Jun 22, 2015
New York Times bestselling author Austin Kleon has been called one of the most interesting people on the Internet by The Atlantic Magazine, and he stopped by The Writer Files to chat with me about creativity and the writing life.
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Austin is the author of three illustrated books — Steal Like An Artist, Newspaper Blackout, and Show Your Work! — guides I recommend to all writers seeking insights for tapping into your endless reserves of creativity and innovation.
In addition to being featured on NPR s Morning Edition, PBS Newshour, and The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Kleon speaks about creativity in the digital age for organizations as varied as Pixar, Google, SXSW, TEDx, and The Economist.
In the first part of this two-part file, Austin Kleon and I discuss:
Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...
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Kelton Reid: These are The Writer Files, a tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of working writers, from online content creators to fictionist, journalists, entrepreneurs, and beyond.
I’m your host Kelton Reid: writer, podcaster, and mediaphile. Each week, we’ll find out how great writers keep the ink flowing, the cursor moving, and avoid writer’s block.
New York Times bestselling author Austin Kleon has been called one of the most interesting people on the Internet by the Atlantic magazine, and he stopped by The Writer Files to chat with me about creativity and the writing life.
Austin is the author of three illustrated books: Steal Like An Artist, Newspaper Blackout, and Show Your Work!. In addition to being featured on MPR’s Morning Edition, PBS NewsHour, and The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Kleon speaks about creativity in the digital age — organizations as varied as Pixar, Google, South by Southwest, TEDx, and The Economist.
In the first part of this two-part file, Austin Kleon and I discuss why you should read more than you write, how a paper dictionary can improve your writing, the difference between little writing and big writing, how your daily ritual can save you from failure, three symptoms of writer’s block and how to cure them, and how to harness the power of productive procrastination.
Austin Kleon, welcome back to The Writer Files.
Austin Kleon: Thanks for having me.
Kelton Reid: You were in the written series, and I’ll point to that in the show notes. That was a really very inspiring interview Q&A. Geez, we’re off to a great start. Thanks for coming back, man. I can’t wait to pick your brain and get into your updated Writer File here.
Austin Kleon: I’m stoked.
Kelton Reid: For listeners who aren’t familiar with your work, who are you, and what is your area of expertise as a writer?
Austin Kleon: I call myself ‘a writer who draws,’ which means that I make art with words and books with pictures. I’ve put out three books. They’re all illustrated books. The one I’m known best for is a book called Steal Like An Artist, which is a list of 10 things I wish I’d known about being creative when I first started out. The other book I’m more well-known for is the sequel to Steal Like An Artist called Show Your Work!, which is a book about self-promotion for people who hate the very idea of self-promotion. It’s all about sharing your work and getting yourself out there. Steal is all about taking influence from others, and Show Your Work! is about influencing others by letting them steal from you in a sense.
Before those two books, I did a book called Newspaper Blackout, which is a very strange poetry book — that’s why no one knows about it, it’s a poetry book. It’s made from newspaper articles, and it looks like the CIA did haiku. I pick a few words out of a newspaper article. Then I blackout the rest, and they read like these weird haikus almost. That was my first book.
If there was a Venn diagram of my work, I think about it as pictures, words, and the web, and I’m in the middle. The web part is that my whole career has been based on me being active online. I’m actually coming up on my blog’s about 10 years old. When I got out of college, I really didn’t know what I was doing, so I started a blog. In 2005, that was a great idea. It was pretty easy to get started and stand out, especially if you were doing something interesting.
I guess less and less I think of myself as a web guy and more of just an author, which is a very strange transition. I had day jobs for a long time, and now I just do this full time.
Kelton Reid: You came from a background of graphic design as well.
Austin Kleon: Yeah, that’s the weird thing about me. I identify mostly as a writer in terms of where I feel centered in the world, but I have this visual side, this design and art side. I made a living for several years as a web designer. I’m not formally trained in graphic design or art, but that’s always just been part of my life.
Kelton Reid: I love those blackout poems. They are very cool.
Austin Kleon: Thanks.
