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Jun 29, 2015

How Bestselling Author Austin Kleon Writes: Part Two

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.

If you missed the first part of the interview, you can find that here:
How Bestselling Author Austin Kleon Writes: Part One

In the second part of this two-part file, Austin Kleon and I discuss:

  • Is “Imagination” Overrated?
  • A Simpler Definition of Creativity
  • Why You Should Write for Just One Person
  • How Minimizing Distractions Can Help Your Creativity
  • Why Your Audience Is Your Most Valuable Asset
  • Is Being Boring the Key to Productivity?
  • The Importance of Being Great at Both Art and Life
  • Why You Need to Pick Your Partners Carefully

Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...

The Show Notes

The Transcript

How Bestselling Author Austin Kleon Writes, Part Two

Voiceover: This is Rainmaker.FM, the digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free 14-day trial at

Kelton Reid: These are The Writer Files, a tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of working writers, from online content creators to fictionists, 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 Time’s 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 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, South by Southwest, TEDx, and The Economist.

In the second part of this two-part file, Austin Kleon and I discuss a simpler definition of creativity, why you should write for just one person, how minimizing distractions can help your creativity, why your audience is your most valuable asset, the importance of being great at art and life, and why you need to pick your partners carefully.

Is ‘Imagination’ Overrated?

Austin Kleon: If I ever teach a class on imagination, I’m going to show House Hunters because imagination gets this very, “Oh, to have an imagination is this great skill and talent.” Look, imagination is something that Dave Hickey said. He said, “Imagination is just thinking of a door and seeing it in your head.” Imagination is simply the ability to make images in your head.

When you watch House Hunters, these people come into these houses, and they’re like, “Oh God, I really hate the floors.” It’s like, “Oh, I don’t like that paint color,” and they literally can’t get past the fact that this hideous paint. They simply cannot think of what life in this house could be like. Like, “We could rip up the carpet. We could put floors in. We could paint over this paint.” But there are so many people that live their lives like that, too. They literally can’t make images in their head about what could be.

People just don’t have imaginations. I was walking on the High Line in New York City a few weeks ago, and everyone thought the High Line was going to fail. A huge group of people was like, “This’ll never work.” It’s like, “A park up on this old abandoned railroad track? Who would ever go to this?” It’s just a complete lack of imagination in people’s minds. As a creative person, that’s what you’re offering people.

You have to make the image. You have to make things that people can see. That’s true whether you’re writing a novel, you have to let people see the action, or whether you’re doing a client presentation. Until you put stuff in front of people, most people don’t have imaginations. That’s what you’re there for. Then people are like, “Well, how do you get an imagination?” I’m like, “Well, everyone has it. Hang out with a two year old for a while.”

The one way I think is really easy is to start drawing. Drawing is all about making images. If you can learn to make images with a pencil, then you can start making them in your head. That’s my personal opinion.

Kelton Reid: Well, if you do, do that class on imagination, I will definitely make an effort to come.

Austin Kleon: I can just see the kid looking at the syllabus. “Week 3 – Watch 20 hours of House Hunters.”

Kelton Reid: So, Austin, let’s talk about creativity. I know creativity is a giant theme, and it’s a theme you are very familiar with. You talk about it a lot. Why don’t I ask you to define creativity in your own words.

A Simpler Definition of Creativity

Austin Kleon: I have a really dumb, basic version, a definition for creativity, which is just taking what’s in front of you and everybody else and turning it into something new, that’s not around, inventing something out of the materials that we all have available to us.

My friend Mike, when he’s talking about creativity, he’s always like, “Have you ever seen Apollo 13?” He’s like, “There’s a scene in Apollo 13 where they have to make that air filter, and they’ve got pantyhose, a pencil, and some wire” — you know, whatever they have. He’s like, “That’s creativity right there.”

Taking what’s around and forming it into something people need or they’ve never seen before, that kind of thing. I just have this very basic notion that’s making something that wasn’t there out of the materials available to you.

Kelton Reid: Would you say that you have a creative muse at the moment yourself?

Why You Should Write for Just One Person

Austin Kleon: That’s a good question. A muse. I don’t know that I have a muse. More than a muse, I feel like I have an audience in mind when I’m making stuff. Everything I write, I always think about my wife reading it first.

