8 Questions with Best Selling Author Austin Kleon

By David W. Wright

Welcome to Eight Questions. Today we’re talking with Austin Kleon, the New York Times Bestselling Author of Newspaper Blackout, Steal Like an Artist, Show Your Work and most recently Steal Like an Artist Journal.

(If you prefer audio, you can listen to this episode on the 8 Questions Podcast)

Dave:  Welcome to Eight Questions, Austin.

Austin:  Thanks for having me.

Dave:  Thank you. Question number one, what is your daily creative routine like and how structured is it?

Austin:  I try to adhere to John Waters’ routine. He says he makes stuff up in the morning and he sells it in the afternoon. So, I try to do all my real creative work in the morning, like making poems, writing freehand or coming up with ideas for new pieces.

Then I let lunch split the difference and then in the afternoon I’ll do stuff like answer email or do more what I call admin stuff, like doing interviews. Then if I’ve got stuff to finish up, I’ll do more writing, or Photoshopping, or coming up with slides.

Then sometimes if I’m having a slow day, at the end of the day I’ll read.

 I tried really hard in the past year or so to actually integrate reading into my routine because I feel like reading is something that if you’re really busy can kind of fall by the wayside. I really feel like if nothing good is going in, nothing good will come out.

I try to keep up my reading habit.

Dave:  And do you ever work late into the night or is that strictly family time?

Austin:  Never. I keep pretty lax hours. I work 10:00-5:00. Because I have small kids, and my wife and I go for about a three mile walk every morning and then we get showered up and really by the time I’m ready to go I’m only there at 10:00.

It’s almost like agency hours.

I always quit at 5:00 because I want to be in and I want to hang out with the kids.

Every once in a while, if I’m really crunched, I’ll work after dinner, but I didn’t get into this so I could work 100 hours a week.

The thing about writing is it’s a full-time job anyway. It’s something my wife says, yes, people see you and they think oh, that must be nice, but the part of being a writer and an artist is that you just never shut off. You’re always thinking of stuff and you always have your notebook open and it’s very hard to actually wind down.

I would say the one time I actually have down time is at night when we have a glass of whisky and watch TV.

People poo-poo TV, oh, I don’t own a TV. Well, I do and I use it like you should, to turn my brain off.

Dave:  I have a young son and I know during the summer when he’s home all day it’s very difficult to get work done because he sees me in the house and it’s hard to explain, okay, Daddy’s going in the office now and I can’t hang out with you. Is that a difficulty for you yet?

Austin:  Yes, it’s getting worse too because my oldest son is coming up on three and he really knows oh, Dad’s going away now.

The other hard thing for me is I work in my garage behind my house and there’s fun stuff out here too. I have a train table out here for him and the drum set’s out here, so he would love to come in here more often.

I use it as a real treat when you get to go into Dad’s office.

Sometimes when I have to fill in for some child care stuff, I’ll let him in here and he’ll play with the trains and stuff and the drums.

But it’s tough. There’s a lot of times I wish I had an office in town and I actually got in the car and drove in.

Working from home is wonderful, and I love being close to the kids. I love to come in and help my wife on a rough day. But there are benefits to working away from the home.

I’m a big believer in having spaces delineated for different tasks.

When you work in the house in particular, that’s one reason I like the garage. There’s something about what I call the “eight foot commute” between my back door and the door to my garage.

There’s something about just going through those thresholds that puts me back in the zone.

It’s funny, we just bought a new house in Austin and so we’re going to be moving soon. One of the things I was thrilled about is they have a detached garage in the new house, so I’m going to get to replicate what I have here.

Dave:  I want one of those giant shipping containers turned into an office.

Austin:  Yes!

Dave:  That would be so nice.

Austin:  I have this great picture of Stuart Brand working on How Buildings Learn, his book, and he actually had an office in a shipping container. This was back in the early 90s, before it was remotely cool. I looked at it and I said that’s what I want to do.

That’s exactly what I want because the new garage has two garage doors and then there’s an entry door. So, I’m going to put a wall down the middle of the garage so I have this narrow cozy space with a counter top on each side and then bookshelves all up the back.