Kelton Reid: I keep your books by my desk just as inspiration because I feel like I can just flip open Steal Like An Artist anytime I’m feeling I need creative juice. There’s just so much in there. It’s perfect for those moments when you just need a jolt of quick, creative inspiration, so thank you for those.
Austin Kleon: I’m glad to hear that. They’re designed that way. You’re supposed to be able to just flip them open and start reading and get something out of it. A lot of people have them as ebooks, but they really shine as print books.
Kelton Reid: I agree. The ebook would not do it justice. I think having it in your hands and being able to touch it, and the artwork, is really great. It’s really, really fun. Where can we find your writing out there in the world?
Austin Kleon: The best thing to do is to go to your local bookstore and ask for one of my books. That’s the easiest. Otherwise, just go to AustinKleon.com or Google me, and you’ll drop down the rabbit hole of my stuff.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, totally.
Austin Kleon: I’m a Twitter junky and an Instagram guy, too, so I’m AustinKleon on those.
Kelton Reid: Cool. What are you presently working on over there?
Austin Kleon: I just finished up something I was not excited about when I started, and now I’m super excited about it. My publisher, Workman, wanted to turn Steal Like An Artist into a journal. It’s really cool. It’s got one of those elastic bands and the envelope in the back, so it’s basically a prompted journal. It’s like an interactive version of Steal Like An Artist that you can carry around and do all kinds of exercises. It’s supposed to be something that you carry around with you and you open up every day. It gets your juices flowing.
I just finished that up. That’s coming out in October, and I’m going on a 12-city tour. I don’t have all the cities quite yet. Book tour for me is like I have to get stoked up for because it’s a marathon-type thing, but I’m super excited about the journal. Like I said, I’m so particular about my own journals that the idea of making a journal that other people would use was daunting, but then it turned into this really fun thing. I’m looking forward to doing the exercises myself, along with everybody else.
Kelton Reid: I can’t wait to get a hold of one of those.
Austin Kleon: I will send you a copy.
Kelton Reid: Cool. That’s the best news ever. I’d like to dig into your productivity a little bit and just pick your brain.
Austin Kleon: Sure.
Kelton Reid: I know that you do some pretty extensive research on stuff. How much time per day would you say you’re just researching for creative inspiration?
Austin Kleon: If I had to put an hour, I’d say anywhere from one hour a day to five hours a day. It so depends on what project I’m working on or not, but for me, I probably read at least three to four times as much as write. That’s a really important thing for my own practice. I know folks like Stephen King, he writes in the morning, and then he reads all afternoon. I’ve always aspired to that. I’ve never really got that done because I like to read and then putter around. If I’m on deadline, I’ll have to sit down and actually bang something out, but I would say probably at least a third to half of the day is based on trying to fill the tanks, so to speak.
Kelton Reid: Before you actually sit down and get working, do you have any pre-game ritual or practices that you do?
Austin Kleon: I wish I had more. For me, the hardest thing is to get my butt in the chair and sit down and open the file and go for it. I do a lot of free writing by hand. I take a lot of notes by hand, and I really believe in keeping a journal and that kind of thing. But when I’m actually sitting down to make a piece of writing that someone else is going to read, I feel like I have to be in front of the computer.
My friend Clive Thompson, if you Google Clive Thompson or search Clive Thompson on my tumblr, there’s a brilliant talk he gave about writing by hand versus typing on the computer. The research he found showed us that writing by hand is great for taking notes and for synthesizing ideas and coming up with new ideas, but when it comes to actually producing writing for a reader, typing on the computer or on a typewriter is better. That’s certainly true on my own practice. It feels like I’m not actually really writing until I’m hitting the keys.
Kelton Reid: I love that research — and I’ve always been fascinated. I know you talk about that quite a bit — that synthesis and then the formality, or at least the ritual of actually getting it down. Do you have a most productive time of day or a place where you are most productive for your writing process?
Austin Kleon: I have converted my garage into my studio, so I have what I call ‘the 8-foot commute’ from my backdoor of my house to the garage. You know that Weezer song? “In the garage, I feel safe.” That’s what happens. I go in. I flip on the lights. I crank the air conditioner, the window AC. I say hi to my lizard that likes to hang out on my air conditioner. He’s right there right now, actually.
