Steve Jobs famously misquoted Picasso when he said, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”
What Picasso really said was, “Art is theft.”
T.S. Eliot said something far closer, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”
I learned all of this from Austin Kleon, bestselling author of Steal Like an Artist, a guide I recommend to all writers seeking insights for tapping into your endless reserves of creativity and innovation.
As a noted speaker, and prolific blogger, Mr. Kleon offers timeless wisdom on the secrets of borrowing inspiration from your heroes to remix it into your own work in order to create something fresh and original.
Writers aren’t born, they are made. ~ Austin Kleon
In this installment of The Writer Files, Austin shares his method of “productive procrastination,” the difference between little writing and Big Writing, the importance of finding the right readers, and his secret of productivity.
Join me as we study the dossier of Austin Kleon, writer …
About the writer …
Who are you and what do you do?
I’m a writer who draws. I’ve written two books: Steal Like An Artist, a manifesto for creativity in the digital age, and Newspaper Blackout, a poetry collection made by redacting newspaper articles with a permanent marker.
What is your area of expertise as a writer or online publisher?
The Venn diagram of my career is pictures, words, and the web.
Where can we find your writing?
Your local bookstore, or www.austinkleon.com.
The writer’s productivity …
How much time, per day, do you spend reading or doing research?
Before you begin to write, do you have any pre-game rituals or practices?
Sadly, no. I’m sure if I did, I’d write more.
What’s your best advice for overcoming procrastination?
Practice productive procrastination — have 2 or 3 projects going at one time, so if you get sick of one, you can jump over to the other.
What time of day is most productive for your writing?
I like to write when the world is sleeping — in the morning or at night — but I have a six-month-old son that I take care of, a wife who works in the mornings, and an 8-hours-a-night sleep habit, so I’m pretty much doomed to the afternoon. As Dickens said, “I detest this mongrel time, neither day nor night.”
Do you generally adhere to a rigid or flexible writing system?
So flexible you could say it’s limp.
How many hours a day do you spend actually writing (excluding email, social media etc.)?
I sort of resent the distinction. It’s all writing. It’s all typing into boxes. The thing is, I don’t know what writing is going to really get me somewhere — I’ve typed tweets that have turned into blog posts that have turned into book chapters.
I don’t make a distinction between little writing and Big Writing. It’s all part of the same process. So, I’ll say: I spend at least 2 hours a day typing into boxes.
Do you write every day?
Larry David, after accepting the accepting the Paddy Chayefsky Award from the Writers Guild, said: “I hate writing. Nothing puts me to sleep faster than picking up a pen. I not only hate writing the shows, I hate all kinds of writing. Recommendations, thank you notes, excusing my daughter from school, condolence letters … oh, those are the worst.”
I’m with Larry: I hate writing. What I really like to do is read. Writing lets me be a professional reader, so I do as little of it as I can get away with.
(When I have a deadline, I’ll write every day.)
The writer’s creativity …
Taking what’s in front of you and everybody else and making something new out of it.
Who are your favorite authors, online or off?
My favorite three authors are Midwesterners who wrote/write funny, sad books with pictures and words, together: Lynda Barry, Kurt Vonnegut, and Charles Schulz.
Can you share a best-loved quote?
Currently, it belongs to John Cleese:
Creativity is not a talent, it’s a way of operating.
Do you prefer a particular type of music (or silence) when you write?
Different music for different modes. When I’m just freewriting or researching, I like to listen to my favorite stuff, mostly old 60s soul and garage rock.
When I’m on deadline and I absolutely have to finish something ASAP, I put on the most meat-headed, loud rock and roll I can: AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, or Black Sabbath.
How would you personally like to grow creatively as a writer?
I’d like to get better at storytelling.
Do you believe in “writer’s block”? If so, how do you avoid it?
For me, block is usually just laziness. I’m a really big fan of timers — just set a timer for 90 minutes, tape yourself to a chair, and turn off the internet. Something will happen.
Who or what is your “Muse” at the moment (i.e. specific creative inspirations)?
Reading obituaries. I find that thinking about death every morning makes me happy to be alive and guilty that I’m not up making something.
Would you consider yourself someone who likes to “take risks?”
No. I like to quote Flaubert:
Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.
What makes a writer great?
The right readers.
The writer’s workflow …
What hardware or typewriter model are you presently using?
I suppose at this point I should mention that I have two desks in my office [see: photo below]: one is digital, one is analog. The digital one has my computer, my scanner, etc.
