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'Embrace the Foolish'
Austin Kleon on blurring the lines between work and play.
Austin Kleon. Photo credit: Clayton Cubitt
“Because they have little to lose, amateurs are willing to try anything and share the results.” — Austin Kleon
People often ask me how to pursue their creative dreams. I love trying to solve the puzzle of how to inspire someone to believe in what they do, but when I start to unpack my adjectives around making art, I sometimes (inadvertently) imply that creating requires a kind of privileged confidence, a secret well of mystical skills, a divine intervention.
Austin Kleon is not here for that nonsense — but he is here for other forms of foolishness, experimentation, imagination, and discovery. Kleon’s three bestselling books on the creative process, Steal Like An Artist, Show Your Work!, and Keep Going, offer pragmatic alternatives to the most common tropes about creativity and art. While we might imagine an artist toiling away in an airtight room, free from outside influences, drawing on some deep wells of brilliance that tumble from within, Kleon’s artist is an amateur who treats each day like a blank slate, wanders and gets lost, collects small treasures, gathers interesting ideas, and embraces every mistake. If the lone genius is Picasso or Shakespeare, Kleon’s artist is Winnie the Pooh or Bing Bong from Inside Out or Jack from Nightmare Before Christmas, encountering the strange artifacts of Christmas for the first time and singing, “What’s this? What’s this?”
In his popular newsletter, Kleon manages to make the work of creating seem much more like play. Recent issues have included the joy of date stamps, a zine comparing getting in the zone creatively to catching a wave, and some reflections on patience that include the instruction “Develop a taste for having problems.” I particularly love the Gratitude Zine he created, which includes this introduction:
Kleon always begins on the ground and crawls slowly toward the light. He’s never afraid to admit that it’s hard just being alive and trying to make something interesting or provocative or beautiful out of whatever you have.
When I interviewed Kleon for a packed book event in Los Angeles a few years ago, I was surprised by his honesty. In spite of the buoyant nature of his work, Kleon called himself grumpy at least twice and made it clear that, even with all of his strategizing and reflection on how to stay inspired, he muddles through each day like anyone else, doing his best to feel good in a world that sometimes seems designed to make us miserable.
I’ve been a faithful reader of Kleon’s newsletter ever since, so I was excited to have the chance to ask him a few questions about how he stays optimistic and productive under taxing extended-pandemic conditions.
What’s your most important habit right now?
Taking a walk every day. As Ingmar Bergman said, “Demons hate fresh air.”
How far do you walk and where do you go?
My wife and I start from our house in the morning and walk about a mile and a half or two miles, then turn around, so a total of 3-4 miles each day. No set destination, and we switch up which direction we walk. We walk solo on weekends when my kids aren’t in school. (We used to push them in a double stroller, but they’re too big now.) We talk about everything on these walks, do a lot of bitching and moaning and dreaming and planning. Then we try to leave whatever was said out in the air.
What does it take for you to consider a day creative in the right ways? What do you count as productive?
Much as I try not to equate being creative and being productive, some evidence of work done is usually the ticket, so: filled diary pages, a collage, a poem, pages read and filled with marginalia, etc.
That said, there’s some weird point at which if I make too much in one day, I don’t feel good at all. I sort of feel despondent. I think it has to do with doing so much and knowing there’s so much more to be done? My wife Meghan loves to garden, but if she spends too much time gardening, there’s some threshold at which she becomes depressed. I think there’s an ideal amount of work to be done every day — enough that you feel like you’ve done something, but not so much that you feel wrung out and existentially fried. I imagine setting a timer and stopping when time is up no matter what would help.
I understand what you mean about doing too much (gardening or work). Lately I’ve been trying to shift gears between activities more often during the day. It gives me a sense of balance, because if I just try to write all day – emphasis on the word try here – I end up feeling like I’m running myself into the ground. Do you have any warning signs you look for, so you know when you’re starting to spin your wheels?
Honestly, I’m not very good at paying attention to my feelings. One of the reasons I’m a writer and an artist is that sometimes I feel like it’s the only access I have to my internal state. I’m trying to be better at being in my body, trying to pay attention to pain and other signals. I like my stupid expensive Apple Watch because it nags me when it’s time to stand up. If I walk away from what I’m doing, sometimes I know if it’s time to quit or go back. This is also why I like working to a timer or to the deadline of picking up the kids or dinner, or whatever.
As someone who thinks, writes, and talks a lot about creativity and happiness, have you ever found yourself getting so intensely focused on these things that your self-management became oppressive?
Absolutely. I hate my boss.
How do you walk that fine line between encouraging your creative self and becoming your own oppressive helicopter parent/ micromanager?