There’s something about the actual physical transition between going out the house, being out in the heat, and then coming into the garage, flipping on the lights, that gets me in the mode. I should probably mention that I have a weird setup. Last time we talked, I had two desks. Now, I actually have three desks.
Kelton Reid: They’re multiplying?
Austin Kleon: It’s getting a little out of control. I have one desk that’s the analog desk, and I talked about this in Steal Like An Artist. The analog desk, nothing electronic is allowed on there other than pencil sharpener. That’s for where I make my newspaper blackout poems and where I come up with ideas and letter stuff and that kind of thing. Then I have a digital desk, which is where I have my computer and my scanner and all that stuff. That’s where, like we said before, the real writing happens.
Austin Kleon: Now I have another desk that’s more like a standing desk, which is my attempt to recreate a library carrel at the library. It’s got a bunch of reference stuff on it. I’ve got all my files above, so I file stuff. Then I have an actual paper dictionary there that’s this big honkin’ American Heritage. I go over there, and I look up words.
I really recommend to folks use the dictionary and get a paper one. The dictionary on the Mac is pretty good, but a paper dictionary, there’s something about having to turn to the page and read the entry. Then you see all the words around the entry. You always find something interesting.
That’s something I stole from John McPhee, the writer. He did this brilliant series of articles for The New Yorker about how he writes, and his big advice is never use a thesaurus. Never use a thesaurus. Always use a dictionary. Look up a word in the dictionary, and it’ll give you ideas for better phrases to use and that kind of stuff — so, yeah, three desks: analog desk, digital desk, and then my reference desk.
I just dance between the three all day. I hate standing. I know there’s a big vogue right now for standing desks. I hate standing desks so much. I cannot write when I’m standing up. Part of the fun for me of being a writer is leaning back in my chair and staring out the window and then typing and then looking at the squirrel out my window, this lizard. That’s the fun for me, and I have a really nice office chair. That, for me, is the good stuff. Death to standing desks.
Kelton Reid: It’s interesting you say that because I use my standing desk mostly just for correspondence stuff or when I’m just surfing Twitter or whatever. I can’t write at the standing desk, anything of any import.
Austin Kleon: What you just said, that’s what happened to me. I have my computer on the standing desk, and I just found myself always walking over there and answering an email, blah, blah, blah, and doing that little light work. Then I never really was able to just zoom in and do stuff.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, I’m with you. Are you a night owl, or do you get out there?
Austin Kleon: I’m sorry. I didn’t even answer your question.
Kelton Reid: That’s okay.
Austin Kleon: I really like to work when the world is sleeping. I love early morning, and I love late nights. The problem with that is I have two kids. I really love to sleep, and that’s the only time they’re asleep. I cannot make myself get up that early anymore. I’m really lucky my wife stays home with the kids. It’s amazing that we’re able to do that. It’s also kind of insane, or drives my wife insane, but I basically keep 10 to 5 hours. It’s like working in an agency or something.
It’s like 10 to 5, so I’m doomed to the afternoon, which Dickens called ‘Mongrel time’ — it’s neither day nor night. I hate the afternoon, but there’s something about being in the garage in the afternoon and losing track of what time it is that kind of helps — so afternoons for me. I hope, eventually, that I can just get up in the morning and write 1500 words at 5 am, but I just can’t do it yet.
Kelton Reid: Are you cranking music in the garage, or do you prefer silence?
Austin Kleon: It just depends on what I’m trying to do. If I’m researching and reading and just messing around or blogging, I’ll just listen to soul music or garage rock, just the stuff I like. If I’m really trying to come up with ideas and really write something, I’ll either put earplugs in — I know Dan Pink writes with earplugs. There’s something about having complete silence. You can hear your blood pumping. I love that. I also like music I can ignore, so I put on classical or jazz or Brian Eno or something like that.
Then if I’m on deadline, if I’m doing something I hate that I know I have to finish, I will play the most meatheaded, loud stuff I can, like Soundgarden, ACDC, or Led Zeppelin, just the most meatheaded rock I can possibly muster. I’ll turn that up as loud as I dare, and I’ll just crank through. It’s almost like a punishment — it’s not funny but at Guantanamo, I think they play Metallica when they’re torturing people — and that’s kind of how I feel. It’s like, “Let’s play this metal music and torture yourself until you’re done.” The gun to your back, so to speak. That’s a horrible metaphor, but that’s kind of how it works.