Except for the pencil sharpener, no electronics are allowed on my analog desk — just newspapers, paper, pens, etc. I do a lot of my drafting and drawing at the analog desk, and then I do all my editing and publishing from the digital desk. It works.
As far as gear goes, I have a 3-year-old 15″ Macbook Pro. To bribe myself to finish this next book, I just bought a shiny new 27″ iMac, but so far I’ve only used it for watching Sesame Street videos with my son.
What software are you using for writing and general workflow?
Nothing fancy. I use Evernote for research, and Google Docs and Pages for writing.
Have you run into any serious challenges or obstacles to getting words onto the page?
Yes. Every single one of them was about fear or laziness, and every single one of them was about forcing myself to sit still and move my fingers.
How do you stay organized (methods, systems, or “mad science”)?
I keep a lot of lists in my notebooks and I write little thoughts on index cards and tack them up around my desk. If I’m working on a big project, I’ll get a calendar and break the project up into little doable daily chunks.
How do you relax at the end of a hard day?
I drink whiskey and watch television.
A few questions just for the fun of it …
Who (or what) has been your greatest teacher?
I had a really great writing professor in undergrad named Steven Bauer. He paid way more attention to me and my writing than I deserved, and he also gave me the invaluable advice to not go to graduate school right after undergrad.
What’s your biggest aggravation or pet peeve at the moment (writing related or otherwise)?
Using the word “creative” as a noun.
Choose one author, living or dead, that you would like to have dinner with.
Montaigne! In his castle.
Do you have a motto, credo or general slogan that you live by?
To quote Lynda Barry:
The key to eternal happiness is low overhead and no debt.
What do you see as your greatest success in life?
My family. The rest is gravy.
If you could take a vacation anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go (cost or responsibilities are no object)?
I’d fly to Paris with my wife and we’d hire a French nanny to take care of the kiddo, and then Meg and I would walk around all day and sit in cafes and smoke cigarettes (neither of us smoke) and drink coffee and watch people and eat food and then switch to wine and eat some more.
What would you like to do more of in the coming year?
I’d like to take more naps.
Can you offer any advice to writers and content producers that you might offer yourself, if you could go back in time and “do it all over?”
I wrote a whole book of advice I wish I’d known when I was 19 (Steal Like An Artist), but the one piece of advice that’s the most valuable to me is “marry well.” Choose your partner wisely, because that’s the person who will influence you the most. I got incredibly lucky — my partner chose me.
Please tell our readers where they can connect with you online.
My home online is www.austinkleon.com and I spend way too much on Twitter: @austinkleon.
And finally, the writer’s desk …
One of the bullet points of Austin’s talk “Steal Like a Writer” is:
Step Away from the Screen.
The division of his office space reflects this, offering a refuge from the Digital Desk with an Analog one (he is also a talented artist).
I’m a firm believer in taking the time to sort out your thoughts on some notecards, an old-fashioned piece of notebook paper, or any medium that helps your mind switch gears.
The kinesthetic practice of scribbling notes freehand does something different for my own headspace, even if it’s simply copying something great someone else has written. Give it a try.
Thank you for giving us a glimpse into your mad genius Austin!
Photograph courtesy of Workman Publishing, New York.
Thank you for tuning in to The Writer Files …
We have more inspiring Q&As on the way from our favorite writers.
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Now tape yourself to a chair and turn off the internet!
Reader Comments (30)
Jamie Anderson says
Thanks for this great interview. Given me plenty of things I can work on with my own writing to try and improve.
Justin Keith says
Some great insights here into Kelton’s writing life. These are always fun to read.
Susan Irene Fox says
Terrific interview. I do the analog/digital thing, but never realized it, nor did I organize my two workspaces that way. Now I think I can be more efficient (hopefully) and actually take conscious breaks between the two.
Thanks so much, Austin, for the great nuggets of advice, and Kelton for the insightful interview questions.
Kelton Reid says
Absolutely Susan, thank you for tuning into the series. Even for writers who don’t have two distinct workspaces, I think it’s important to simply power down the computer and engage your brain in a different way. Incubation periods, whether you spend them writing in a notebook, or getting some exercise, are important! Cheers.
Rita Mailheau says
I wholeheartedly agree with Kelton about the person one marries. My husband is amazing. He allows me to take the writers journey, read books, leave the furniture undusted, and gets take-out food on his way home from doing things.
I am a queen in our castle thanks to him.
Mark Hermann says
Great interview, Kelton.
