Austin Kleon describes himself as “a writer that draws,” and at the core of his work is a trilogy of illustrated gift books that booksellers aren’t sure whether to file under Art, Business, or Self-Help (though they typically choose the last of those). The trilogy’s breakthrough first installment, Steal Like an Artist, was about unlocking creativity by acknowledging nothing is original, which Kleon believes frees you up to remix and reimagine until you discover your own path. The follow-up, Show Your Work!, focused on embracing process, not product, to get known by being findable, while this year’s Keep Going is about creating and sustaining a productive and creative life. Kleon also blogs every day at www.austinkleon.com. On the National Podcast of Texas, we talked about not just creativity, but also cancel culture as it pertains to art, why social media and the side hustle aren’t necessarily healthy, and about how someone focused on creativity in the digital age could be so wary of technology.
Three takeaways from our conversation:
1. Kleon says the legendary Daniel Johnston, who passed away this month, was emblematic of the creative mindset at the center of both Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work.
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“Early on, he’s in Austin making cassette tapes, passing them out for free while working at McDonald’s. I feel like he’s one of those great artists that absorbs the pop culture and then puts it back out in an extremely personal way. He’s almost like a remix artist when you really look at some of the stuff he’s doing, whether he’s taking Captain America or Casper for the art or the Beatles for the music, he’s putting his spin on it. And of course I love him because he’s a multimedia artist. He’s someone who was fantastic both visually and as a musician.”
2. Kleon considers himself an accidental, and now renegade, self-help writer.
“I fell into self-help by accident. I gave this talk called ‘Steal Like an Artist,’ and then I turned that into blog posts that went crazy. And when it’s a book, they started shelving it in self-help. I was actually kind of shocked, because I was 29 and an artsy fartsy guy. I wasn’t the guru type who set out to write self-help. But then this really interesting thing happened when I started really looking into self-help as a genre. And immediately I asked myself, how can I mess with this? How can I take the genre and infuse it with my weird thoughts about art and creative work? So now I’m playing a dangerous game where I’m trying to take this popular mainstream genre and sneak in all my weirdness and depth.”
3. On his last book tour, Kleon spoke to more people than ever who felt overwhelmed by what creative gurus seem to think they’ll need to do to find success and career stability.
“People are anxious about feeling like they should be doing more. Information is not their problem. A lot of these people that I meet, they’ve read all the blogs, bought all the books, and they know they’re supposed to get up and do their three morning pages and share something every day. They know they’re supposed to write down their dreams and thoughts and do their bullet journal. They know they’re supposed to be doing this stuff, but what they really need is someone to just take them aside and remind them this is supposed to be fun. This work we’re talking about isn’t about running an Etsy shop. It’s about like feeling like a human being. It’s hippie stuff like that people really need someone in my position to share. They need someone to say, ‘I watched three hours of Justified last night.’ You would be amazed how many nights I spend drinking whiskey and watching reruns of my favorite shows. The purpose of this work is not to build a side hustle. It’s about being a human being, and there are just so many people out there right now that just need a little bit of affirmation.”