I realized sometimes a space can be too big actually, particularly if you’re a writer.

Sometimes I don’t like having a really big space. The garage is 350 square feet. I think it’s too big sometimes. I think it needs to be cozier because it’s too distracting.

Dave:  Crawl into your closet and write.

Austin:  Yes. I love that. I love the idea of kind of being in this little space surrounded by books. That’s my favorite thing.

Dave: I have my desk facing a door, so I’m backed into a corner and I like that feeling of stuff around me. I definitely agree with you. Next question, what are some of the most important tools for your art, and how often do you experiment with new ones?

Austin:  It’s funny because my favorite tools are really just a pen and a paper. I’m a really big believer in analog tools.

I have two desks in my office, and one of them is the digital desk, which everybody has. It’s got your computer on it, your scanner, your phone and all that good stuff.

Then I have what I call an analog desk, which is just a desk that has nothing electronic is allowed on there. It’s just pencils, paper, scissors, tape, index cards, sticky notes.

When I do that morning work that I talked about before, most of that is done on the analog desk.

That’s when I free write and make one of my Newspaper Blackout poems, which if your listeners aren’t familiar with them, what I do is I take a marker and an article from the paper and I turn newspaper articles into poetry.

It kind of looks as if the CIA did haiku.

Dave: CIA is well known for their art.

Austin:  Right. Then sometimes when I’m really trying to come up with ideas, I’ll just read the paper with scissors or a scalpel and cut pictures out and make collages.

So, all the actual idea generation happens at the analog desk.

Then I’ll jump over to the digital desk and that’s when I actually type out my writing, and edit it and get it in shape. Or I’ll scan drawings in and get them arranged and ready for publication and stuff like that.

My routine is kind of a dance between those desks.

Whenever I get stuck at the digital desk, I know it’s time to walk away and go analog. Whenever I feel that things are happening at the analog desk, then I jump over to digital and finish it up.

I’m actually giving a talk right now where I talk about it and how people can start their own analog desks. I think it’s one of those stupid ideas that has actually stuck with people and surprised me so I’m happy to share it.

Dave:  I do cartooning and I do writing and I do the same thing. I don’t separate it like analog, but I do have one desk just for room sake, I have my digital stuff and then I have my physical stuff. I agree with you completely.

Austin:  Yes, and people who haven’t followed me for a long time, I was really cartooning-influenced in a lot of what I do, and kind of getting to know cartoonists and watching cartoonists work, and finding out about them.

I actually got that idea from Art Speigelman, because Art Speigelman has twelve different desks in his studio. Each one is for a different activity.

I was reading a profile of him and they were talking about how he danced between his desks. He’d start with a sketch, and then he’d scan it into the computer and draw all over it, and then he’d print it out, and then he’d paint on top of it, and then scan that back in and move it around.

It was this dizzying dance between these desks. I don’t have that much space but I liked that idea of having spaces dedicated to certain kinds of work.

Cartooning has influenced me in a bunch of different ways, even though I wouldn’t consider myself a cartoonist.

Dave:  In addition to cartooning, what are some of the other things that make up your creative diet? Like books, TV, other media, movies, music?

Austin:  Absolutely books. I try to read as much as I can. One of the things I do is I keep a reading log on my Tumblr. Every book I read I do some sort of summary.

If I’ve responded to the book more than others, I’ll do a roll on post about it and post some of my favorite parts.

If I read a book and I’m kind of eh, whatever, about it, I’ll just post the cover and make a brief note of it.

I love music, just like everyone else. I feel like every writer really wishes they were a musician.

I love going to the movies. The one thing I really miss about being a parent is being able to just up and go to the movies whenever you want to.

We have a great theatre in Austin called the Alamo Drafthouse. They actually do baby days, which is really cool. You can go Tuesday morning and see movies. I love watching movies.

I love TV actually. I think there’s so much good TV out there. I’m rewatching Deadwood right now.

Dave:  Loved that.