Stephen King talks about that, how he writes for Tabby, his wife, that she’s his first reader. He always has her in mind when he’s writing. For me, thinking about someone on the other end is kind of the muse for me because it feels like I’m making something for somebody.

The pure idea of writing or art is that you do it for yourself, but for me, it gets a lot easier when you think about doing it for someone else — when your work is either a gift, or it’s a tool, or something that you’re making for somebody else.

That’s a way of dodging your question. Instead of a muse, I feel like, a lot of times, having an audience or recipient, thinking about them on the other side and then making something for them, that’s what I need more.

Kelton Reid: When do you feel the most creative?

How Minimizing Distractions Can Help Your Creativity

Austin Kleon: I think when I come in the garage. When I enter the bliss station, it’s like, “All right! Let’s make something.” I also feel airplane rides, man. People waste airplane rides. They’re reading SkyMall, or they’re watching whatever stupid in-flight movie they’ve got. That is when I produce, man. I open up my sketchbook and just keep my pen moving, the whole flight, as much as I can, until I can’t stand it anymore. Then I pull out a book and read.

There’s something about being stuck, the captivity. There’s nothing else to do. I think about why was I originally brought to the arts in the first place. Why did I ever pull a pen across the piece of paper? So much of it was, when I was a kid, you’re just trying to pass time. You’re stuck in your crappy small town, and it’s like, “Well, let’s play some music.”

Just that idea of trapping yourself somewhere and then having to entertain yourself, but not letting something else entertain you. That’s what everyone else does. They’re like, “Oh, I’ll flip through this SkyMall,” or “I’ll watch this movie.” That’s great, and there are places for that. But for me, if I can entertain myself, then I can actually make something.

Kelton Reid: Yeah. I’ve heard that before. It’s like the creative constraint, or kind of the boredom. But you’ll be happy to know that SkyMall has been discontinued.

Austin Kleon: The thing is, I love SkyMall, but these are all distractions. I’ve learned so much from Dan Pink, the writer and author Dan Pink. Talking about Show Your Work!, he has done this amazing series on travel. He travels so much. He had all these little tips and tricks that I recommend everyone look up. One of his things was, “Never turn the TV on in your hotel room.” He’s like, “Just don’t do it.” He’s like, “Read the book you brought or something else. Just don’t turn the TV on,” which is exact opposite thing that I do at the end of the day. But never do that.

This is what the world does. The world wants to distract you. It wants you to be distracted. Think about the way our software is built. Our phones, by default, every program wants you to turn on notifications because they want to interrupt you. One of the first things you can do is turn off all your notifications on your phone. Better yet, just put it in airplane mode. You know what I mean?

When you’re on a flight, it’s tricky. Even on an airplane, turning off that stupid TV in the back of the headrest, if you press the brightness button down far enough, it’ll turn off. Just stupid design things like that, they even keep you from turning stuff off. If you can minimize the distractions and go into your own head space, that’s when stuff happens.

Kelton Reid: That brings me into our next question. I love Dan Pink and his work. He was on The Writer Files, the written series.

Austin Kleon: Oh, cool.

Kelton Reid: That was a good one.

Austin Kleon: He’s awesome. He’s been super generous to me. I love his work.

Kelton Reid: Yeah. I need to get him back in here. Actually, so was Elizabeth Gilbert on the written series, also.

Austin Kleon: She seems great. I should read one of her books.

Kelton Reid: Yeah. Her new novel got amazing across-the-board reviews.

Austin Kleon: That’s great.

Kelton Reid: So she’s back.

Austin Kleon: She’s a real writer. She’s a worker.

Kelton Reid: Yeah.

Austin Kleon: My favorite thing that I’ve read of hers is there’s a great profile. If you type in ‘Tom Waits Elizabeth Gilbert,’ she did this wonderful profile of him in 2002 before she was famous.

Kelton Reid: Yeah. She was just a prolific journalist. Really, really love her work.

Austin Kleon: I never got to be a journalist. So many of my favorite writers started out as journalists. My father-in-law has written for The Plain Dealer for like 35 years. My uncle wrote for newspapers for like 20 years, too, and I feel like there’s a craft that comes from working on a deadline and having to churn stuff out that you just can’t really replace with anything else.

Kelton Reid: What do you think makes a writer truly great?