Kelton Reid: Hook up the electrodes.
Austin Kleon: Yeah.
Kelton Reid: You’re just an incredibly prolific online publisher by your blog, so when you’re working on a book at the same time, are you alternating between things, or are you getting out there every day and just cycling between stuff?
Austin Kleon: I try to post a few things every day. If you do that, it just seems like a lot. When I’m really working on a book, I’m pretty heads down on the book, and you’ll see the online stuff slow down. The one thing I want to make a point about is I just don’t really see a big difference, particularly with my process, between what we call ‘little writing’ and ‘big writing.’
Whether you’re making a Tweet, or you’re tumbling something or writing a blog post, or you’re writing a book, to me, it’s all typing in the boxes. I’ve had Tweets that led to blog posts that led to book chapters, you know what I mean? It’s all just kind of this stew.
Austin Kleon: The one thing that you can do — if you’re insane and you have too much time on your hands — is you can watch me. I’m researching in the open. You can see what I’m interested in, and you can get an idea of where I’m going without me telling you. That’s the ‘show your work’ thing is that I’ve been really interested in letting people watch me as I go, and then what happens is that all these stuff comes back at me. I’ll Tweet out something, and then somebody else will say, “Oh, well, have you read this?” I say “No,” and I look that up.
It’s this cycle between publishing and receiving. It is, it’s a cycle. I know a lot of writers do it differently, but I like researching out in the open and letting people help me along. A lot of my books could probably be reconstructed from my online output, but in that nice little package. You pick up the book, it’s all there. It’s all been edited. It’s all trying to make this coherent argument, and it’s just not the same. I just like that — researching out in the open. Then eventually you get a book at the end of it.
Kelton Reid: Just a quick pause to mention that The Writer Files is brought to you by the Rainmaker Platform, the complete website solution for content marketers and online entrepreneurs. Find out more and take a free 14-day test drive at Rainmaker.FM/Platform.
I love how you talk about creativity not being linear and the importance of the daily practice. You are practicing what you preach, but it’s cool.
Austin Kleon: It’s the only way I can see … when you’re young-er, because I’m not that old yet, but when you’re younger, you just think, “I’ll just arrive at some point. I’ll get to this point, and people will notice me, they’ll know me, and I can just sit back.” If you’re lucky enough to have a little bit of success when you’re younger like I did, it scares the crap out of you. You realize suddenly, “Oh, I’ve been talking a big talk about how I want to be a writer and how I want to be an artist and all that stuff, and now it could actually happen. I might have to do this the rest of my life.”
Elizabeth Gilbert, I’ve never read any of her books. I love her. She’s done a beautiful profile of Tom Waits, and I’ve read a little bit of her non-fiction. She did this TED talk where, after Eat, Pray, Love came out, she said, “I probably have 40 years of work left, and it’s very possible that my biggest success is behind me.”
Kelton Reid: I love that TED talk. I’ll link to it, but it’s so good.
Austin Kleon: It’s so good, and it was so honest of her to get up there and be like, “I know. I know I was lucky. I know this might never happen again, but I have to keep going.” It’s funny because I think her next book actually wasn’t a very big success, and then she gave another TED talk, because she’s Elizabeth Gilbert, and talked about failure.
For me, I just put this post up online recently. It was a little talk I gave about how everybody thinks creativity is like Don Draper closing his eyes and then having a big revelation. I never feel like Don Draper. I always feel like Phil Connors in Groundhog Day. Phil wakes up every day at 6 am, and he’s got to do something with his day. He knows there’s no tomorrow. He knows all he’s got is this day. I love that movie because, at first, he cheats, he fritters away the day, and then he falls into despair. Then, at the end, he realizes, “I just have to work. I have to practice a craft, or I just put the work in every day,” and that’s when his life gets better.
