when do we begin to start to think about the future as opposed to today, do you know? Given that you have such small children, have they started yet worrying about their futures?
Austin: No, and I love it. I mean, I love that they don't. I wrestle with school all the time, because I really think it's school. My wife and I, we were both like high achieving ... like I was valedictorian of my high school. That gives you the idea of like ... I mean, it was in Circleville, but I am really disturbed by the way informal education knowledge is broken up into disciplines, because it messed me up so much when I was ... Especially when I became like about 18, and you had to pick your major in college. Well, you got to pick something. And I was like, I don't want to. I love all these things.
Austin: And there's actually a local guy, Steven Tomlinson, and he said this thing that just, Steven just blew my mind one time that he got up on stage and he said he went to an advisor, and he said, "I love theater, I love economics, and I love God."
Austin: "Which one do I choose?" And the professor looked at him and he said, "That is the dumbest question anyone has ever asked me." And I think the guy's name was Will Spong, and he was a local guy too. And he said, "What you do is you keep all of your passions at play in your life. So if there are three things that you love more than anything in this world, you spend time on those three things, and then they start to talk to each other, and that's when your life begins to form."
Austin: And I think the fundamental role of the writer is to say what other people have been unable to articulate. They already have the idea, they just weren't able to articulate it. Like a lot of people come up to me and they're like, "You said everything I've been thinking in this book." And that's part of the role of the writer. And when Steven was on stage and he said that, he said, "Don't discard, because if you cut off one of your passions, it's a phantom limb, and you're going to feel that pain forever." And I am just trying really hard to help my children identify passions and just keep these things in your life.
Debbie: I had an experience after I graduated college back in the early 80s, one of my very first interviews was at Condé Nast, which is where I desperately wanted to work. And when I met with the Director of Human Resources, she asked me what kind of design I wanted to do, and I didn't know there were different kinds of design, promotional design, editorial design, and so forth. And without even thinking about it, I just blurted out the first thing that came into my head which was, "Oh, I'll do anything." And that really wasn't the kind of answer the Miranda Priestly-esque human resources director at Condé Nast was expecting, and I didn't get the job.
Austin: I know you've talked to Michael Bierut before, and he's an Ohio guy.
Debbie: He's a fellow Ohioan, yes.
Austin: And he said something that was true for me too. I didn't know there was such a thing as a designer, and I really didn't know about design until I was a librarian and I found Edward Tufte's work.
Debbie: Yes, yes.
Austin: And that was the first time I was like, "Oh, information design." But that freaks me out in this world about how simply not knowing the name for something means that it's not in your life.
Debbie: You've said that your world really blossomed when your family got their first internet connection late in high school, and you were able to post your art class projects online. As you recalled, "All of a sudden, it didn't matter that I'm from this small town. I could reach a world I wanted to be part of through this little telephone line." What kind of reaction did you get when you started posting your work?
Austin: Oh, none. You know, and I think this is really important. Sometimes I don't think that the most important thing about blogging or keeping a website or even writing books is the response, I think it's the act of doing it. For me, you got to go back to like '95, '96, like if you're in a rural area back then, the best you could hope for was dial up internet. It came with this little bit of webspace with it. And one of the teachers at my mom's school had given me this bootleg copy of Dreamweaver. Do you guys know that?
Austin: So I just took to this immediately. And I think it had Photoshop too, and I just thought like ... it was really the act of like making a personal website and being like, "Who am I?" You know, because I was only like 17 or something. But I was like, I looked at this website and I was like, well I'm a guy who like, I love to make music with my band, and I love to write stuff, and I love to make art. This seems like a place that I can tell everybody about the stuff that I love.
Austin: And right now, you know, I'm about to turn 36 this year, I am doing the same thing I did when I was 16. I have this website, and I'm like, I want to share these things that I love with whoever's out there.
Debbie: I wasn't going to open the door, but since you took me there, tell us about your bands, your high school bands, what type of instrument you played, some of the names of your bands.
Austin: Well, so I am trained on classical piano, but when I was 14, or 13, I heard Green Day, and you know, anybody who is-
Debbie: You're forever changed.
Austin: Anybody who heard Green Day at the age of 13, they asked for a guitar for Christmas. My best friend growing up, we met at Sunday School, because he was the other freak like me who just hung around by the piano and might not have been into the lesson, he's a world class drummer. So, I grew up with him. Our band was called Insult To Injury, and like all our songs were just, you know, Green Day rip offs about girls who had mistreated us, and how misunderstood we were and how angry we were. And music is something I gave up in college, because I was like, I don't have time for this. And art's another thing that I gave up in college. I was like ... I vividly remember being in art class, and the professor, he was like, "You should be an art major." And I was just like, "I'm a writer." And he was like, "No, you should be an art major.
