Five questions with: Author Austin Kleon

Reading: Austin Kleon, Keep Going: Ten Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad

Prairie Lights — Friday, May 24 at 7 p.m.

Author Austin Kleon reads at Prairie Lights on Friday, May 24. — Clayton Cubitt/

Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work, released his new book, Keep Going: Ten Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad, on April 2 through Workman Publishing. As one may expect from the titles of his first two books, the present effort is a bricolage of found artifacts and quotes that Kleon stitches together with insight into his personal process as an artist.

Keep Going is the best kind of self-help book: It distills a lot of excellent advice and dispenses it in a format conducive to contemporary society.

“I’m trying to do sort of a tricky thing with these books that sometimes people pick up on and sometimes people don’t,” Kleon told me about his form. “I’m trying to get a bit deeper in a pop format, for lack of a better word. They’re shelved in self-help and they’re technically illustrated gift books … If I was just writing novels or traditional non-fiction, I wouldn’t be able to do the visual work that I do. These books allow me to be collage like in those. I feel really lucky that I have the form, and I try to push it as much as I can.”

Kleon will visit Prairie Lights to read from Keep Going on May 24 at 7 p.m. I had the chance to speak with him on the phone a few weeks before his visit.

You’ve spoken about a gap that exists in the reading world that separates the kind of books that you read from the kind of books that are well-read. Your book transforms what you love about the former category (including Thoreau’s work) and injects it into the latter category. Although your job experience as a librarian and marketer primes you for that, can you slow down the arc of what that looks like and describe the alchemy in a bit more detail? Do you consider it more translation? Adaptation?

I almost feel like I’m like a funnel … I feel like my job is to be as kind of weird and broad and deep in my reading as I possibly can and then sort of bring some of that stuff to maybe a wider audience, or an audience who isn’t generally used to that sort of stuff. One of the biggest compliments I get about my books is “I don’t usually read, but I love your books.” I hope that my books are like a gateway drug — I’ll get people with these books and it will spin them out to things they weren’t exposed to before the book. So: It could be a translator or interpreter.

One of the things that I think are interesting is that real geniuses aren’t good at talking about what they do. The great artists have a hard time explaining what they do when they work — they go by instinct, and there’s not a lot of explaining to do. In some ways, because I’m a practicing writer and artist, I feel like I can be a go-between, between some of these people who have done this interesting work, and try to figure out what, from their experience, could benefit people who aren’t at the same level — or, how can your average person take some inspiration from this?

I like the translator idea. I think of the writing process a lot in terms of input and output, so I feel like its my job to have my input be diverse, weird and interesting and then filter it through my own writing and my own experience and bring it to another audience.

‘Keep Going,’ by Austin Kleon. April, 2019/Workman Publishing

In a world that’s still oriented around misogyny and toxic masculinity, the thread you have concerning what it means to be a father — even though it remains in the background — is pretty compelling. Would you be willing to share a bit about both what being a father means to your creative process and how your creative practice has informed your parenting?

I got really lucky in that I had really, really good role models when I was starting out. I got married when I was 23, and I knew that a domestic life was something that I wanted. I knew that I wanted to live with my wife and to have a kind of family life. So, from a pretty young age, I was looking for models of men in particular who could be role models for me, people who somehow seemed like they were able to balance a domestic life with the artistic life (or whatever you want to call it). You could ask the interesting question of why art and domesticity were at odds in my mind in the early days.

One role model was the author George Saunders. I went to see him at a book festival and asked how he balanced being a good family man and a good author. He said the same thing had happened to him — he’d assumed that being a great author meant being a wild party guy or Kerouacian figure. He said that Tobias Wolff had corrected him when he was at Syracuse …

When writing Keep Going, I was reading a lot from Ursula Franklin. She was a metallurgist, and a feminist, and a Canadian. She wrote from a perspective that I found accessible, and I also read a lot of memoirs from artists who were also mothers. It dawned on me that I had been looking to dad artists as role models, and it occurred to me that I needed to look to women as mothers — kids require mothers in a way that they don’t require fathers sometimes. I was reading Sally Mann, Maggie Nelson … and this book, in the background, was the phrase “Women and Children First!”

I wanted to write a book that was primarily inspired by women and by my experiences with my children. A lot of these creativity books either have explicitly masculine metaphors like “The War of Art.” I didn’t want there to be a lot of bro-type fighting. I tried to do that, but I didn’t want to make a big deal about it.

I wasn’t explicit about it — but … a lot of how I feel about art meshes up with my ideas or readings of feminism. I don’t subscribe to the “Great Man” theory of art where superhumans come down and grace us with talents. I like a non-hierarchical structure where great ideas emerge from networks of people. My ideas of art and feminism have gelled for me personally. I wish that more people understood that feminism is a way out from being a man … the Picasso/Norman Mailer sort of thing has always rubbed me the wrong way. It has been the gift of my later career to discover great women artists to look up to. They’ve been a way out of the bro-macho nightmare.