Why Your Audience Is Your Most Valuable Asset

Austin Kleon: The right readers. I think it’s true of all the arts. It’s all about who’s on the other end. You can be the best writer or the best artist in the world, and if you don’t have the right readers or the right buyers or the right viewers, what does it do? Think about Melville dying penniless, and now everybody reads Moby Dick.

So much of that is just context and circumstance, but I would say that part of the writer’s job is to find the right audience, too. That sounds hard, and it is. Readers, writers need readers. That’s why, if we’re in this culture where everyone wants to write but no one wants to read, that’s a dead culture. Know what I mean?

There has to be readers. If you’re a writer and you’re not a reader, I know you’re not any good. There’s no possible way you’re a good writer if you’re not a good reader. That was always the big siren went off, like when you’d be in a writing workshop in college and someone says, “Oh, yeah. I really like to write, but I don’t really like to read.” You could write that person off immediately because they’re just no good. It just doesn’t work that way.

Kelton Reid: I know we’ve mentioned a handful of amazing writers. Do you have a couple other favorite authors, at the moment that you want to mention?

Austin Kleon: I just found the work of this art critic and writer named Dave Hickey. He wrote a book in ’97 called Air Guitar, which is a collection of essays. He’s written art criticism for like 40 years or whatever. He put out a book recently called Pirates and Farmers that I haven’t read yet. Hickey, if he’s not an octogenarian, he’s on his way.

I love coming across writers who you’ve got their whole career there for you. The cool thing about Dave Hickey is he has a Facebook. It’s like if your grandpa was the most interesting guy who had hung out with Lester Bangs, Andy Warhol, and Lou Reed — just all these amazing artists — Robert Rauschenberg. Just all these people, and he’s on Facebook ranting.

I feel like there’s just something so great about discovering someone when they’re older and they have this huge body of work, and you can dive in. Dave Hickey, his stuff, the Air Guitar is amazing. I just finished that. That’s definitely going to be on my top books of the year.

I like to find writers and then just read everything they wrote, and then try to figure out who influenced them and read everything. Just kind of swim upstream. There’s a woman who, I’m probably going to butcher her name, Tove Jansson. She did the Moomins. The Moomins are this family of hippopotamus-looking creatures, and she did a comic strip that was hugely popular in her time, but is kind of less-known now. Then she did these seven books about the Moomin family, seven or eight books about the Moomin family. She grew up with kind of bohemian parents, so the Moomins are her cartoon version of her parents and her family.

As a new dad, or still fairly new — I still have that new dad smell — I feel like I’m always looking for models of home life, and Moominpappa is my favorite cartoon character right now. He’s this reluctant dad, in a sense. He would really like to just be playing cards or off writing his memoirs or whatever, but he’s also this bohemian, and I don’t know. They all love each other, and they take care of each other. The Moomins are just this wonderful series.

That’s just two examples. My favorites, I tend to, as a Midwesterner who writes and draws, I tend to be drawn to Midwesterners who wrote and drew. I love Charles Schulz and Peanuts. I love Kurt Vonnegut. A lot of people don’t know that he was also a visual artist and a drawer. I love Lynda Barry, who is still around, and she’s wonderful.

Kelton Reid: You’re kind of the master of finding these great quotes. They’re just peppered throughout your work. That’s one of the reasons I just like to flip open Steal An Artist and Show Your Work!, but do you have a best of quote floating in your brain right now?

Is Being Boring the Key to Productivity?

Austin Kleon: The quote I live by is Flaubert. Gustave Flaubert. He said, “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.” What Flaubert is saying is that you have to be boring in a sense. If you’re having adventures all the time, you’re not going to have any time to work.

I’m actually trying to write a talk solely based on that quote right now and that tension between, as a creative person, you feel like you should be out having adventures, but then you also have to sit in a room all day and make something happen — and how do you balance those two — that kind of thing.

Kelton Reid: That’s great. I will look for that talk.

Austin Kleon: We’ll see.

Kelton Reid: Just a quick pause to mention that The Writer Files is brought to you by the Rainmaker Platform, a complete website solution for content marketers and online entrepreneurs. Find out more, and take a free 14-day test drive at Rainmaker.RM/Platform.

You mentioned some literary characters. Do you want to drop a favorite literary character for fun?