As an artist or a writer, you really just have to get in to the dailyness. You have to figure out a daily routine in which you go out and you do your work, and then, if you have a daily practice and a ritual, you’re insulated from success and failure because they’ll both screw you up. Failure, we all know about. Success will do the same thing. It will knock you off your game, but if you have this dailyness to your work, that will pull you through so many situations. That’s why I love Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals.
Kelton Reid: Me too. That’s a good one.
Austin Kleon: That’s like writer porn, right? You open it up, and it’s like, “Ooh.” The thing I really liked about that book is my books are prescriptive — I’m telling you what to do, like do this, do that. It’s bossy, and that has its place — but I like Mason’s book, Daily Rituals, because it’s just this big collage of what other people have done before you.
Then it’s your job to pick and choose from what you want. But you get the sense when you read that book, it’s like, “You got to go in and make the doughnuts, every day.” You know what I mean? “You got to go in to the garage and make something happen, and it’s going to be the same tomorrow and the day after that, until you die.” If that seems daunting, you’re in the wrong work.
Kelton Reid: That’s why I love Show Your Work!, where you’re talking about the incremental process. One of my favorite quotes, I don’t know if it’s from that book in particular, but where you say, “Writers aren’t born. They are made.”
Austin Kleon: That’s something I have to believe for myself because I’m not superhumanly talented. I’ve got a decent amount of talent, but I’m not like James Brown. I’m not Miles Davis. But the funny thing, I just mentioned James Brown — there’s a great documentary about him out right now called Mr. Dynamite — and the thing about James Brown is you just realize this is a guy worked every day. He just never stopped. You’ll find that with all these geniuses. Not only were they superhumanly talented, they also worked all the time.
I’m a lazy person. I always think of myself as a lazy person. I don’t like to work, but I know that if I don’t, I will do nothing. I had a really good creative writing professor named Steven Bauer, and his thing was, “Apply ass to chair.” “Apply ass to chair.” He’s like, “Write it on an index card and put it above your desk — apply ass to chair.” He was like the Allen thing. You just show up. If you show up every day and you do the work, those little bits and pieces of effort, over time, they add up into something.
You write a page a day, it doesn’t seem like much in the day, and then at the end of the year, you got enough for a novel, 305 pages.
Kelton Reid: Just veer from the script for a minute — do you feel like that transparency, where you’re giving your audience a window into your creative process, that has almost a psychological effect on you?
Austin Kleon: It does, and you have to be careful with it. One thing I didn’t touch on, Show Your Work!’s supposed to be a pep talk. It’s supposed to push people who are afraid to open up a little bit — just try one little thing every day, but the thing about being transparent is you have to really gauge what and how and how much you show. You have to really look at your process and what’s really close to you that you can’t share. Then you have to think about what you can.
The point I want to make with that is that I think people get this idea that I’m like, “Yeah, sure, everything dude. Put your novel on GitHub.” That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying find the little bits and pieces of your process that you think might be interesting or helpful to someone else, and push out those little bits and pieces as you’re working on something. In that way, you are around, first of all. People don’t forget about you. Then you’re able to keep your head down and do your work while you’re just sending out these little transmissions. That was really the idea behind Show Your Work!.
When I’m really working on something that’s really important to me, like I didn’t share the journal when I was working on it. I knew I had two months to finish it before my son was born. I could not conceive of any way in which me sharing my work would benefit me in any sense, but the things I was sharing were like I was looking at other people’s notebooks, and I was Tweeting and tumbling out that stuff.
Novelists will come to me, or fiction writers, they’re like, “Should I put drafts of my stories online?” I’m like “No. Don’t put drafts of your stories online. Save your drafts for your really close readers and for your writing group or your wife or whoever. What you should be doing is write about the books you’re reading, talk about a writing tool that you found really helpful, or talk about structure in a Hemingway story you’re reading.” Do that kind of stuff, that process-y stuff that you think no one cares about.