Austin: And I remember feeling that tug, and I quit that drawing class, because it was so much work.
Debbie: Well after graduating valedictorian from your high school, you went to Miami University of Ohio. You got your Bachelor's of Philosophy in interdisciplinary studies. What were you hoping to be professionally at that point?
Austin: College professor. I wanted to be a teacher, because that's all I thought you could do if you were a weirdo like me. All my aunts were teachers, my dad was a college professor, and I just thought, well that's what I'll do. Right towards the end of college was when I really started trying to, okay ... because I got really into comics, and comics were the thing that I was like, okay, this is a profession that uses pictures and words together to communicate. And like reading Scott McCloud and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, that really blew things open for me. I was like, I want to explore this more.
Debbie: So then how did you get the job as a librarian?
Austin: That was dumb luck. My wife's from Cleveland, so we moved to Cleveland right after college, and I just applied for whatever job I thought I could get. I applied for like a writing greeting cards at American Greetings. That's what R. Crumb, R. Crumb worked for American Greetings in Cleveland when he-
Debbie: Did you get rejected from that job?
Austin: Oh yeah, for sure. Got rejected from that. But I got this cush ... man, this job was awesome. It was 20 hours working the reference desk at a public library in a suburb of Cleveland, and it had benefits. So it was like a dream job for a young writer.
Debbie: What kind of things were you writing back then?
Austin: I was working on my blog. I was really trying to do comics back then, so I was doing these kind of weird faux woodcut comics on the computer. So I was using this kind of digital technology to make something that looked real old. And I was trying to do comics, but it was quickly becoming apparent to me that one, comics take too long for me. I mean, there's a reason Chris Ware only puts a book out every 10 years or something. I mean, comics just take a huge amount of time, and I am not a patient enough artist to do that.
Debbie: One of the key elements of your blog was your blackout poems.
Debbie: And in 2006, you created poetry by redacting text with sharpy from articles in the New York Times. And you used the New York Times just because your wife had a subscription?
Austin: So, here's the story. My wife worked in Ohio City, which at that time in Cleveland was a somewhat sketchy neighborhood, and they were getting their papers stolen off the front step. So, the boss actually had the papers delivered to our apartment. So the whole reason I used the New York Times in the beginning is that we just had this stack of New York Times. It was purely like use what's around.
Debbie: Now, I believe that this body of work came out of an episode of severe writing block that you had.
Debbie: So, talk about that. When did you make your first blackout poem? How did that moment occur?
Austin: So I had this blog, and I didn't know what to fill it with. You know, because you start a blog, that's the first thing, and then you're like, "What do I put on this?" I was a huge fan of Post Secret, Frank Warren's site. So people mail in postcards and then he posted them on this Blogspot blog, and that was the first blog I actually saw that used images a lot. And I was like, oh, you can put images on here. Like you don't have to just write on a blog. So there was that, and then the other site I was really into as a teenager was The Smoking Gun. They used to post like FBI files. They'd put like John Lennon's FBI file on there.
Austin: And so, seeing those redacted documents just like stuck in my brain. So it was like Post Secret and Smoking Gun. So the first time I did a blackout poem was simply just to try to get an idea for a short story. And then-
Debbie: So it was a writing prompt?
Austin: Yeah, it was like a writing prompt. It was just like an exercise. And then when my wife saw them, she said, "Well these are like finished pieces. Maybe you should put these on your blog." And that's it, that's the whole story.
Debbie: Why were you experiencing writer's block? What was happening in your life at that point?
Austin: I was just young and stupid and didn't have anything to write about.
Debbie: Fair enough. NPR called you up and did a story on your blackout poems shortly after you began posting, and an editor at Harper Collins reached out, and eventually published a book of 150 new blackout poems, which you created, from what I understand, on your bus ride back and forth from work on your lunch break. I love that. The book is titled Newspaper Blackout, and Time Out Chicago wrote this.
Debbie: "Turns out Richard Nixon wasn't our nation's most gifted redactor." The Wall Street Journal dubbed it, "Kind of a Rorschach approach to reading newspapers." The New Yorker declared that your poems "Resurrect the newspaper when everybody else is declaring it dead," which I think is a wonderful epitaph for a tombstone. And the book got a fair amount of attention for a book of poems. Were you surprised by the reaction, especially given that it came out of this sort of suffering and writer's block?
