What does it take to be creative over the long-term, especially in these challenging times? In today's interview, Austin Kleon gives his thoughts on how to Keep Going.
In the introduction, I talk about my thoughts around dealing with coronavirus, plus Sanctuary, Retreat, Belonging: The Importance of Home in Difficult Times, My tips on how to work effectively from home, Kris Rusch's Patreon, my mini-course/lecture on Multiple Streams of Income from your Writing, plus How to Sell Your Books Directly to Readers and Get Paid Immediately, and if you want to get 50% off my ebooks and (some audiobooks), you can buy direct from me: Payhip.com/thecreativepenn and use discount coupon: QUARANTINE until the end of March.
Today's podcast sponsor is Findaway Voices, which gives you access to the world's largest network of audiobook sellers and everything you need to create and sell professional audiobooks. Take back your freedom. Choose your price, choose how you sell, choose how you distribute audio. Check it out at FindawayVoices.com.
Austin Kleon is the New York Times and international best-selling author of four books including Steal Like An Artist and Show Your Work. He's also an artist, professional speaker, and newspaper blackout poet. Today we're talking about Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript below.
- Where to go next after being creative for ten years
- Riding the wave of interest to see what’s next creatively
- Granting ourselves permission to follow our interests
- Tapping into our dark side while avoiding fear of judgment
- Where are your creative safe zones?
- What happens when art is the thing that feeds your family?
- The part blogging can play in a writer’s life
You can find Austin Kleon at AustinKleon.com and on Twitter @austinkleon
Transcript of Interview with Austin Kleon
Joanna: Austin Kleon is the New York Times and international best-selling author of four books including Steal Like An Artist and Show Your Work. He's also an artist, professional speaker, and newspaper blackout poet. Today we're talking about Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad.
Austin: Hello, thanks for having me.
Joanna: It's great to have you on the show. I read Keep Going recently because I really needed the message after over a decade doing this full-time.
What prompted you to write the book because I know that everyone thinks you're super successful?
Austin: I was right there with you. Two things really.
I think it's impossible to avoid what's going on in America right now and the political climate of things. That I think how divisive politics has become in the country and I think how most creative people are fairly sensitive people. They need to be sensitive because they need to be absorbing the world so that they can process it and put it back out.
So I think that for a lot of my really creative friends, the culture, it's just become so distracting. And that's everything from the politics to the climate of social media to everything else. So, that was going on.
But also, I was just like you, I'd hit this 10-year mark of trying to be an artist, trying to be a creative person. And I've done reasonably well, but I just wasn't sure if I want to do it anymore.
I needed a pep talk for myself. This is the first book I wrote for me in the present. I feel like my other books were written for me in the past. This was a book that I needed to read. So that's sort of how it happened.
Joanna: Did it help you?
Austin: I think so. As a writer, I think people have this idea that you have ideas, and then you just need to get them down. And I think that can happen as a writer, but I think most of the time when you're writing, you're really writing to discover what you think in the first place. You're really writing to think.
That is the case across a lot of creative disciplines, is that you don't really know what you're doing until you're doing it. You don't really know what you think until you've made something.
For me, every book is I discover a little bit more about myself. But Keep Going was a book that was not only helpful to write, but it has been helpful to go back to it.
It's hard when you write a book because I always joke about when you execute something, it's dead to you. I love that word execution. People are like, ‘We got to execute this project,' and then it will be dead.
But I always feel like after every book you've been there and done that. But this is a book that remains relevant in this terrible way. I want the book to be irrelevant. I want to not be distracted. I want to not be despondent. I want my friends to be the same way. But it's just the times we're in. It helped me to write it and it does help me to read it.
Joanna: I've still got it on my desk. So, I look at it. I wonder also about the 10-year itch. In any career, they talk about that in terms of relationships or anything we do.
When you've done it for a decade, you wonder where to go next.
Austin: The one thing I have had friends tell me about the book is that it actually functions as a little mini-poster. You can have the book on your desk and just tells you to keep going and that's good enough. So I like that.