I loved Austin’s Steal LIke An Artist and that’s probably the best takeaway I got from his book. The concept of analog desk and digital desk.
I’m addicted to my IA Writer program on my iPad for writing blog posts and my book projects because it’s a digital representation of a white piece of paper with only the typewriter font that you can’t change or resize. All I can do is cut and paste the words and move them around. So it’s one notch above Woody Allen’s analog typewriter for that and I can email myself the work when it’s done.
But when I’m writing a song I always feel the need to write the lyrics in my leather bound journal. There’s something about committing pen to paper when I’m in that creative mode that makes your choice of words that much more important. I even like the crossed out verses and crazy arrows I make connecting one line to the next. I guess it’s about figuring out how to choose the right creative tool that allows you to do your best work.
Thanks for reminding us of Austin’s creative habits.
Kelton Reid says
Thanks for dropping into the comments Mark. Steal Like an Artist lives on my desk. I think that for writers especially, sometimes the simplest answer is the best answer, for sure.
Matthew Loomis says
Thoroughly enjoyed this interview, Kelton. Austin gave some great advice here. Possibly his best tip was to “marry well.”
I know from experience how true that is.
Who’s next on the Q&A docket? 🙂
Kelton Reid says
Matt, I hate to give it away, but I’ll give you a hint.
Her initials might be S.S.
Sarah Silverman? Susan Sarandon? Sharon Stone?
Oooh Ooh! I know. Sally Struthers! 😉
Sonia Simone says
Debra Dylan says
Great interview! Glad to know he’s a Lynda Barry fan!
Jake Johnson says
Awesome interview, very motivational to see the thought-process of successful artists.
Loved the quote, “Writing lets me be a professional reader.” Although I love to write, I love to read more and I feel like this quote is spot on, the two go hand in hand.
Tom King says
Ah I miss Steve Jobs…
Interesting take on several creative issues; perhaps this highlights many of the shortcomings of our antiquated system of intellectual property in the U.S.
Anton Volney says
Man, this guy sounds like a sarcastic bastard…In a good way 🙂
Was this a super truncated audio interview? Or was this not recorded….Just curious because I have been interviewing people for my blog and I find the transcriptions so very long…
Kelton Reid says
The interview is written. It is our version of the “Proust Questionnaire” … for writers.
Great interview! I recommend Austin’s book to my clients and keep it near my desk when I need a shot of encouragement. I love to see authors practice what they preach!
Rain San Martin @ Adventures In Composing and Digital Art says
This is my favorite line from the interview: “For me, block is usually just laziness. I’m a really big fan of timers — just set a timer for 90 minutes, tape yourself to a chair, and turn off the internet. Something will happen.”
Elise Daly Parker says
I just love this series. Very inspiring and helps me to trust that there is room for everyone and every approach to writing. However there is one absolute…and that’s write. You just have to sit down regularly and write. Something will happen. That’s true and encouraging!
Sophie | Spark says
What a great interview. I wish I had room to fit an analog and digital desk in my study, but might just have to settle for forced retreats to the living room with a notebook and pen instead!
Robert Mishovski says
We all read this interviews to get inspired, see what others are doing, seeking for the success formula that will take us off the ground! The true is that we have to look deep in our self! All the answers we try to find answers to are already answered. We just have to shape them in to words.
Writing is a good method to do that!
Jamie P says
I like the definition of creativity: Taking what’s in front you and everybody else and making something new out of it, well said.
Dan Erickson says
Justin Westbrooks says
Incredible post – thanks for this. I love the quote he gave: “Creativity is not a talent, it is a way of operating”. Sharing this with my team now! May we all have the courage to practice more creativity daily.
Dan Erickson says
That is a great quote.
Dan Erickson says
Great interview. It’s always interesting to hear how other writers work. I agree that writing is writing, including commenting on blogs and social media. I love the quotes, too.
Jordan Rivers says
Absolutely fantastic interview. Procrastination has always been my achilles heel when it comes to writing. This interview has inspired me in many ways actually. I love the John Cleese quote! It’s holds truth in so many ways: “Creativity is not a talent, it’s a way of operating.”
Davide Alexander says
Fantastic article and review on the ‘Austin Kleon’ methodology. I found the opening lines of the article hilarious as Jobs misquoted Picasso.
Much like others have mentioned above, I also suffer from writers block.
The interview is inspiring and exactly the kick in the guts I need to continue with my writing.
If Kleon can find inspiration from reading obituaries then I have absolutely no excuse for my procrastination.
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