Austin: That was a weird book for me. I mean, I was in a cubicle at the law school over at UT when all that went down. I just thought books were on the way out. I thought, this is my only chance-
Debbie: So did everybody.
Austin: Yeah, I just thought like, this is my only chance. I got to do it now. And that was a weird time. I mean, you know, that's something I think a lot about now. Anyone who's up on a stage or has any kind of an audience who doesn't acknowledge luck is just deluding themselves. I mean, of course we make our own luck and we make moves that put us in the right place in the right time, but to not acknowledge luck in the process is just seems to me a great disservice to everyone.
Debbie: So what about that experience was luck?
Austin: Just like, you know, it's 2008, there are all these 24 year old editors at book publishing places that are looking for blogs to turn into books. It was luck. You're in the right place at the right time. And people still read blogs back then. I mean now, I'd be an Instagram poet. Poems are, they're like the original viral memes. You know, like a poem travels, it transports. A poem is like ... the reason I like poems and comics is that you can clip them out and put them on your refrigerator. Someone sends me a picture and they're like, "I put one of your pieces up on the fridge." That's the best compliment for me.
Debbie: Well, they want to live with it. That's really special.
Austin: The other compliment is when someone tells me that they keep my books on the back of the commode, in the bathroom. I find-
Debbie: Then they're likely being read every day.
Austin: I'm like, that is a great compliment to me actually, because that's where people read.
Debbie: After the publication of Newspaper Blackout, you kept working at your day job. And I believe at that time you were selling ad space, internet ad space, is that right? No, what was your job back then?
Austin: No, what happened was, so when I did Newspaper Blackout, I was simply doing web design at the law school. And then after Newspaper Blackout came out, I had a buddy in advertising, and he said, "You should think about being a copywriter." And I knew a bunch of people who were kind of like me who had copywriting in their background. So I got a job at this marketing agency downtown that did digital marketing called Springbox. So that job, I didn't do very long, only like a year and a half. Because what happened was that's when I got invited to give the Steal Like an Artist talk, the original talk.
Debbie: So, let's talk about that. In 2011, you gave this talk in which you told students the 10 things you wish you had known when you were starting out. And you titled it, How To Steal Like an Artist. You put your list on your blog after the talk, and it went viral and got millions and millions of hits.
Debbie: Now, I understand that you stole the concept of the talk itself. Is that true?
Debbie: Tell us about that.
Austin: So, I had misunderstood the gig. It was actually a convocation speech, so it's kind of like a beginning type thing or just a middle of the ... I thought it was a commencement speech. So I thought it was like, "Go forth young children, who are like four years younger than me." And you know, like do the ... So I had misunderstood, so I just was like, I was a little freaked out, because I didn't do as much speaking as I do now. And my wife and I walk every morning. That's like the big thing that we do. Even with kids, we load them in the stroller, all hundred pounds of them and you know, push them around.
Austin: And I just said to her, I was like, "What do I say to these people who aren't that much younger than I am?" And she was like, "Well, the best talk I ever heard was a lady who came to our school," my wife went to a really good girls' school in Cleveland called Laurel, and they had a speaker, and she came and she simply had a list of 10 things that she wished she had known when she was in high school. And I said, "Boom, I'm taking that." You know? So I just kept stupid college me in my head, because you know, I really don't think there's a lower life form than like a 19 year old freshman boy. I mean, and I thought, I'm stealing that, and I just wrote what I wish I had known when I was 19 and starting out.
Debbie: Does your wife remember who that person was?
Austin: I wish she did. I'd have to ... she'd have to drill. We should figure it out.
Debbie: I know who it was.
Austin: You know who it was?
Debbie: It was me.
Debbie: Yes. Yes.
Austin: That's the surprise? Oh my god. She is going to freak out.
Debbie: In 2010 and 2011, I was doing a talk called 10 Things I Wish I Knew When I Graduated. And I did it as a Creative Mornings as well.
Austin: Oh wow. That's crazy.
Debbie: I think the book should be called, How To Steal From Debbie Millman. And actually, I'm honored and touched and thrilled, and yeah.
Austin: That's awesome. I don't know what to say.
Debbie: So, editors of publishing houses started reaching out to you, and the result was your book, Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, which was published in 2012. And I understand at the time that you asked your boss if you could go out on a two month book tour, and he said, "No."
