Austin Kleon interview by Rob Spillman
Austin Kleon’s newsletter has been a lifeline during lockdown. His weekly “10 things I thought were worth sharing” range from an eclectic mix of music, new and old, to poems, paintings, historical advice on notebook keeping, and updates on Coconut, the screech owl who has taken up residence in a palm tree in his Austin, Texas backyard. The generous, humanistic weekly entries are something of a cross between Maria Popova’s Brainpickings and Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock Top 10, and are very much in the spirit of his bestselling trilogy of illustrated books about creativity in the digital age: Steal Like An Artist, Show Your Work!, and Keep Going, which, collectively have sold over a million copies and have inspired countless people to unlock their creativity. He is also the author of Newspaper Blackout, a collection of poems made by redacting the newspaper with a permanent marker. I reached out to Kleon to see how parenthood, the Trump years, Black Lives Matter, and the pandemic are affecting his outlook and output.
In your 2012 book, Steal Like an Artist, you write about your “not so secret formula” for being an artist: “Step 1. Wonder at something. 2. Invite others to wonder with you.” Is this the impetus behind your newsletter?
I think so. That was the goal with starting my blog back in 2005: I figured I didn’t have anything good of my own to share yet, but if I shared the stuff I loved in an interesting way, maybe the people who liked that same kind of stuff would show up, and eventually I'd have something for them of my own that was worth reading. Now that I have an audience, I try to stay true to sharing what I love and what I’m genuinely interested in, but I also see the newsletter as a kind of service, a kind of inspirational booster shot. I read an old interview with Bruce Springsteen once and he said, of touring with the E Street Band: “Our job is, we just blow into town, tell everybody to keep going, and we blow on out.” I really think that way about the newsletter these days: I pop up in your inbox, give you 10 things I think are worth sharing, and then I tell you to hang in there, I’ll be back next week with more.
I think of your newsletter as an artform in itself. There’s an art to curation. Are you influenced by other magpies like Brian Eno, Lynda Barry, Maria Popova, Greil Marcus, and David Byrne?
I am influenced by all of those people! I remember years ago, reading Jonathan Lethem talk about how he’s basically a curator, he just mashes up the books he reads into his own. I love artists who are open about their influences. If you think about the bands who were really big in the 90s, when I was a teenager, they were pretty good at that: I think of Kurt Cobain wearing a Daniel Johnston t-shirt, or the early websites of Radiohead that they did with Stanley Donwood, how they would share the books they were reading and the music they were listening to while working on their albums. (I picked up The Beatles’ White Album and Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew because of them.) But the biggest influence on my newsletter are the Top 40 lists in the back of John Porcellino’s King-Cat zine, where John lists all the things he read, saw, listened to, etc. I always loved reading John’s lists as much as I loved the comics.
In Steal Like an Artist you also write about the idea of “Garbage In/Garbage Out.” How do you filter out the garbage, especially social media noise, but also keep yourself open to the universe?
I feel like my problem used to be: getting plugged in. Finding inspiration, finding friends, etc. Now, my problem is the opposite: unplugging long enough to have the time and solitude to actually make something of it all. For me, it's all about getting away from the phone, particularly in the morning: setting aside enough time to write and read. I've recently been experimenting with reading books first thing in the morning with coffee, and it's changed my whole day. When I start the day with reading, I’m never without something to write about. I feel like people forget how generative reading can be. Even if you aren't connecting with a text, there's value in just sitting and letting your mind wander. You can't do that if you're on Twitter. Another generative thing is taking a walk. Both things, reading and walking, seem to invite ideas.
In that vein, you are proponent of “letting luck happen,” but this is an active process wherein you need to put yourself in a place where luck can happen. How are you managing this during the pandemic?
Two is a pattern for me. If somebody mentions noodles in an email, and then I'm watching TV later and somebody's eating noodles, I write it down, and think about what kind of message it could be. I know it's not real, but that sort of dumb "everything could be a secret message" attitude seems to open up a possibility space for me, activates the playful wiring in my brain that gives me ideas. I think collage is an art form that actively invites these weird patterns: you'll be making a collage, and see two elements juxtaposed, and it'll create a third thing in your brain.
From reading your newsletter, it can feel like you are consuming everything inspiring out there while still doing your own art, being an active and engaged parent, and also playing music, documenting Coconut the Owl who has taken up residence in your palm tree, etc... What does your typical day actually look like?