I do think there's something about 10 years. Obviously, it's an arbitrary number. Nature doesn't think in tens or anything. I feel like if you've had a hot streak, for example, I'm thinking about all the musicians I love that they had about…The Beatles were only around for less than 10 years.
The first Beatles record I think was '62 or '63. Of course, they've been playing for a long time before that, but the last Beatles record comes out in '70. And then they break up. And that's not even 10 years.
In some ways, 10 years is a good run. There seems to be something about 10 years where you have to either take a break or you have to reassess, or something new needs to happen. Of course, the people I was looking to when I wrote this book were artists like David Hockney.
There was this really great string of what I call senior citizen artists documentaries that came out. Over the past year, there was the photographer, Bill Cunningham, New York, there was Joan Rivers, Piece of Work. David Hockney had his wonderful retrospective. These were the artists I was looking up to.
I was really looking up to these to these people who had somehow managed to regenerate over time and keep a long career going because that was the real question for myself was really one of stamina. ‘How can I keep doing this? How can I keep going?'
I think what's really funny is after I wrote Keep Going, it was interesting, because it tied up this trilogy of books and I think it freed me up now to really figure out what's next for me, and that's what we all wish for, that moment where we do get to ask ourselves, ‘What's next?'
Joanna: Absolutely. I do want to mention also that Paul McCartney is still going. He's one of those older creative artists. He was just super creative.
Coming back to the art…Collage, I love your blog. You share pictures of your collages and the art that you do and of course you're cut out poetry is how you got started. And you talk about writing to work out what you think.
But how do you know when to create what?
When you go to your desk, how do you know I'm going to write or I'm going to collage, or I'm going to do poetry or I'm going to create something else?
Austin: That's a great question. I just try to go with what's exciting me at the moment. I haven't made a blackout poem in probably a couple of months. But right now, I got really into blind contour drawing, which is when you draw something but you keep your eye on the subject and not on the paper. So it loosens you up.
It's this exercise in looking and your drawings come out and they're really wonderful, and weird, and interesting. And there's this moment after you're done with the drawing where you get that aha moment of looking down and it's really addictive. But I've been doing those for the past week or two and that just came out of nowhere.
And I'm just riding that wave of interest until it's done. And then I'll probably skip over to something else. But I don't really know…what I have in my process is I have little…I almost have boxes to fill. That's the best way I can think of to say it.
I carry around this pocket notebook all day and I just write down all my stupid ideas in there. And I draw things and I'm just writing in this notebook all day. And then when the morning comes around, after we get the kids to school and that kind of thing, I sit down and I have a diary that I work in.
I usually do something visual, so I'll either do a collage, or I'll do a drawing, or a comic, or something. And then I'll fill like three more pages of writing.
And that's the time where I'm looking back on yesterday, but I'm also working on what I'm thinking and that kind of thing. And then after the diary is done for the day, usually there's something in the diary that I want to turn into a blog post or I'll think of a good blog post or something that I want to share on my blog.
And then I go over and I do the blog post. And that can be anything from like, ‘Oh, here's this interesting book I read,' or, ‘Here's this interesting quote,' or, ‘Here's something I drew,' or, ‘Here's something I made,' or, ‘Here's a really long post about parenting,' or something, whatever it is.
And then once I make the blog post for the day, I'm done in a sense, creatively, as far as the baseline. That's the work that has to get done for the day. And I work that way every morning.
And then for the rest of the day, it really depends on what's on the docket. Today I went for a walk and we're doing this interview, and this afternoon I'll probably do some stuff, and I have to pick up my kid blah, blah, blah.
But that's the thing for me that Keep Going did was it helped me establish a repetitive, repeatable daily system for producing work. Because that for me has been the thing that I was really missing in my life was some sort of method to making work all the time. Does that make sense? Am I making sense?
Steven Pressfield's Do the Work is one of the books I also have on my desk.