Describe your relationship to work and play as it revolves around the term “lazy,” which you’ve used to describe yourself. On the one hand, the kind of work that you dow — riting, reading, and thinking about how to live meaningfully — is the kind of work that most people avoid at all costs. On the other hand, it seems like you both feel an imperative that compels you in this direction, and you’ve found that you enjoy it. Is incorporating idle slowness in your life actually lazy, or is protecting that sort of way of living actually far more work than a 9-5 office job would be? Or — if not more work — is it simply different?

I think sometimes what I call laziness is more like idleness. There’s a big difference between the two. Some of the great thinkers were, in their time, thought to be very lazy from outward appearances. It is hard, when you’re an outside spectator, to see if someone is idling or being lazy. A great example of that: Thoreau. People were sort of wondering what the hell he was up to. But another character is Abe Lincoln. When he was a kid, people thought he was lazy for reading instead of working.

For me, giving yourself time to feel lazy or to feel idle (and again, there’s a difference). Idleness is something that creates a space for new ideas to come. If you’re constantly being busy, you don’t have the opportunity to discover the interiority or the interior thoughts that you’re having. Tim Kreider wrote a brilliant piece called “The Busy Trap.” And called himself the “laziest ambitious person” that he knows. He talked about how the work that he does requires doing nothing.

We’re all grappling with this now. If you look at the numbers in a corporate setting, production has never been higher … they’re more productive now than ever, but they’re not being compensated. I think that we’re all slowly discovering that productivity doesn’t equal creativity. When at your least productive, your most creative thoughts come. Eventually you come around to this: I build idle periods into my life. Just sitting and thinking. Lazy periods is like binge watching Game of Thrones … But I also think that if you have a sort of creative life, or do creative work, you know that it never really turns off. Your mind, in the background, is working on stuff. For me, idleness is a sort of intentional laziness that usually leads to more interesting, better work and better ideas.

Between blogging, your newsletter and the meme-worthy images in your square books, you seem really comfortable creating print books that replicate the fast paced, easily digested world of the internet in paperback form. The book is fast paced, with frequent summaries and no clear overarching thread. At the same time, you valorize the need for slowness and the need to pay attention. While there’s not quite a performative contradiction between the medium and the message, and while it clearly performs the work of making ideas accessible, there’s still a gap in place. How do you reconcile that?

First of all, I’d say that nothing I’m doing is any different than what McLuhan and others were doing in the great ’70s paperbacks, when they were doing books at the same speed as the medium that was coming out … Again, it goes back to my idea of wanting to be a gateway drug for people. I know that if I do something at a different pace, I may not reach the people I want to reach. I may not want to expose the people that I want to grab with these ideas. The books are a sort of compromise.

But, as a reader, I do write the books I love to read. I love snappy, collage-like texts: Argonauts is structured in this chunky, collage like way. I love music albums like that too — I want to write books like Wire’s Pink Flag, where a chapter comes hard and fast … and I’ve always loved The White Album or Tusk — a huge album filled with short songs. So, as much as I’d love to say that I’m reaching a group that I want to reach, it’s also the kind of thing that I love to read.

Your background has really pushed you to fuse the literary and pictorial arts: I was curious about the role that music does — or doesn’t — play in your creative experiences. To what extent does the way that sounds unfold in time alter the way that you experience the temporality of visual arts, or the way that words look on a page — which you seem to delight in both addressing and reconstructing?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because my son Owen, who’s six, is a Garage Band junkie. He spends as much time as we’ll let him in the app on his iPad. I think one of the things that not enough people talk about is how Garage Band turns recorded music into visuals. In the old days, when you were using analog reel-to-reel type, you wouldn’t see the song laid out the way you do in GarageBand. Even on a 4 track … you can see wave forms or where the levels hit on the display, but GarageBand really lets you see, visually, what’s going on with the layers of your music. It’s really changed. I’m wondering what it will be like to have someone like Owen, who has always been able to visualize music … this is the sort of thing I think about.

I’m trying to think about how music explicitly influences the work. My experience as a musician … music might help me with pacing in the work, the musicality of the voice. I try really hard to write like I talk, to do what Vonnegut talked about — he can’t sound like someone other than who he was (someone from Indiana). I’ve always tried to make my books sound like they would if I was in a group of people. What I said earlier about the way that albums are structured/sequenced has a lot to do with how I put my books together. I think that music is the best art form — I think a lot of writers are wanna-be musicians. I feel like music is the most immediate and accessible art form.

I was thinking about people who have come to my readings lately for whom English is a second language. They’ve been learning English with my books because they’re short and so visual. But music: You don’t need a translator for music. It hits you; you get it right away. For writers, when readers need to interpret what’s going on, a book is more like sheet music in a sense. It’s like what Margaret Atwood said, “A book is frozen music,” or something like that.

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