Austin.  Yes, it’s so good and I really hope they make this movie that they’re talking about. I guess HBO is in talks right now to do a Deadwood movie.

I love stupid stuff too. Broad City is one of my favorite shows. I think that’s so brilliant and so funny. I love dumb comedy stuff.

I loved in its earlier seasons, like Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. I loved that series. I love Louis C.K.’s show.

I feel that my attitude about consumption is that good consumption leads to good creation.

My Mom used to say garbage in and garbage out, and I really feel that way. What you feed on, that’s what you’re going to spit back out.

Dave:  Louis C.K. has an excellent mailing list, if you’re not on it. I love the way he does his newsletters.

Austin:  Yes, I love his newsletter. It’s like oh, God, here I am, I’m writing to you again. I’m sorry. Which I think in email it’s like apologizing for sending someone email is a great way to start an email.

Dave:  It’s awesome, and it fits with his personality perfectly.

Austin:  Yes. I think email is the great underrated medium right now.

I have a weekly newsletter that I kind of love doing. It’s as simple as can be. It’s a list of ten things I thought we were worth sharing that week.

It can be like if I have a new book, that’s at the top of the list.

If nothing’s really going on, it’s like well, here’s the music I’m listening to.

I feel like that list, I think we have 25,000 people on it now, and it’s just grown into this thing that I not only think is a great marketing device, because it’s a really easy way for me to reach people, but it’s also become this way for me to keep time and see what I’ve been doing.

On a good week, it’s like wow, I have too much to share. And then on a week that I’ve squandered, it’s like well, geeze, I’m stretching and I have to rely on my Twitter feed.

It’s an interesting way to mark time and to reach people.

People ask me all the time about to use social media. It’s just like anything else in life. You have to find a Venn diagram between what you want to spend time on and what people would actually want from you.

I think that I’ve struck a nice balance for that with the newsletter.

Dave:  How does being a father shape your art?

Austin:  Well, I don’t know yet. I’m still pretty new. I’ve only been a Dad for three years.

But I will say that everything people told me about having kids has become true in that it does light a fire under your ass.

Chris Ware – I’m not advocating this but every mental problem you have becomes clear to you the minute you have children.

I think he said it was cleared up. I don’t know that it’s cleared up. I think it becomes very clear to you what your issues are.

On the one hand, children dredge up things in you that you’re not ready for, but I think children also have a way of showing you what’s truly important to you. Because you just are so strapped for time that it’s a necessity to focus and prioritize what you really need to get done.

I think they just light a fire.

Kids have taught me a couple of things. I don’t want to go too long into this but one is the passing of time, being okay with just living day to day. Because I’ve found with kids that if you worry too much about the future it will end you and crush you.

If you are up with a kid at night and you think about doing that for a month, or even a year, it’s soul crushing. But if you can think to yourself I’m in this moment right now, all I have to do it get this kid back down and get to tomorrow, then life becomes a lot easier to live.

I think that’s true with the art too. It’s like okay, I’m not going to worry about what’s going to happen down the road. I’m going to focus on what’s in front of me and just take this, as Anne Lamont said, Bird by Bird.

The other thing is I’ve learned so much about just play and raw creativity from hanging out with my kid.

If I could write with the intensity that my son lines up cars or smashes trains together, I really feel like being around that kind of play energy does something to you. It gives you a model.

The third thing I would say is that being around kids stresses the importance of having to focus on one thing at a time. 

You have to be 100% present with your work.

The thing that makes me the worst parent is also the thing that makes me the worst artist, and that is the phone. When the phone is on and I’m looking at the phone, I’m not doing my work.

It’s the same thing with kids. If I turn my phone off and throw it under the couch, suddenly I’m a better father, magically, because there’s nothing else to distract me.

It’s true with art too. You have to just be present and be there and be into what you’re doing.

Dave:  Well put.  What is your biggest obstacle to actually getting the work done and how do you overcome it?

Austin:  I think my obstacle is the same as a lot of other people’s. It’s just laziness.

I’m just a lazy person.

I would rather sit around and read a book than do anything. For me, it’s my own laziness.  And fear. You have to be bad for so long in order to get good.