Austin: It's interesting. I'm just a guy who is interested in a lot of different things and that feeds the work. If I try to be too strict with myself about like projects and things like that, it's just a little…I'm a believer in constraint but to a certain point.
I feel like if I really honor my true interests, then good things happen. And the people who have inspired me the most that way are my kids, because I have a seven-year-old and four-year-old and the four-year-old is about to turn five.
They have this wonderful way of being interested in the world in that when they're interested in something, they are completely engrossed and obsessed by it. And they ride it till it's dead. And then they'll just drop it and they'll go to something else. And you'll be like, ‘Wow, that was a short phase.'
But then if you stick around for a while, they'll go back to that thing they were obsessed by every once in a while. You're like, ‘Oh, okay, they dropped that thing and then they went on to another thing. And then they figured out how the new thing connected to the old thing.'
It's been really revealing to me to watch a young person who is naturally engaged in the world to watch how they work. And it's really influenced me as everything. It just really influenced me.
It's given me permission to ride my interests until they're exhausted and then drop them for a while and not throw them away but just keep them around. People talk to me a lot about discipline. They'll say, ‘Oh, you seem really disciplined.'
I think, well, discipline is really easy when you have desire. For me, it's very easy to be disciplined with my work if I want to be doing what I'm doing. If I was a really disciplined person, I'd be thinner than I am.
Joanna: Oh, me too!
Austin: I think that the joy and the blessing of having kids for me have put me in touch with that raw interest, that kind of raw passion.
If you think about it, how many of our interests have been artificially instilled in us from whether it was school or whether it was like what's interesting in social media or like what's selling in the marketplace or whatever?
It's hard sometimes as an adult to really sit back and be like, ‘What am I truly fascinated by in the world?' Because I think that so much of the creative person's agenda is to think about what do you really want to pay attention to? What do you want to shed light on? What do you want to put your gaze on? What do you want to highlight in the world for others?
And I just think that the noise of the world really gets in the way of your attention. And just a very, very clear, mundane example of this. When you use the internet, for example, my default mode for the internet most of the time now is I open Twitter or Instagram, like, ‘Hey, let's see what everyone's talking about.'
It used to be that the internet wasn't that way for me. When I went on the internet, it used to be like, ‘What am I interested in for the day?' And I would type that into the search box.
There's this thing now where most of how we digest life online is through what's called feeds, right? And when I think of the word feed I think of like a pig at a trough.
Whereas there's another way of interacting with the web, which is you type things into the search box and you see what comes up, and you're digging around based on your direction.
And it's interesting, even with Twitter, sometimes when I go on Twitter, I won't look at my feed. I'll simply type in what I'm interested in right now, like little search terms, and then I'll limit it to people I follow and see if any of the people I follow have talked about this thing I'm really interested in.
It's this whole way of tilting your experience of online life from what's being pushed at you versus what you want to discover. So it's the search versus the feed.
I think, in creative life, it's very easy to get in that feed mode where you're just sort of like, ‘Oh okay, whatever projects coming my way, I'll just do that. Like whatever people are interested in I'll I do that and blah, blah, blah.' It's very easy to get knocked out of that search mode I think is so important to making you work.
Joanna: That's great. You mentioned the word joy, and blessing, and light. But one of the things that I picked up from the book, because I write pretty dark fiction, and you said,
‘Art is not only made from things that spark ‘joy'. Art is also made out of what is ugly or repulsive to us.'
So I wondered what your thought especially as you mentioned at the beginning, the political climate, right now we've got some virus issues going around.
How do we tap into our dark side while avoiding the fear of judgment that inevitably comes?
Austin: I think what's really important is to have some kind of private practice. For a long time, part of the joy of making art was you can shut yourself away in a room, or with a sketchbook, or with your typewriter, and let that darkness and weirdness come out.
Now we're in this share everything culture where I think people don't feel like they can be as private. I feel like private space is disappearing in a lot of ways. When people make things they're very like, ‘Oh, I should share this on Instagram or after I make it or something.'
