“It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book that book leads you to”
–Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist
In 2005 Austin Kleon experienced a bad case of writer’s block. Right out of college, after having studied creative writing, he was struggling to write a short story. To break out of the rut he took a Sharpie to nearby newspapers and started crossing out sentences, leaving only a few words and large swaths of black ink in his wake. Unknowingly, he created something he calls Newspaper Blackout Poems.
I had the opportunity to speak with Kleon the Saturday morning before he embarked on a major US tour to promote his latest book. Steal Like an Artist, the title, is a riff on a popular saying in the creative world often misattributed to Picasso: “nothing comes from nowhere.” It was soon after creating these blackout poems that Kleon traced the style’s origins back 250 years to a former next-door neighbor of Benjamin Franklin’s. More recently, William Burroughs had done something similar with his cut-up technique.
Far from disappointed by his findings, Kleon developed a philosophy, one that he celebrates in the book: “All creative work builds on what came before.” Whether it’s our subconscious at play or a dedicated effort, we all have influences whose work guides our own. Austin encourages us to embrace and cultivate them rather than see our mash-up style as fraudulent.
“Just as you have a familial genealogy, you also have a genealogy of ideas. You don’t get to pick your family, but you can pick your teachers and you can pick your friends and you can pick the music you listen to and you can pick the books you read and you can pick the movies you see.”
Although his “family tree” is always changing, Kleon named four influences who have stuck with him over time. Lynda Barry, his favorite cartoonist, showed Kleon he could make a career out of pairing words and pictures. He believes her book What It Is should be required reading for high school students. Kleon’s work is highly visual, the book features drawings throughout, so it was no surprise to hear him mention two other artists: Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame and Saul Steinberg, an illustrator best known for his work with The New Yorker. Acclaimed fiction writer George Saunders also made the list.
Although the influences he mentions appear cohesive, leading one to assume his work has a singular foundation, Kleon says there’s no harm in variation. “Don’t worry about unity from piece to piece — what unifies all of your work is the fact that you made it,” he said.
The beauty of Steal Like an Artist is that it’s accessibl. As one can surmise from the subtitle, 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative—a tagline that fits neatly into today’s culture of pared down how-tos—there’s a noticeable lack of technical jargon. Instead, Kleon filled its pages with thought-provoking aphorisms and bite-sized insights. Structured around these ten simple rules, Steal Like an Artist offers a list that will most certainly transform the way you think about your work: use your hands; do good work and share it with people; be nice (the world is a small town); and be boring (it’s the only way to get work done) — to name a few.
Unlike many “big thought” books, Steal Like an Artist doesn’t leave you stranded: putting ideas in your head without a practical plan for going forward. In the last few pages Austin offers tips on how to harness creative energy: take a walk, get yourself a calendar, start a blog, and take a nap. As an avid reader and someone who believe books hold many answers, he includes a reading list of other books that might help you along the artistic path.
Ultimately, Steal Like an Artist is an inspiring conversation, one worth returning to again and again as your creative process evolves over time.
Here are a few bonus questions I had for the author. Check out what he has to say about procrastination, serendipity, and Carl Jung.
You talk about finding one’s voice. I’m curious to know how you found yours — or if you think the search ever ends.
Voice always confused the hell out of me in school. I really had no idea what professors were talking about when they said “find your voice.” I still don’t have a handle on it real well, honestly. The closest I’ve been to understanding is through something Billy Collins said: you find your poetic voice by emulating about 6-8 different poets, and once they fit together, so you can’t tell what comes from who, you’ve discovered your voice. I don’t think the search ends, though — at least I hope not. To have one voice forever sounds boring to me.
Do you feel procrastination is an integral part to the creative process?
Oh yeah. Basically, I always have 3-4 projects I’m working on and when I get sick of one I bounce over to the other. At some point I’ll become obsessed with one and run on that energy until it’s dead, then I switch again. As much as we like being productive, we also need time to sit around and do nothing. To stare at the wall and think, or do something routine and mundane with your body so your mind is freed up. How do you procrastinate productively? I like going for walks and doing the dishes — both get me ideas, but one makes me less fat and one gets the kitchen clean.
You say “Creative work is a kind of theater.” I love that. As an artist, how do you see your work — or creative work in general — as theater?
The stage is your workspace — your desk, or your studio, whatever. The costume is your smock, or your favorite sweatpants, or a funny hat you put on to think. The props are your tools — pens, welding torch, etc. — and the script is just plain old time set aside to work. You know, just like actors “get into character,” I think we can trick our minds into getting into the zone, too.
You mentioned recently that you’ve been making more of an effort to step away from your computer — your chapter “Step Away from the Screen” is one of my favorites — and that you spend your time in the local university library looking through the stacks. What’s your take on serendipitous findings in the physical world versus the virtual/online world?
Yeah, you just can’t beat having books in a physical space. I call it the “serendipity of the stacks” — you go looking for a book with a certain Dewey Decimal number, and then your eye gets caught on another book’s spine, and pretty soon you’re reading that book instead of the one you went looking for. The same thing can happen on the Internet, but it just doesn’t feel quite the same. Steven Johnson says, “If you can’t find serendipity on the web, you’re not using it right.” I’d asked you about your favorite artist biography or memoir and you mentioned Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Did it change your life in some way? I’m not sure it’s changed my life, but what I love about the book is how Jung is constantly on the edge between science and religion, rationality and mysticism, etc. It’s just a great story about one of our great minds coming into being.