Because nothing I really do is guaranteed to “pay off,” I try to make everything I do as fun as I possibly can. Just trying to pull some fun out of each little thing. So, for example, writing in my diary: I use a pocket brush pen and I write in big letters like Lynda Barry and try to make the pages as beautiful as I can. A podcast interview: just trying to be genuine and tell the truth and see if I can learn something or get the interviewer to laugh. There’s too much talk of work in this racket, not enough about pleasure. (I haven’t figured out how to make book writing pleasurable, which is why I’ve written so few books.)
You’ve written five books, right? Your boss really is tough!
Well, I have an agent and a family to feed, so I can’t idle too long.
What do you try to say to yourself at the end of the day if you didn’t accomplish much?
Nothing — I let the television and the whiskey work its magic!
Have you ever had writer’s block? Do you think it’s a myth?
I’m trying to take Joy Williams’ advice to honor writer’s block. Writer’s block, or the feeling of not wanting to write, is usually telling me that I just don’t have anything that interesting to say. And it’s usually right! I agree with Ms. Williams. More people should get writer’s block. I know some people who should catch it. Besides, there are too many words out there already. I like making pictures when I don’t feel like writing. Somehow, I don’t get sick of making pictures. Or playing the piano.
Do you ever get tired of what you do for a living? How do you soothe yourself when you’re feeling that way?
Are you kidding me? Every week, if not every day. I just try to remind myself how stinking lucky I am to be doing it. I have an imaginary dialogue with my 13-year-old self. “Wait, so you sit around and write and read and draw and play piano all day? And people listen to you and all you really have to do is be interesting and helpful to them?” One time I complained to Meghan about it being Tuesday, and she said, “Well, just don’t do Tuesday things.” That was the most brilliant thing I ever heard. She’s the real writer in the family. I’m trying to get her to start a newsletter.
To be fair, Tuesdays are uniquely oppressive. What’s your favorite completely pointless, value-free activity – as in, it brings nothing to your life but pure enjoyment?
Unfortunately, I’m a writer (I could stop the sentence there) so I can squeeze something out of almost anything. So, watching TV, for example, just gives me stuff to put in the newsletter. Playing Nintendo Switch with the kids, I’ll think of something interesting about it I can use. Yardwork, or cleaning leaves out of the pool or whatever, which I actually enjoy, I’ll start thinking about a piece. I’m sort of doomed this way. Like, I learned to solve a Rubik’s Cube during the pandemic, and that seemed like pointless fun, but then I read Erno Rubik’s memoir, and learned a bunch about play. It makes me wonder if Nora Ephron’s “everything is copy,” was actually a warning. It’s ridiculous.
If someone were to tell you “You don’t have to earn another dime,” how would you spend your time?
Pretty much the way I do now, except I wouldn’t try to write and/or sell books. I’d stick to reading them. And filling my diaries.
Don’t you think you’d get restless and want to write another book eventually?
I mean, probably. I believe deeply that the really good books need to arrive, somehow. They announce that they need to be written, or they come into the world by accident. Think of something like Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. One of the most influential books, and it’s just a dead emperor essentially writing notes to himself in his diary.
I don’t know. I think the good stuff has an urgency, and you can feel it when you read the book. You can tell when somebody’s just making up a book so it can be sold. I was reading an interview with Erykah Badu one time and she was asked why it had been so long since she made a record. And she said, “I don’t have anything to say.” The honesty almost knocked me down.
What’s the most unexpected thing that brings you joy these days?
Dropping my kids off at school and picking them up. It combines the intimacy of car conversation with the tenderness of what George Saunders calls that “airport feeling” of saying goodbye to someone you love. And when you pick them up, everyone’s had time to miss each other.
I love that. My kids are teenagers, though, so I think they’d love to miss me a little more. What advice do you have for a person who has the urge to create but doesn’t know where to start and feels stupid every time they try to scratch that itch?
Embrace the stupid. Embrace the foolish. Clown around. Play the fool. It’s wild to me how many decent ideas just come from someone trying to amuse themselves or someone else. Think of all the great books that started as bedtime stories, for example.
Most importantly: Listen to punk rock, or try to expose yourself to the punk spirit. Bernard Sumner (Joy Division/New Order) said he saw the Sex Pistols and they were so terrible he wanted to get up and be terrible with them. That’s it, right there.
You can never underestimate how terrible art can give you permission to do your own. Like, go on Instagram and look at the idiots who have a million followers. The bar is low!
Do you believe there’s any kind of distinction between “real” writers and people who write, or real artists and people who make art at home for fun?
The people at home are smarter? I dunno. I think everyone should make art and almost no one should try to make a living off it. Ben Shahn said, “An amateur is an artist who supports himself with outside jobs which enable him to paint. A professional is someone whose wife works to enable him to paint.”
How do you figure out if a project will work or not?
Avoid it for as long as possible.
Thanks for reading Ask Polly! You can subscribe to Austin Kleon’s newsletter here and buy his latest book here. Send your advice letters to askpolly at protonmail.com. Feel free to share this post with someone creative.