There's this feeling that you should share immediately after making things. And I think that, in some ways, I feel a little bit…I don't know that I feel responsible for that as much as I think my second book, Show Your Work, which was all about like, sharing your stuff before you have like a perfect finished product.
I think that got misinterpreted by a lot of people in that they felt like they needed to always share. And I thought the essential point of that book was you only share things that you want to share that you think are ready.
I just feel like people are like, ‘Oh, I made this thing, I should share it.' And they're not putting any time in between when something is created and when it's shared.
One of the key elements for me as far as exploring my darker stuff and figuring out what's bothering me, what's itching at me is to have a private place that I can go to do work.
That's why I keep a diary and a sketchbook is that a diary or a sketchbook is like a good place to have bad ideas. It's a good place to let those demons come out and to see what you're dealing with and no one ever has to see it.
I just think that our private lives are disappearing. And privacy used to be the place that we would work on some of these things. And so, that is my first example of how people can bring some of that darkness back into the work is think about where are the private spaces that you occupy?
Where are the safe zones where you can go and be as weird as you want to be?
And then the question of having the courage or the whatnot to actually share the work, that's like a whole separate issue. But for me, having a private space because I'm such a public person now, it's been really helpful to have private zones where I work. And I think privacy is important for everyone to have that kind of space to sort of let things exist.
Joanna: I agree. And it's interesting because of course you talk there about being quite a public person now and your blog, obviously, there are things you don't share on your blog, but you do put pictures of your diary and sometimes your kids' art and things like that, and really do let people in.
A lot of people will say now there's no point in blogging because it's all over-saturated.
What part of your life does blogging play? Is it marketing? Is it expression? What does it do for you?
Austin: I'm not sure there is a point to blogging. I think they might be right. I think everybody is right and everyone is wrong just like anything else.
For me personally, what blogging does is it is having to show up it's almost like a newspaper column or something. I don't know. I'm trying to think of in previous media, what would be the equivalent.
For me, a blog is not just a way of sharing, it's a way of generating ideas.
When I have to sit down and stare at my empty WordPress box and come up with something that I think is interesting, that is an act that holds you accountable in this way. Like having to show up and fill the box with something interesting is just an exercise that I think is just like really valuable on its own.
I think it clarifies your thinking. I think just literally sitting down and thinking, ‘What do I have to say today that I could share with someone else?' focuses you in this really interesting way. And I think that over time, what is really helpful about a blog is that you start to pick up on your own patterns.
Tags are really interesting to me on blogs because once you have a tag going, you're like, ‘Huh, that's one of my interests.' I've had blog tags that have become whole book chapters or whole books really.
So for me, what I'm trying to do with the blog is sort of what a writer like David Sedaris does with his writing in that, he carries this notebook around all day, scribbling in it, and then he goes to his diary in his morning, and he types about whatever was interesting in the notebook.
And then when he does a show, he shares some of that diary writing, sees how people react to it, makes little marks in the margin on stuff. And then he turns those pieces into essays that become books.
So it's this iterative process of generating material, putting it out in the world, seeing how people respond to it, and then repackaging it and then putting it back out. So, for me, the blog is sort of like, ‘Okay, I'm putting these ideas out there. I'm seeing if it impacts anyone or seeing what people send back to me.'
And then I'm gathering these thoughts over time into something more coherent that I'll then put in these books. So if you're insane and you want to go back 10 years in my blog, you could find a lot of material that makes its way into the books.
Keep Going would not exist if I hadn't started daily blogging again. I forgot to mention that in October 2017, I started going back to the blog every day and writing there every day.
And the thing that I found really interesting about frequency and by frequency, I mean something like the dailiness of the blogging, is that I used to wait until I had something to say in a blog. But I've noticed that by going to it every day, the quality of the posts, the number of good quality posts actually rises by doing it every day.