Austin Kleon: Right now, it’s Moominpappa from the Moomins. I love him. I also love Charlie Brown. Who else? What about my other favorite comic strips? I don’t know. I’m looking around. Yeah. Moominpappa or Charlie Brown. It’s so hard not to relate, you know?

Kelton Reid: Yeah. If you could choose one author, living or dead, for an all-expense-paid dinner to your favorite restaurant in the world, who would it be?

The Importance of Being Great at Both Art and Life

Austin Kleon: I’ve had beers with Lynda Barry before, and I’d love to take her to a sushi place and just drink sake and let her go. I feel like I’m such a Lynda fanboy. I spent a couple hours with Lynda when I was 23 when I got lucky enough to go hang out with her after a talk, and I literally feel like I’ve run off the fumes of being around her for the past, God, that was almost 10 years ago now. She’s just an amazing person. I don’t know.

Living or dead, maybe I should go hang out with da Vinci. I don’t know. The problem is, so many of these writers, you wouldn’t actually want to be around. A lot of these people, they weren’t great people. That’s hard, too, because the people whose work you really admire, they turn out to be these weirdos. Like George Saunders would be someone I would hang out. Not only is he a genius, certified, he’s also a mensch.

It’s hard to find those people. Those are the people you really have to model. I think that more artists should model themselves on those people that are good at art and life. I wouldn’t want to hang out with Picasso. No thanks.

Kelton Reid: Right. I think you’re a collector of lots of different relics. Do you have a big, a bigger, biggest writer’s fetish?

Austin Kleon: I’m a simple tools guy almost to a fault. I like dumb, simple tools. I like fine-point sharpies. My friend Clive Thompson, who I mentioned earlier got me into these Palomino Blackwing pencils. I like to sharpen them, and I like to smell them. I love to use them for marginalia when I’m reading. What I’ll end up doing is I’ll just sit there and sniff the pencil while I’m reading, these Palamino pencils. I love those.

I’m really particular about my notebooks. I have this certain kind of Moleskine pocket notebook that’s like this tiny little hardback version that will fit in a shirt pocket. I love Field Notes, but I never use them because I can’t fit that in a pocket. I can’t. I want to support Field Notes. I love Aaron and Jim who run that, but I’m so particular. You get used to your tools.

Kelton Reid: Yes. Absolutely.

Austin Kleon: You have to have a kind of ruthlessness with your tools. You can’t be too political with them. You got to go with what works.

Kelton Reid: Absolutely. Absolutely. I use a pocket notebook that I’ve been carrying around for years that I can only find at Office Depot. They’re 99 cents each. They’re the hardback, but they’re woven together so that no matter how long you sit on it or how sweaty it gets, it never falls apart.

Austin Kleon: That’s the thing about that hardback Moleskine that I use. They don’t deteriorate. You just have to be able to beat stuff up. Now that I make a little bit of dough and I can write stuff off my taxes, I just buy in bulk.

Kelton Reid: Yeah. Okay, so who or what has been your greatest teacher?

Austin Kleon: I think teachers are so tricky. All I was looking for when I was younger, without laying down on the couch, I was always looking for some Merlin-ish figure to knight me. I was always looking for this father figure to take me aside and say, “Oh, you’re in the club now, son,” and do his blessing and send me out into the world. You realize that that’s just a very immature way of going about your creative life is that people are teachers, but they’re not your fathers. They’re not replacements for anything like that.

Anyway, I had a great professor in college named Steven Bauer who, again, I mentioned him before, and he said, “Apply ass to chair.” I took probably four or five writing workshops with him. He was a big believer in the notebook, keeping a daily notebook. He was a very firm believer in showing up and stuff like that. He really gave me that initial push to say, “Yeah, you could be a writer. You can do this.”

Kelton Reid: On that note, can you offer some advice to fellow scribes on how to keep the ink flowing and the cursor moving?

Why You Need to Pick Your Partners Carefully

Austin Kleon: I’m going to say something that everyone kind of rolls their eyes when I say it, but I think it’s really true, which is marry well. Marry well. Pick your partners in crime very carefully. That’s true of your romantic partner. It’s true of your business partners. It’s true of your friends. Surround yourself with people who are going to make you better, but also people who will put up with you and will put up with this really bizarre thing that you’re trying to do with your life.

