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Ketchup with Austin Kleon

In the first conversation of hopefully many, we catch up with Author/Artist Austin Kleon and find out what he’s been up to since his CreativeMornings talk. Austin (guy, not city) was CreativeMornings/Austin’s (city, not guy) inaugural speaker in April 2013 where he spoke as part of the theme on ‘The Future’.

Since the talk, Austin has (very) recently published a second book titled SHOW YOUR WORK! - something we end up chatting about.

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Conversation

Brandon Webber: So, what have you been up to since your talk?

Austin Kleon: Alright, so I’ll give you an idea of what my life was like when I gave that talk: my kid was about six months old and I was about to write the book proposal for my new book–I was juggling those two things. All I was doing was thinking all day about creativity and parenting. I was trying in my talk to figure out those two together, because I was having a seriously hard time balancing them.

Now, normally, when I give a talk, it’s material I have figured out and rehearsed endlessly – I’ve often spoken about it so much that it’s almost, in a way, become dead to me. But with my Creative Mornings talk, I was trying to actively figure the thing out that I was talking about while I was talking about it. So it was kinda like walking a tightrope without a net. I’m not sure it’s the strongest I’ve ever given but it was the most interesting and it was the one that was important to me because it was a subject that I really deeply cared about and the stakes were very high for me.

Every talk is an experiment – just like a piece of art – what your intentions are with the talk isn’t necessarily how it turns out. What came out in the talk was a much darker picture of parenting than I have now.

Austin Kleon’s CreativeMornings talk.

Now that I’ve come out the other end and my book’s finished, I’ve written it, I know what it says, I know what it’s about, I’ve been a parent for 15 months now my world has– there’s a stasis now. Things have balanced out in a way that they weren’t when I was giving the talk, you know?

BW: In some ways maybe a talk is like a block of marble and early versions of talks are kind of like chipping away and creating a rough form of what you want. At the end you’ve got a fairly stable product and sometimes it can be like, “I’m done with this sculpture, I’m done with this work and I want to move on.”

AK: Yeah, with a lot of talks, especially if you’re like me and you do a lot of speaking for a living, you drag out the old marble, you know,and you polish off some edges and you buff it up and bring it out and show it to people.

But the CreativeMornings talk was me making my first chisels with the hammer. The block was there and I was just starting to chip away. It’s a weird talk because the whole subject is very meta. It was a talk that was asking future speakers at CreativeMornings/Austin to give certain kinds of talks, a challenge to do something different in which you bring something that you’re working out and then the audience helps you finish it.

BW: I think that’s the culture that we’re trying to create with CreativeMornings. We’re not looking for polished talks. We’re not looking for artists' retrospectives. We’re looking for somebody to say “I wanna explore this idea that I’m working on with you – please allow me into that space and allow me to talk about that.”

AK: Well, you know, I keep thinking about your sculpture metaphor. Sometimes, even when you think your ideas are finished… the heat from the audience, the reaction, can kind of melt your sculpture a little bit and make it malleable again.

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BW: Some of that energy at a talk, for me at least, is to just vocalize ideas. Speaking it makes it real and by putting it out there you can see it immediately. We talk about the immediacy of putting something online, but speaking seems like pure immediacy. You can just see looks of people, their faces, how they respond to something. I love that when I’m given a chance to talk: to see that immediacy and have that impact how you deliver something.

AK: Yeah! There’s also something thrilling for an audience to watch someone having an idea. I think that’s part of the reason I’ve always loved listening to musicians' demo tapes. When you talk to musicians, a lot of times they make rough demos when they’re writing a song, and then they go to a studio and they spend the whole time trying to recapture that energy of the original demo.

BW: Using the music analogy, sometimes some of the albums that I find I listen to the most over time are ones that I struggled to get into at first. I don’t know if this translates into a book, but sometimes hard things to grapple with — things that takes a little bit of work — can be a valuable thing. And maybe some of that is part of the rawness and energy.