There's a great story in Art & Fear that book by Ted Orland and David Bayles. There's an example in there where there's a pottery class and half the class is told to just make the best pot they can. And half the class is told just make as many pots as you can. And the people in the group who were told to make as many as they could, they ended up producing more better pots or better pots than the ones who were told to make the best pot.
I think I got the story right. But that has happened to me. It's like the frequency is very important, in dailiness just doing the same thing over and over tends to get better results than to just like work on one thing endlessly.
A musical example of that for me is someone like Prince who at the peak of his career was recording a song a day. In '83, '84, the music was just like pouring out of him, and he didn't really have time to be perfect. If you listen to some of that stuff from that era, it's pretty rough, like sonically. It's not perfectly engineered or anything like that, but the songs are incredible.
And the music is incredible because he was just recording every day and just making stuff. He was making so much stuff that they couldn't put it out quick enough. That's why he had to like…you know, you get me talking about Prince a lot.
Prince has that effect on people. I don't know if you know this there are no casual Prince fans. Once you get into Prince it's consuming. That's the reason Prince had to make up all those different bands like The Time, and The Vanity 6, and stuff, is because he had so many songs like he couldn't release them all by himself.
But the thing I learned from him is if you work every day, just by the law of averages, you'll produce good stuff. You might make 30 crummy poems but then the next month, you'll make one good one. And then you have a really good poem.
That I found works better than the opposite, which is to just slave and only work when you're inspired, and only work like, on things in big bursts, and stuff like that.
Joanna: Prince is incredible, although one thing he never got right was doing a will, which obviously here's a big lesson learned from him!
Austin: Which we're all benefiting from.
Joanna: Oh, absolutely.
Austin: The cash out from the estate has been fantastic. There's all the stuff that's coming out so it's a good time to be a Prince fan.
Joanna: Indeed. I wanted to ask you then because obviously the art you're creating every day isn't necessarily monetized in any way, to use a term.
Another quote from the book, which I liked, was,
“Things can get very, very tricky when you turn the thing you love into the thing that keeps you and your family clothed and fed.”
Many people listening want to be full-time writers but it is difficult. How do you keep art, things you create just for the hell of it, and business in balance given that you have kids and a family?
Austin: One of my favorite poems is this poem by this guy named Kenneth Koch. It's called ‘You Want a Social Life, with Friends.' And I won't recite it, but basically what Koch says is, you can have work, family, or friends. Pick two.
He's like there's enough time for work and family and there's enough time for work and friends. There's enough time for friends and family, but there's not enough time for all three and of course that seasonal.
For me right now I'm thinking of that line that Nick Cage says in Moonstruck, ‘I have no life.' It's like it's family and it's work and that's the season we're in as a couple is there's only time for the kids and there's only time for work.
But as far as making a living, the making a living thing is so dependent on what it is that you do, what your different income streams are.
It's interesting because people will talk to me about, ‘Oh, you make a living doing what you love. You make a living off your art.'
And I'm like, ‘Well, actually, I don't make a living doing what I love. I make a good living making byproducts out of what I love.' So, what I mean by that is, the books are not art. There's artfulness in the books.
But when I make one of my books, for example, I am thinking of it as a product. I'm thinking of it as a book that I'm trying to do something in the books, I'm trying to do something for the reader. And they are not like, I do not consider them works of art. They are the byproducts of me trying to make art for myself.
I'm packaging the byproducts of that experience into something that I can sell to people. And the same is true of when I give a talk. That's not really my art, like a standup comedian, that's their art, right? When they get on stage, that's their art.
When I get up on stage and talk, it's very much the byproduct of what I really like to do is just draw and make stuff, whatever. My friend Hugh Macleod has this thing called the sex and cash theory. And the way that he talks about is like, there's always the sexy part of the work and then there's always the cash part of the work.
So the sexy part of my job the diary and the blogging and the like making stuff, I don't really monetize that. Everything else is like, the stuff I make money off, is like packaging, like I said, the byproducts of that process.