My kids are old enough to get up by themselves and turn the TV on, so my wife and I have been sleeping in, catching up on all those sleepless years. I'll try to get up, oh, by 8AM at the latest, then, read, write in my diary, maybe blog a bit, and then we go for a big walk together with the kids in the stroller at 10AM (they're too big for the stroller, but nevermind), eat lunch at 11, and then around noon I'll pop out to the office for a few hours and try to work some more. At 3PM, our kids get to play on their computers, so that's when I'll do email and stuff I don't have to think too much about. If I'm done around 4PM, say, I'll give myself a treat and play some Zelda on the Nintendo Switch my kids got for Christmas. We eat dinner at 5, kids go to bed at 7, we go to bed at 10. Rinse and repeat.
I’m curious how recent outside pressures have impacted your practice and philosophy, namely being a parent, the Trump years, the Pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter awakening?
It’s weird, the contemporary world has sent me in multiple directions, but mostly, it's sent me back to the past, to people who survived worse. I found Thoreau, for example, a helpful friend for navigating the previous administration. (His journals, to be specific. I haven't actually read the books he published in his lifetime.) Every Lao Tzu poem is like a subtweet of the former president. The Quaker feminist teacher Ursula Franklin taught me a skepticism for technology and a potluck dinner vision of democracy. James Baldwin the need for a sensual life — as in retaining your senses — in senseless times. Being a parent has completely changed my life and blown my mind. Watching a four year old draw is about as magical of a creative experience as you can get. People talk about all the things they're trying to teach their kids, and I am doing the opposite: I am trying to let my kids teach me, trying to slowly transition into what I call a “curious elder”— someone who actively seeks out young people to learn from. My older son stutters, so that has opened me up to new ways of thinking about difference and how our limitations can lead to our signature work. But most of all, I’m just trying to remain curious, and share the things I'm learning.
This past year, when things have gotten to the “dark tea-time of the soul” as Douglas Adams put it in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, I’ve reached for the work of Mary Ruefle and Mary Oliver. Do you have go-to texts, music, film, or art for soul-dark times?
Oh man, Mary Reufle has been my Quarantine Queen! I love her work so much. The older I get, the more I need my art to have a sense of humor. I read a great book called The Comedy Of Survival last year. It's by a guy named Joseph Meeker who writes that most of our civilization is modeled on tragedy — a great man tries to change the world and fails miserably — when comedy would be a much better model for humans: playfulness, adaptation, improvisation, etc. It took me years to realize that comedy is as worthy as tragedy, and a long time to understand that my voice is, essentially, comic. Not necessarily funny, just comic. But in the dark times, yeah, I'm all about the 30s and 40s screwball comedies, playing the piano, and drinking whiskey.
For many creatives, the late-capitalism fervor to be busy and produce has been exacerbated by the pandemic, where many of us feel like we are working under a panopticon while simultaneously being paralyzed by day-to-day anxiety. How do you advise creatives to let go of the need to be busy and produce?
I don't know, because everyone's situation is so different. I will say, that if you look at the people in the past who produced great work, a lot of them gave themselves idle time, time to do nothing, time to rest, time to just daydream and "fart around," as Kurt Vonnegut put it. There's a tinkering, puttering, playful element to all good creative work. I’m heartened by how many of my creative heroes took a lot of naps, for example, I feel strongly that my laziness and my productivity are deeply connected, somehow. If you need permission, think of how every company has an "R&D" department. You have to give yourself time for research and development! And "Development" might include taking a nap.
You write about disgust as a survival instinct, and using this as compost. I think of William Gass, who, when asked why he writes, said, “I hate. A lot. Hard.” But you come off as a cheerful, optimistic person—how do continually lean into comedy and joy in the face of tragedy and horror?
Wendell Barry wrote a poem called “A Warning To My Readers,” in which he basically says, "Hey look, just because I sing in praise of gentleness, doesn't mean I'm gentle." My friends think it's hilarious that I wrote these books, because they're basically the kindest, most helpful version of me. Me on my best day. But really, aggravation is my muse. Agitation. I have to be upset about something to get anything done. The way I do it is: I let myself be disgusted at the world, but then I try to think of the opposite of my disgust, and celebrate that. I heard an Andy Rooney segment one time, and he said something incredibly dumb, like, "No art is better than the artist," and I laughed out loud. There's literally a couple thousand years of art history proving the opposite. If we can't be better in our art than we are in our lives, what the hell is the point of making art, really?
Let’s say we get the “all clear” sign on July 1 and can go anywhere, do anything, go to any show, bar, or restaurant without the fear of getting Covid-19—what’s on your list of first places or experiences to get back to?
I would like to watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean while eating a soft shell crab.