The other thing is I have a tendency to think about work when I’m not working. That’s always a bad idea. I think you should try as hard as you can not to think about the work when you’re not in front of it. Because then you allow your subconscious to work on it.

That’s much more powerful than actually trying to wrestle thing out in your mind.

Like we said before, compartmentalizing. Keeping things in the right place at the right time. That’s the biggest obstacle to me.

That gets increasingly messy when you’re working from home is that work and family get meshed and it’s real easy to run back out to the studio or run up to the office. I just decided it’s best to be schizo about it, just play those dual roles as much as you can and keep them separate.

But it’s hard.

Dave:  You have a lot of artistic interests. How do you decide for yourself which ones to push forward, what to put aside and what role does commerce play into it? Like the publisher might be interested in one thing you’re doing but not another. So, how do you decide how much time to invest into anything?

Austin:  That’s a wonderful question. I’m constantly worried about being that Jack-of-all-Trades. I have so many things I’m interested in.

This answer will probably disappoint people who are listening, but I really at this point in my life, I let commerce lead because I’m at a point in my life where a lot of the meaning in the work – the meaningful work that I do is hanging out with my kids. That’s the number one meaningful work.

My art, honestly, is a little bit secondary.

But what I think is interesting about letting commerce lead is it doesn’t necessarily mean you do worse work. I think we have this idea well, if you’re not following your heart and doing things from your soul, you’re compromising.

Dave:  You’re a sell out, man.

Austin:  You’re a sell out, yes. I’ll take my latest project, Steal Like an Artist Journal. When we started that project it was like I kind of hate these things. I kind of hate that genre of like prompted journal. I’m not a huge fan of it honestly.

But what I was trying to do is look past me and to think about what people like about the form, and what’s helpful to them, and then put my own stink on it so to speak. To put my own spin on the format.

As I like taking these formats that I’m not necessarily sold on and then think like how could I do this well, and how could I do this in a way that I’d be proud to put my name on it, and proud to work on it.

That’s what happened with the Journal.

It turned out to be one of my favorite things I’ve done. And if I was only following my heart and only following my dream, I’d say I’m not going to waste my time doing a journal.

That’s not new material. That’s not the next book.

I’m open to invitation. On the other hand, people have been hounding me for years about doing an online course, and that’s a very commerce driven decision. Oh, you could make so much money with an online course.

And I’m just not interested right now. I don’t want to do it, and so I leave that money on the table.

We haven’t merched out the way we could.

I just try to find that Venn diagram between what people want from me and what I want to give them. Because frankly I’m not rich enough to do whatever I want, whenever. Maybe one day.

Dave:  Your worry about the schizophrenia and liking all these different things and being a Jack-of-all-Trades, I think personally as a fellow writer and artist, that’s one of the things that makes you most interesting.

Especially to people that aren’t even in the writing field. I think they can connect. I think a lot of people are very unfocused. They want to do a lot of different things but they just don’t know where to start.

I think your journal that you’re doing is really good for that. It helps get people going that aren’t sure where to start. It inspires them. I saw the description of what the journal is and to me that’s the sort of thing that I probably would never have bought one before, but I think it definitely serves a place. It helps people create their own things and that’s a good thing.

Austin:  Yes, I appreciate that. When I was growing up, I was always – people call them polymath now and I think that’s a pretentious, awful word.

Dave:  I saw somebody refer to themselves as that the other day, and I had to look it up. I felt stupid. It was like oh, that’s nothing.

Austin:  I cannot use the word polymath. On the other hand, Renaissance Man is kind of sexist but when I was growing up, I looked up to Renaissance men. To me that was the kind of person I wanted to be.

I remember distinctly reading Shel Silverstein’s bio and it said like Shel Silverstein writes poems, makes books and sings songs and has a good time. And I thought that is who I want to be.

I want that multi-layered bio.

Someone like David Burn or anyone who does a lot of different stuff, those are the people I always looked up to when I was growing up.

One of the things I think is fun for me is that the digital age really lets you do that in a way that you couldn’t before. Any kind of media is really at your fingertips.