I’m going to steal this from Ian Svenonius. If you’re a lawyer or a doctor, everyone’s going to applaud your decision. They’re going to be like, “Great, you’re a lawyer.” “You’re a doctor. Awesome!” You know, “You’re a nurse.” “You’re a teacher.” Whatever. But if you tell people you’re a writer, they’re going to be like, “Well, have you written anything I’ve read or might have seen?” Or, “Do you make any money off that?”

Being in the arts and being a creative person, you’re not going to necessarily get validation from your everyday Joe on the street, so it’s very important to have someone in your life that believes in you and believes in the work.

I got really lucky. I met my wife when I was 20. One of the first interactions we had is she came into my dorm room and said, “Hey, what are you doing?” I said, “Oh, I’m trying to work on this story.” And I proceeded to rant about the story I was writing for 10 minutes. It’s been like that ever since. But I think, marry well. Have people in your life that will sustain you and help you along. That’s a big part of the battle.

Kelton Reid: That’s great advice. Where can writers connect with you out there, online or in real life?

Austin Kleon: Yeah. Writers love Twitter. I love Twitter. @AustinKleon on Twitter, and then the easiest thing to do is just go to my website, You can follow me from there on Instagram or whatever the latest fad is.

My favorite thing to do right now is, I have a newsletter. Every week, I send out 10 things I think are worth sharing, and it’s free. It’s my favorite thing that I do. You can subscribe to that on my website.

Kelton Reid: I didn’t know that, and I am subscribing as we speak.

Austin Kleon: Yeah. It’s fun!

Kelton Reid: Can you hear my typing?

Austin Kleon: It’s fun. I love newsletters. I love technology. I’m very interested in dumb technology that stuck around. The other day, I ordered a pizza at this pizza trailer in Austin. I was like, “So, how long do you think it will be? Can I walk around a little bit?” And they said, “Oh, we’ll text you when the pizza’s ready.” I thought, “Now, this is a wonderful example of simple technology making my life so much better.” You know what I mean?

Kelton Reid: Yeah.

Austin Kleon: I think email’s one of those things. Everyone hates email, but everyone has it. I think the newsletter is a really fun way to play with sending people these little messages every week. It’s really fun for me.

Kelton Reid: That’s great. It’s a good way to build an email list for future updates on books.

Austin Kleon: Oh yeah. You know, “I’ve got your email, so I can bug you when I have something to sell. But it will be mixed in with all the other neat things.”

Kelton Reid: Thank you so much for stopping by The Writer Files. Again, really appreciate your time and energy. It’s contagious. I definitely want to get back to writing.

Austin Kleon: I feel like I should, too. Thanks for having me on. This was really fun.

Kelton Reid: Yeah. Oh, and I loved your appearance on PBS’s Book View Now from BookCon 2015. That was pretty cool.

Austin Kleon: Oh, thanks. Yeah, I had fun interviewing. I really love to interview. I’d really love to find a way to … I just really love talking to people and hearing about their work.

Kelton Reid: Yeah.

Austin Kleon: I also really love show business. That’s one thing, I think, that’s hard for writers. The writing is hard for me. Going out and sharing the writing and selling the writing is not. That’s another thing I would recommend to young writers is to understand that there’s not as big a difference between education and entertainment as you think there is. No matter what you’re doing, in a sense, you’re entertaining people, so get into that showbiz mode and own it.

Kelton Reid: That’s cool. Well, I hope they tap you for your own show some day.

Austin Kleon: I have to admit, there is a part of me that would love to have a TV show.

Kelton Reid: Well, I would watch.

Austin Kleon: I would have one viewer, then, at least.

Kelton Reid: I hope that someday in the future, you can come back and rap with me again.

Austin Kleon: I would love that.

Kelton Reid: All right, my friend. Have a great one.

Austin Kleon: You too.

Kelton Reid: I love Austin’s not-so-secret formula. Do good work, and share it with people.

Thanks for tuning in to the second half of this two-part file. For more episodes of The Writer Files and all the show notes, or to leave us a comment or a question, drop by WriterFiles.FM, and please subscribe to the show in iTunes. Leave us a rating, or a review, and help other writers to find us. You can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid.

Cheers. See you out there.