Debbie: I bet he's really sorry about that now.
Austin: Well, I should admit, I was a terrible employee. Like, I always wanted to do something else. And so, I think that was a tumultuous time. In his defense, Springbox was up for sale at that time, and none of us knew whether we'd have jobs or not past the summer. And I asked for two months of unpaid leave to go on book tour and he was just like, "No, that's not really going to fly." And I said, "Okay."
Austin: And this is where my dad's advice to live below your means came in, because my wife and I, I won't use the word cheap, but we are-
Debbie: Why not?
Austin: ... we are thrifty.
Austin: We are frugal, and we just save and save and save. And we just had, again, luck. I graduated with no student debt because I went to a state school and I was valedictorian, so I like had my school paid for. And my wife had some debt from school that I paid off pretty early just through working and whatever. So we had no debt, and we-
Debbie: Austin, how is that luck?
Austin: Well, I mean-
Debbie: How is that luck?
Austin: I think-
Debbie: It's hard work.
Austin: Yeah, it's hard work, but I mean-
Debbie: That's your work ethic.
Austin: Well, you know, I've really changed my tune about this in certain years because there are people who are born into, you know, not as cushy situations that they got to take a lot of debt on just to make that leap.
Austin: You know, like if you're in a real working class situation, and you want to do creative work for example, one of the best ways to make that jump is to go to a fancy school that you got to pay money for. And you'll take the loans on just to get a toehold in that world. And I just have had my thinking pushed a little bit about the always live below your means thing, because that is a fundamentally middle class position.
Debbie: Yeah, I did the same thing always.
Austin: Yeah, that is like your parents were middle class, and the anxiety of the middle class is like, you just hang on. In previous years, I've just pushed myself to remember that even being middle class is a privileged position. And so I don't ... to simply be born into that position where you get that advice is luck. But of course, yeah, I didn't piss it away, no.
Debbie: I mean, it's interesting because I also grew up in similar circumstances, but always felt that if I didn't live below my means I'd end up living homeless on the street.
Austin: Yeah, you have that anxiety. That's the anxiety of-
Debbie: That something would always go ... it could always go away. It could always-
Austin: Yeah, that's the anxiety of being a middle class American of like what if I lose this-
Debbie: I thought I was just in need of therapy.
Austin: It could be. Well, I mean, there's that.
Debbie: Like, it's me.
Austin: I definitely need that.
Debbie: So you left your job at that point.
Austin: Yeah, so I quit my job.
Debbie: Was it terrifying?
Austin: Well, here's the thing, and again, I really want to let people know the real true story behind this stuff. My wife and I had a year's salary saved. She was at UT and had great health benefits. I mean, this is why like on my blog all the time, and you know, I am always like, if you want to support writers, get us universal healthcare in this country. Get us free healthcare. If you want people to have an even playing field, you cannot do any kind of meaningful work if you are worried about your health.
Debbie: Or money.
Austin: It's in every developed country, it's time. So, I'm just like, I had healthcare and I had some savings, and for me it was just like, yeah it was kind of a leap, but I lived in Austin, Texas in like 2012. I was going to get a job afterwards. You know, I just figured like, well I know a ton of people in the ad world and I'll just get another copywriter job.
Debbie: Well, the book came out, sold over a million copies, it became a New York Times Best Seller. Of the many brilliant lessons in the book, you emphasize that everything is a remix. Explain what you mean by that.
Austin: Well, that's a phrase that Kirby Ferguson, a filmmaker, and we actually did the talk at South By Southwest 2012, uses. And the idea is that in all the creative work that we do, nothing comes from nowhere, you know, that there's nothing truly original as in it just popped up and came out of nowhere. Most of the creative work we do is the transformation or mutation of one or two more ideas.
Austin: There's a great line by a guy named Wilson Mizner and he says, "You know, if you steal from one author, it's plagiarism, if you steal from 100 authors, it's research." You know, so that's the kind of ... the more numerous and wide ranging of your people you steal from, the more original your work is going to be. So that was really the thing about Steal Like An Artist is that if you truly want to be an original artist, you need to actually suck in more influence. You need to take in more influence. Because you have really young people who when they start out they're like, "I don't want to be influenced. Like, I want to be my own thing."
Austin: And you're like, "No, kid, that's not how it works. Like, you digest the world, and then how it goes through you is your work." And that was what Basquiat said, you know, he's like, "It's me taking that stuff and running it through my mind that makes the work."