AK: I think it is. I think when it comes to the art that really means something to us, the artist brought their energy, but we had to put in something too. We had to finish it somehow. There’s a transaction there. It’s a conversation between the person making the art and the person experiencing it.

BW: But within that conversation, there’s a transactional element right? There’s an idea of value?

AK: Yeah, definitely. Sometimes it’s spiritual, sometimes it’s mental, sometimes it’s physical, sometimes it’s commercial. A piece of art doesn’t really do anything until other people decide they wanna do something with it, you know? A book is nothing until someone picks it up and reads it, then — and maybe more importantly — they take it and hand it to someone else and say, “I think you would really like this.” That’s what makes things work.

BW: In a book, if no one’s reading it or thinking about it, that content or that energy that you poured into that is kind of inert until somebody decides to put their energy into engaging with that.

AK: Yeah! Absolutely. It’s inert energy, waiting for a receiver.

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BW: Does the idea of conversation or transaction tie in with the idea of showing your work earlier in the process?

AK: The traditional idea of creativity is the “lone genius”: A genius alone in his studio taking dictation from God or the Muse or whatever, struggling and tearing his hair out and then receiving the divine intervention, you know?

So the model is, if you want to be more creative or if you want to make better stuff, then you need to act like all these lone geniuses. You need to tap into the muse and cloister yourself off and try to be original. What I’ve found is that, while a lot of creativity and art comes from a singular mind who is in constant practice and constant motion, I’ve yet to find any artist who wasn’t more or less the sum of their influences.

Creativity has been built up as this anti-social act. But it’s not. Brian Eno calls it “Scenius”: he says a lot of great ideas are the result of a “scene”, or a group of people working in close proximity, swapping ideas and stealing from each other. Steven Johnson writes about this in his great book, WHERE DO IDEAS COME FROM?.

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So instead of just doing that traditional thing where you keep your work secret, there’s another model. One in which you’re constantly working on your thing, but you’re sharing these little bits and pieces of it in a calculated way so that people might react to it and that the work might get better by being in contact with these other minds.

So what I’m trying to do with SHOW YOUR WORK! is to provide readers with a users manual for this way of operating. Because it is a whole different way of thinking about work: the idea that you would share things as you’re going, that you would have a more regular connection with your audience, that you would see your audience maybe like a posse, or a scenius.

BW: I like that idea. I was listening again to that Ira Glass clip has where he’s talking about taste. Early on you have taste but you don’t have skill, but you just keep working at it. I think he’s talking more about your own internal thinking about your work. In STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST, I think you’re also talking about your own internal thinking about your work: how to develop your taste and how to grow your abilities in doing the work you want to do. At the same time there’s another half of the discussion which is, “Who are the people you include around you as you work?"

Sometimes those are formal relationships, like between a writer and an editor. That relationship is a formal institution that has been developed over time to produce good work. However there’s also people like painters who might use informal relationships. If you’re part of their inner circle you’ll be invited to see the raw work. That feedback and those informal moments where you’re talking with your buddies or whatever, could be really an intimate part of your development as you work out your art.

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AK: A lot of the artists that I respect, even when they’re not sharing their own work, they’re saying, "Hey, I’m reading this book that’s like blowing my mind,” or, “look at these paintings by this dude,” or, “Oh my God, have you tried this new Blackwing Palomino pencil, it’s amazing.” I’ve always found that by sharing this kind of stuff, then people sharing back, “Oh, well have you read this book,” or, “Have you seen this guy’s painting?” “Have you tried this kind of pencil,” and that’s all in the simple act of just sharing these little bits and pieces of your process. But by sharing those bits and pieces, you get the ideas for the actual work, the stuff you’re making.

It’ll be interesting to see how this book turns out. This sounds like such a ridiculous thing for an author to say. but you just never know whether your book’s about what you meant it to be about or whether it ended up being about something else. [Laughs] These things, in the process of becoming what they’re becoming, they take on lives of their own.