But it's tricky, I mean, and it's different for everybody. I'm in a really lucky situation where I can live off of books and speaking right now, so I don't sell a lot of artwork right now, or merchandise, or anything like that. And I don't have online courses, or I don't teach in a university or anything like that.
I guess what I'm trying to say is, I'm at a point in my life where I would rather have my time than more money. I'd rather be around my family more. I'd rather have a smaller house than try to maximize profit or whatever, but that is seasonal. I don't want to get off track here, but I think everything is just dependent on model and so dependent on what you want to do.
I try to remind people all the time, I'm like, ‘Look, I love poetry. A lot of my heroes were poets and like hardly anyone statistically has ever made a living off of poetry.' All of my poet heroes had day jobs or they had wealthy families, or some sort of income coming in.
So I think what this is a long-winded way of getting around to art and commerce just don't necessarily mix. And I think one thing that's really cool right now is, that people are doing a lot of experimenting with different income streams, different support systems. I see what's going on with Patreon and how people use Kickstarter and stuff like that. That's very interesting to me.
Now, I will say that I haven't done a lot of that stuff because I don't really want the complications of that. I think that sometimes I don't necessarily really want Patreons. I want to make something and sell it.
I feel like there's a little bit of an entitlement that happens when people feel like they have a real direct monetary influence on your life. And I just haven't been quite comfortable with that myself. But I've also been really lucky that I have the career that I do.
Joanna: Although, of course, most artists in history have had patrons. That has been the model.
Austin: Absolutely. We're back to it. And they've always been interestingly fraught relationships.
One of the things I think is really interesting as I've gotten more into this career and into this work is to think about the heroes of all stories. We always prop up the artist, but there's always a support system going on in the background of a lot of these stories.
Depending on your perspective, the people who really enabled the artists are some of the real heroes of the story. But it's interesting. I think artists have always had to be scrappy. They've always had to cobble together a life.
These days I'm interested in issues. I think artists usually do themselves a disservice.
I think we do ourselves a disservice by disconnecting ourselves from other kinds of workers. So in the U.S. right now, I'm a big outspoken proponent for universal health care, because I look around at my peers and people doing the work that I really enjoy.
In the United States, bad health care or lack of health care kills more artists than you can shake a stick at. And the stress level involved of having that lingering over your head all the time, I don't think people pay enough attention to it. I think that there are a lot of people who would be doing even more interesting work if they were freed of that like, ‘What's going to happen to my family,' if they get sick?'
I know a lot of people who only hold on to their day jobs as a way to keep their health care and their benefits and stuff. People get upset with me when I talk about it because they think it's a political issue. And I'm like, ‘Well, yeah, it is a political issue, but it's an art issue too.'
It's like saying things like, ‘You should stick to art. You should stick to what you know.' And I'm like, ‘No, this is an art issue.' If artists had access to affordable health care and they knew that they could take more chances in their work, and we would all benefit from it.'
So it's like stuff like that that I think is interesting right now. But every time in this country, you'll see an artist who has to run a GoFundMe because they got hit by a car or something. And some people will be like, ‘Oh isn't this great that we can all pitch in and like take care of this person that we love through this online thing?'
And I'm like, ‘It's a tragedy that we should even have to do this.' It's a failure of the system that anyone should have to run a GoFundMe for their medical expenses. It's just insane.
Joanna: I guess at the end, circling back to your book title, you can't actually keep going unless you're healthy. That's a good message to finish off on because we are out of time.
Where can people find you and everything you do online?
Austin: The easiest way, the old fashioned way, just type my name in the address bar, austinkleon.com and I'm Austin Kleon on Instagram and Twitter.
And probably the thing that your listeners might be the most interested in is I give out a weekly free newsletter where I point to 10 things I think are worth sharing. And I think 70,000 people subscribe now and it's like my favorite thing I do online. It's the way I best keep connected with people. So that's the best way to stay in touch with me.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Austin. That was great.
Austin: Thank you.