Debbie: I think ideas are a lot like atoms. You know, atoms make up everything, and all ideas make up other ideas.
Debbie: You followed up your first book, or actually that was your second book, with another book, but your most current book is titled Keep Going: 10 Ways To Stay Creative In Good Times and Bad. Now, you said that a few years ago you were in a bad spot and you wrote this book because you needed to read it. And I wanted to read just a little bit from the beginning.
Debbie: "I wrote this book because I needed to read it. A few years ago, I'd wake up every morning, check the headlines on my-" Are you looking at your phone?
Austin: Yeah, I'm just taking a picture while you're reading.
Austin: [inaudible 00:30:01] Such a millennial thing to do, right?
Debbie: Am I boring you?
Austin: Now she's laughing and I have her laughing.
Debbie: "A few years ago, I'd wake up every morning, check the headlines on my phone, and feel as if the world had gotten dumber and meaner overnight. Meanwhile, I'd been writing and making art for more than a decade, and it didn't seem to be getting any easier. Isn't it supposed to get easier? Everything got better for me when I made peace with the fact that it might not ever get easier. The world is crazy, creative work is hard, life is short, and art is long."
Debbie: How's that for an opening paragraph? It's a really good book. Tell us how this book might have become a remedy for you in this experience of writing it.
Austin: Yeah, I mean, I just needed like a guide. I just felt ... and let's be honest, it's the election of ... 2016 was a rotten year, and it really felt like we lost something. I mean, just the tone of the country shifted so horribly, and everyone I know was just distraught. And particularly at my house, it was like a bomb went off. And it's a combination of having really young kids and the climate of the country, and it had been like three or four years since I had written a book. And I was like, how do I just keep doing this? And I really had to kind of dig, and I needed a manual for myself.
Austin: Because it's interesting, because all my other books were written for someone else. Newspaper Blackout, like an editor asked me, "Do you want to do a book?" I said, "Yes." Steal Like An Artist was like, "Would you like to talk to these kids?" And I was like, "Yes." Show Your Work was like all these people keep asking me the same questions, I feel like I should answer them in a book, and then I'll never have to answer the questions again, which is really stupid because if you write a book, people are going to ask you about that book forever, until you die, if you're lucky. So, writing a book to answer questions is not a great thing.
Austin: But Keep Going, you know, Keep Going was the first book where I was like, I need this. I need this to exist. I need this to keep me on the path. And you know, writing it was incredibly therapeutic. And the thing that's interesting about my books is like, once I write them, I forget what's in them.
Austin: It's really strange, yeah. Like some dude on Twitter today was posting some things from Steal Like An Artist, and I was like, "Is that in there? Oh yeah." Because you know, this is the great pain of creative work, is that once the thing is done, it's dead to you. I mean, execution is literally like an execution. When you execute a project, it is dead then. But a book doesn't start its life until almost like half a year after you finished it. And so now I have this weird work of like-
Debbie: Thank you, next.
Austin: Yeah, thank you, next.
Debbie: The book follows a 10 point system. It involves such highlights as build a bliss station, make gifts, and forget the noun, do the verb, which was one of my favorite. Tell us about that.
Austin: This is very easy and quick. Everybody knows someone who wants to be a writer, right? They want to be a writer because they want to go to a party and say, "I'm a writer." Which, who would ever want to do that, because immediately you get asked, "Well what do you write? Is there anything I had read?" And you're like, "No. Not probably." But you know, someone wants to be a designer, or they want to be a rockstar or whatever it is. Everybody wants to have the noun or the job title. Very few people want to do the actual work that gets that job title. Very few people want to do the verb that gets you the noun.
Austin: And to bring it back to the beginning of our conversation, when I was a young man, if I had focused more on the verbs, if I had focused more on those things I love doing like writing, and reading, and drawing, if I had just thought about how to keep those verbs in my life and not worry so much about the job title or the noun I was after, I think I would have gotten to where I was going a little bit quicker.
Debbie: I think T.S. Elliot talked about this, I think I'm getting it correct. He was talking to somebody, and when he asked the person what they wanted to be, they said, "A poet." And he said, "How do you be a poet-"
Austin: What's that?
Debbie: "You can write poetry, and that's all you can do."