So, if you’re interested in film and cartooning and music, you could do all that stuff on your web site and your online presence is the thing that holds it together.

For me, what’s been really cool about growing up in this particular time and place, because I think every artist has to look around at their context, and they have to understand that they’re alive at this certain time and place, and the work that they’re going to do is influenced by their context.

What’s been fun for me, living in this particular age, is that it’s allowed me to follow all of my interests and to actually have an audience that’s okay for me, okay with me following my interests.

I’m always amazed at how people will follow me. I can put almost anything in the newsletter and people are okay with it, because they’re like oh, it’s interesting, I might have never looked at that before.

Dave:  Curation, it’s awesome. You touch on this briefly, about not being rich, loaded, whatever, to do whatever you want. That leads to my next question. If you had all the money you needed, what would you do artistically? Would you do it differently?

Austin:  I don’t know. That’s such a good question. I don’t know what I would do. I mean I would do nothing until I had to do something.

Dave:  Cultivate your couch cushion.

Austin:  Yes, I mean my friends are always telling me like you say hand me ten million and I’ll walk away for ever. I’ll read books in the Bahamas. They’re always like that would work for you for a couple of months, and you’d get real itchy.

That is true. I took an actual two week vacation this year, with the kids and the wife, and I was chomping at the bit to do something.

Dave:  Probably filled out four journals.

Austin:  Yes. I was dying. It’s funny because the minute I came back, I’d been doing those Blackout poems for like ten years now, the minute I came back I started doing an adaptation of that where I’d use a scalpel instead of a marker and I’ve been doing these pop out poems where I’ll cut little parts of the paper out and fold them up, and then I’ll use lighting to make them look interesting.

It’s been this whole – and people have responded to it in this really positive way.

Dave:  Yes, it looks cool.

Austin:  It was totally from me taking a break for two weeks and coming back and just doing something different.

People ask me a lot about creative block, and a lot of times my advice is don’t push through. Just walk away for a minute. But make sure you come back. Have a daily routine, but if it’s not working, walk away and do something else and come back, because it’s amazing when you’re away from the desk how you can see with fresh eyes.

Dave:  Yes, deadlines and the pressure to produce can definitely kill the creativity. I totally agree with you.

Austin:  I think deadlines are great. I think the problem is you have to make sure you have enough time before the deadline.

I have this talk this weekend, I’m giving two different talks this weekend and they’re both talks I’ve never given before, and I did not leave myself enough time and so I’m crunched and it’s not fun.

But I know enough now that I started early enough that I’m okay, I can get a night’s sleep and when I wake up in the morning, I know what I’m going to do with it.

That’s just a product of doing it for a while. You realize how much time you really need for a project.

Dave: Now we’re up to our final question. If you could go back in time to when you first started your creative career and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

Austin:  Oh, my God! That was the premise of Steal Like an Artist. It was a letter to myself.

Honestly, I think I would say be kinder to people. Send a lot of thank you notes.

George Saunders gave a beautiful speech that he turned into a book on kindness, and I really think if I had any advice to my former self I’d say be kind, because the world is a small town and you will always, always be better off by being kind and patient and making connections instead of severing them.

Dave:  Good advice.

Austin:  I don’t know. Sometimes I think that be nice, the world is a small town.

Dave:  I appreciate you being on Eight Questions, Austin. Thank you very much for your time.

Austin:  Thank you for having me.

Dave:  Where should people go to find you? What’s the place place?

Austin:  The portal is austinkleon.com, and from there you can find my Twitter and my Instragram and my newsletter. My newsletter is my favorite thing I do. If people are new to my stuff, I recommend signing up for the newsletter. You can always unsubscribe if you get sick of me.

Dave:  All right. Thank you very much and take care.

Austin:  Thank you.

David W. Wright is the Eeyore to Sean’s unrelenting Tigger. He hates you all.

He lives in [REDACTED] with his wife, [REDACTED], and child [REDACTED], and he carries a decoy wallet in case he gets mugged. We’re not kidding.

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