Every fiction writer should be posting a list of books they’re reading. That’s the easiest thing in the world to do. From a marketing perspective, throw an associate’s code in there, and anyone who buys the book, get something back from it. I’m always amazed at writers who don’t tell people what they’re reading. I think a lot of people think that reading’s a personal thing. The reason people read you is that they’re hungry for the types of books you write, so if you read those types of books, too …
The interesting thing about my genre is that I think a lot of people think I sit around and read creativity books all the time, which is not true. The reason that my books are interesting is because I read all kinds of different books. This has always been a personal thing for me. I have always felt like if I was true to the things I was really interested in and sharing the things I was really interested in, people would follow along just because, in the act of sharing things, that’s how I can either find my people or I can introduce people to new stuff.
I don’t really like the word ‘curator,’ but I like sharing. In this day and age, one of the most powerful things you can do as a writer is to share stuff.
Kelton Reid: Definitely. I love that. All right. Let’s just wrap up productivity with the writer’s block question. Do you buy in to it? Do you ever get it?
Austin Kleon: I feel like writer’s block is just exhaustion, laziness, or fear — or some combination of them. A lot of times when I’m blocked, it’s just that I don’t want to sit down and write. I just don’t want to because it’s just not my favorite thing to do. I would rather read. Fran Lebowitz, she’s like, “If you ever feel like writing, just lay down on the couch and read a bit. It will pass.” That’s how I feel.
I also think that people hit walls, and a lot of times when nothing’s coming, when the output doesn’t happen, that’s because there’s problems of input. A lot of times problems of output are problems of input. If you don’t have anything coming out, that means there’s not good stuff going in. That could be anything from you need to take a trip, or you need to just walk away from your desk, or you need to stare at a wall for a while or read — just something to get something jump-started.
A lot of times with block, some people try to power through a block, and I’m just like, eh, walk away for a bit. Everybody’s had that experience — you’re in the shower, you’re on a walk, and that’s when the juices start flowing. With that said, you need a time and place every day to do the work.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, I like how you talk about the bliss station. You’ve been known to mention it.
Austin Kleon: That’s a Joseph Campbell thing. Everybody’s heard the ‘follow your bliss’ thing from Joseph Campbell, but the one thing Joseph Campbell talked about in that, too, was having a bliss station, having a place where you can go, and no one’s going to bother you, and you feel very much at home, and you can do your work without the world impinging on it. For me, that’s the garage.
Kelton Reid: What about workflow there in the garage? I know you did mention that you’re working on a Mac. What particular hardware are you presently working on?
Austin Kleon: I have two computers. I splurged and bought myself a big iMac. I write on that in the garage. I also have a 13-inch Macbook Air, which I think is probably one of the greatest laptops ever made. I had a 12-inch PowerBook in the early aughts that was wonderful, but this one, it’s about the same form factor actually. The Mac Air is such a fun computer to travel with and write on, but I don’t use anything fancy.
It’s just off-the-shelf Macs. I write Google Docs, or sometimes I use Word. A lot of times now, I just type into a text file that’s getting saved to Dropbox. Dropbox is probably the one piece of software I couldn’t live without these days because it keeps everything. I even look at stuff on my phone. Macs with Dropbox on it, pretty much, you could do whatever you want.
I just think so many of the writing programs, they’re just everything else. They’re just way too complicated. Just open a box and type in to it. That’s why I love TextEdit on the Mac. I just open that up, make the font really big, and start typing.
Kelton Reid: That’s cool.
Austin Kleon: I would like to see a series in which people actually talk about their nuts and bolts of what’s on their screen when they’re writing. I’ve noticed that, if I’m just trying to free write, if you make the font super, super big so you can’t see any of the other words, that’s a great mental tool to use on the word processor. But then if you’re editing, it’s really important to be able to see paragraphs and the shape of writing, so use the zoom tool, too. That’s a very underrated tool.
Of course, the other thing I think is super important is you have to print your work out, look at it on a piece of paper, and edit it with pen. I also think everyone should read their writing aloud.
Kelton Reid: I love both of those methods, honestly.
Austin Kleon: Both of which are going out of fashion because everyone’s like, “Oh, paperless,” and it’s like “No.” And everyone works in an open office now, so it’s like you’re going to feel like a moron if you read your writing out loud. Those two hacks — printing stuff out, editing by hand, and reading aloud — are super easy ways to improve your writing.
Kelton Reid: Love that. Do you have any methods of madness for staying organized over there?