Austin: Yeah. I'm also interested in the way that job titles and nouns can restrain the kind of work that you do. Because what if you're a film maker, and all of a sudden you want to write a novel, or you're Steven Soderbergh and you want to go paint for a while? And job titles will mess you up. I mean, I find this fundamentally challenging thing that happens when people are successful, they get successful by doing something, and then they get to this point, and then they change because all of a sudden, well I'm a famous author now, I should ... Like for example, like I am fundamentally at my best when I get up every morning and I think about writing a blog post. Like, what am I going to write about today? That is a healthy ... that is how I stay on the path.
Austin: After Show Your Work came out, there were years that I just let the blog ... I only posted to the blog when I had some kind of like long essay Medium piece. And I didn't write a book for five years, you know?
Debbie: So how do you push yourself to do it when you feel bad about yourself or you have a bad bout of self loathing or-
Austin: I don't know anything about martial arts, but I would think that like when you're practicing martial arts, you have to do it every day. Or if you're a great tennis player or something, you have to play every day. I think about what I do in terms of a creative discipline, like it's stuff that I do. So every day, I have to sit in front of the keyboard ... Well really what I really have to do is sit down with my notebook and diary, because that is really where a lot of my ideas come from. I keep an old school, hand written diary now. And sometimes it has drawings in it, sometimes it has writing or collage. But that is the heart of my creative practice then.
Austin: And then after I do that, I do a blog post. And that might be all I do that day. I might go off and read then. But if I don't do those things, I am not a nice guy to be around. That is the practice.
Debbie: But what if you ever ... do you ever wake up and think, ugh, I don't want to do this.
Austin: Every day. And you know what I do? I sit down and I write, "I don't want to do this." That's the great thing about being a writer is like, if you don't ... you just start writing about how much you hate writing, and then you ... something comes of it. It's magic. It happens every time. If you're a drawer, it's the same thing. It's like, I'm going to make the shittiest drawing I possibly ... I hate drawing, I hate this, I should have been a banker. I'm going to draw a fat banker with my face on it. And then you've got something.
Debbie: Do you think that this struggle is something that is prone to creative people or of creative people? Do you think bankers are having that same, "I should have been an artist."
Austin: I think bankers probably have it worse because they don't have an outlet for this. You know, Jeff Tweedy writes really beautifully about this in his memoir Let's Go. He's like, "Everyone suffers, but like thankfully for artists, like they actually have an outlet for it." You know? So, one of the things I talk about a lot in this book is hobbies. I think everyone needs just a good old fashioned hobby.
Debbie: And what are yours?
Austin: Music. Playing the piano. When I sit down at the piano, I'm not even that good, but man, I play some Bach. It just feels like someone scrubbed your brain with a Brillo pad after you play Bach. It's just like ... and playing music, I think music is the best art form. I think it's the most beautiful, the most universal, the most immediately compelling. I've always felt that way and I still feel that way. So for me, it's music.
Austin: Owen and I get in Garage Band, and we made the music that's in the book trailer for this book.
Debbie: Wonderful. Where can people see the book trailer?
Austin: If you go to my website, AustinKleon.com, you can see it there.
Debbie: I have one more question. I understand that you believe that boredom is making a comeback. Talk a little bit about that, why and how.
Austin: I think there's going to be boredom ranches, basically. Just like I think there's going to be a ranch where you go and they take your phone, and you're like, "What are the activities today?" And they're like, "There are none. Welcome to the ranch."
Debbie: Sounds like rehab.
Austin: Yeah. Yeah, actually. Anne Helen Petersen just wrote this piece about driving around this kind of third world country and having to take buses, and how there's no WiFi signal so she just had to listen to music on these van rides, and just how wonderful it was just to be bored and stare out the window and just listen to music. Just to trim the noise of the world is just, that's the bliss station element. To have a place that you go and there's nothing to do but be with yourself, I think that's going to be ... if I could invest ... maybe I should buy a ranch outside of Austin, the boredom ranch. Sign up.
Debbie: It's a good idea.
Austin: Is that URL available? Someone's going to steal it.
Debbie: You quote some masters in Keep Going and I just wanted to share one. You quote Lynda Barry who writes, "The phone gives us a lot, but it takes away three key elements of discovery. Loneliness, uncertainty, and boredom. Those have always been where creative ideas come from." I read that and I thought, okay, to be lonely is to be human, and that's a good thing.
Austin: And a great thing to end on.
Debbie: Yes. Austin Kleon, thank you so much for joining me here at South By Southwest in this very special episode of Design Matters. Austin Kleon's new book is titled Keep Going: 10 Ways To Stay Creative in Good Times And Bad. Thank you, Austin Kleon.
Austin: The pleasure was mine. Thank you, and thank you for coming.