BW: I hear you. When I’m writing I might have an idea in my head of what I’m trying to say. Then I get through it and I look at it thinking, “there’s some interesting things that I’m saying, but it’s definitely not what I was trying to say.”

[Laughter]

AK: Right. Yeah. I mean, a lot of times, the really good writing is when you don’t know what you’re trying to say. You sit down and something happens that’s beyond you. That’s when you know you’re really cooking.

BW: So do you think you’re happy with where your books have gone? Are you happy with the end result?

AK: For someone who wrote a book subtitled “Ten Things Nobody Told You About Creativity” [laughing] I’m always hesitant about packaging things up too nicely. It’s always hard for me, the idea of putting things into a tidy little list of ten. When of course it’s always more complicated than that. So that’s always my own personal struggle with my own work.

For me the path to guru-dom is a soul-crushing one. The idea that I might end up that guy. That’s exactly what I’m trying my best not to become. I’m trying my best not to become that creative guru person.

Because if I end up him I’ll quit. I’ll go get my truck driver’s license or something. The thing I always tell people is that the saddest truth of it all is that you can make more a lot more money telling other people how to be creative than you can sometimes actually being creative yourself.

STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST in a lot of way was just a fluke. When I wrote that book I didn’t really know there was a whole creativity genre. I was just trying to write a book I wanted to read when I was nineteen. Then what happens is you get shelved on a certain shelf in the book store. Then you start giving your talks and all of the sudden “blam!”

SHOW YOUR WORK! is the book I wrote after I knew what I was doing. I knew it was going to be shelved in self-help, and I knew it was going to be like part of the “creativity racket”, as I like to call it.

Show Your Work! Book Trailer

I’ve had this conversation with my agent, my friends, and my wife, which was, “you can’t write another one of these books. It will destroy you.” You know? I loved writing STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST, but I hated writing SHOW YOUR WORK!. It was a hideous experience for me but I came out the other end with a book that I really believe in, that I really like That’s what is most important I think. But now, what do you do next? How do you make sure you’re going forward, like how do you make sure that you’re progressing?

BW: I’m sure there is some of you where it’s less about trying to sell, but just wanting to get a sense of what other people are interested in. You put this work out, but in some ways you’re saying, “This is a progression of me and where I’m going. This is what I’m thinking about.” That kind of thing has less to do with the market right?

AK: The one thing I love about being alive right now is I can do whatever I want online, you know? I don’t need anyone’s permission, and I get immediate feedback. That’s why I still love my website, and social media can also kind of do that for me.

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Everyday on Instagram I post a poem or a little blackout that I’ve made. It is always completely fascinating to me which ones get the most likes and which ones don’t.

Basically what always happens is the poems that mean the most to me are very rarely the ones that resonate with everybody and the ones that I feel the least attachment to are the ones that are most immediately popular. And so, as an artist, how do you deal with that? Like, artists haven’t always always had that instant data on hand, you know?

In the old days,you’d have a gallery show and they’d be like, “well we couldn’t sell that one that was brown but we sold the heck out of that purple one over there.” They did have data, but not that constant, everyday stream of data on what people are doing with your stuff.

I don’t know what that does to the work. And I don’t know how to filter that out of when you’re actually making. I think as much as possible you just separate the making and the sharing, you know? And that’s something I try to talk about in the book. I think sharing is super important, but I also think disconnecting from sharing and making stuff is important too.

A lot of my own progress has been about really trying to put on blinders or kind of muffle out what I think people are going to respond to with the work and just make it. Then I can decide whether to share it, or how to share it, or whatever.

Like today I did a poem today that I thought, like, “Wow, this is really significant, I think this feels like I really hit something,” you know? And I put it online and it was just crickets. But it doesn’t matter. You make the stuff and you put it out there and then you go make more stuff and see what happens.

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Brandon Webber is the organizer of CreativeMornings/Edmonton and a writer. He hopes you enjoy great conversations as much as he does.

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