Austin Kleon: I love Dropbox, like I said. Dropbox and really having a folder system in Dropbox helps. I just write stuff. I’m going to sound such a goof. I have three notebooks going all the time. One of them is a pocket notebook which I write down to-do lists and stupid ideas that I’m having and stuff like that. That just stays in my pocket. I have a sketchbook that I keep in the house and in the studio where I’ll collage stuff in there and then I’ll draw and that kind of thing. Then I have another notebook, what I call my logbook.
It’s a 365-day moleskin diary, and every day at the end of the day, I write down — I don’t talk about my feelings or anything like that — I simply list what I did all day. Like “Went here for lunch,” “Went in and got my TSA pre-check application,” “Took the dog for a walk” — dumb stuff like that. I just list things, or what I was reading, or what I watched on TV.
One of the things I’ve noticed — because it’s so hard to keep a diary — but if you just simply list, start to finish, the things you did every day in the list, when you’re flipping back through that, it recalls the whole day for you. You can remember how you were feeling. I have a terrible memory, so I love being able to go back. I have seven years of logbooks now, so I love being able to say “When did I replace the air filter in the attic?” I can go back six months and find it, or “When’s the last time I got a haircut?”
That was really practical, but I can also say “Hey, how did I write the last book?” I’ll flip in to my logbook, and I’ll be like “Oh, well, here was a day where I did 4,500 words,” and “Here’s a day where I did nothing,” and “Here’s a day where I said I was going to give up and give the advance back.” You know what I mean?
I have such a terrible memory that I just forget what it’s like to be in these projects. Having these books that I can flip back through, even with my kids, it was very helpful for me to look back on how I felt after two months of having my first kid. I was like “Oh, this existential dread and angst, this is how I felt last time, and it got better.” I think keeping a record of your day is something that a writer, we’re recorders of memory anyway, so that helps me a lot.
Kelton Reid: I like that. You talk about ‘productive procrastination’ quite a bit, and you’ve written about it. Do you have some best practices for beating procrastination yourself?
Austin Kleon: Yes. The best thing to do is to practice what you said, productive procrastination, which means have one or two or three things going all at the same time. When you get sick of one thing, you can work on the other thing because you hate the other project so much. Then when you get sick of project two, you can move back to project one. You have to work, but you basically use procrastination as a way to get things done.
For me, it’s like, “I don’t want to write this talk that’s coming up, so I’m going to do a blog post,” or “I don’t want to do this blog post, I’m going to go make a poem.” As long as you’re getting something done, you can use procrastination to be productive.
Kelton Reid: Love it. How do you unplug at the end of a hard day there?
Austin Kleon: Right now, about 8 o’clock at night, my wife and I, after we get our kids down, we just look at each other, and we give each other a hug. We’re like, “You did it. You did it again.” We sit down, and we just watch stupid television — just bathe in the glow of Louie or Hannibal. I love Broad City. Broad city is probably my favorite show.
Then if we’re really wiped out — we only get a few channels because they changed to digital and we didn’t get one of those boxes. We only get a few channels and HGTV, so we’ll just turn on House Hunters and just watch the dumbest TV imaginable for 30 or 40 minutes. Then we just go to bed, and I read.
That’s basically our ritual. That’s what TV’s for. It’s such a vogue thing that, “Oh, I don’t own a TV,” and I’m like, “That’s what TV is for, is to turn your brain off.” Everyone’s like, “I got to be productive. I got to do this.” Dude, sometimes you need to just not think about anything, and when you need to not think about anything, that is what television is there for.
Kelton Reid: Yes.
Austin Kleon: The Wire’s great and everything, but House Hunters is like therapy.
Kelton Reid: At least you know how to buy a house in Caracas now.
One great reminder from Mr. Kleon: writers aren’t born, they are made. Now it’s up to you to do that daily work it takes to get there.
Thanks for tuning in to the first part of this interview. The second half will be published early next week, and I think you’re going to want to check it out.
For more episodes of The Writer Files and all of the show notes, or to leave us a comment or a question, please drop by WriterFiles.FM. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes. Leave us a rating or review, and help other writers to find us. You can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid.
Cheers. See you out there.