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?
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.
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.
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Now tape yourself to a chair and turn off the internet!