At age 5, Kleon was copying Garfield cartoons on his grandma’s kitchen floor. At age 14, he discovered the internet in rural Ohio. (“It became clear to me very quickly that a website was a way that you could be whoever you wanted to be—that websites were invention machines.”)
In his early twenties, Kleon discovered the great comic artists old and new, Chris Ware, John Porcellino, Art Spiegelman. At 26, he published his first book of poetry, Newspaper Blackout, in which he redacted newspaper articles with permanent marker and ended up with poems. And at 28, he published the New York Times bestseller Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative.
Along the road, Kleon (now 30) learned a thing or two about what makes creative work sing in the Age of the Internet. Those lessons form the basis of his latest book, Show Your Work!, which tackles the touchy subject of self-promotion with panache.
Your new book, “Show Your Work!,” talks about a subject that’s like kryptonite for most creatives: the concept of self-promotion. Why do you think it’s such a loaded topic? Why do creative people hate marketing themselves so much?
It takes a lot of energy and effort and attention to get really good at your craft. And so, for so many creative people, I think it feels like marketing or self-promotion just takes away from that. People think: if I spend all this time building a brand, I won’t have time for the work.
But I think there’s a way in which you can think about your creative process itself—the real work—and break that down into shareable bits. And if you share a little piece of your process every day, it’s a very sustainable way of promoting your work. Not promoting yourself, but promoting your work.
There’s this great story about the writer Christopher Hitchens. He said that writing a book is like getting a free education that lasts a lifetime. He was talking about how the people who read his books would email him and write him letters or he would meet them at events, and they were constantly feeding him stuff. He wasn’t just learning from writing the book, he was also learning from people’s reactions to the book.
And I think that’s the way to think about self-promotion: Think about it as opening the door to learning. In the simple act of sharing your creative process, sharing the stuff that you make, and sharing your ideas, you will get responses that feed back into your work.
And then the trick becomes how to let that feedback in without letting it hurt you. And that’s the dance of the artistic life, isn’t it? Separating what’s helpful from what’s destructive.
Your work bridges art and writing in a very unique way. How did you end up getting to make money doing this kind of work?
My career is kind of a Venn diagram: pictures, words, and the web. And my whole career has really been about figuring out how to unite those three things.
I think the main thread, which I wrote about in Steal Like an Artist, is you have to keep all your passions in play in your life. You can’t discard the things that you love, because if you keep them around you will figure out a way to integrate them all eventually.
Above: Kleon’s TEDx Talk on stealing like an artist (and how he fought writer’s block with newspapers).
Essentially, I have gone from copying Garfield cartoons on my Grandma’s kitchen floor to making those little illustrated books you make in kindergarten to doing the exact same thing for adults.
When we’re young, we have this passion. But, so often, it just kind of gets beaten out of us because the institutions we’re educated in don’t have a model for the kind of work we want to make.
Which is why so much of your success as an artist or creative person depends on you taking what your passion is, and looking around at your network, and figuring out how you can plug yourself into the world.
I know a lot of artists who get really fired up about art and their heroes from the 19th century and all that. But that world doesn’t exist anymore, and you can’t really model yourself after dead artists. Instead, you just have to look at the world we’re in right now and improvise—a lot.
There’s no doubt we have to be open to improvisation. But what about having a grand vision, or a master plan? Did you have one for your career, is that even relevant anymore?
I think people seriously underestimate what 15 minutes a day for 10 years will do versus 10 hours a day for a year. If you do little bits and pieces every day, after a while, you have this body of work.
Like, if you want to be a filmmaker, don’t think about being P.T. Anderson, think about making a 30-second YouTube clip. Make the best 30-second YouTube clip you can, and make a hundred of them. Just start making and editing, learn and release the work as you go, and see what resonates with people.
Has writing and art-making always been part of your daily routine?
I made my first book, Newspaper Blackout, on my half-hour bus ride to and from work and then on my hour-long lunch break. I would make a poem on the way to work, and then try to make one or two poems at lunch, and then another poem on the way home. Then I might make a few more that night.
I knew I had 25 weeks to do my first book, so I figured if I did 10 poems a week, that would be 250 poems. I assumed that at least 40 percent of them would be crap, and the remaining ones would be good enough for the book. Ultimately, I threw out at least half of the poems I made. But that’s just the way stuff gets done.
The point is: 10 poems a week was really doable. So that’s always my first step when I’m working on a project, asking “How do I break this into daily chunks?”
What if you just can’t find the time to make something every day?
We all get 24 hours. No one gets more time. Sure, you might have your job, you might have a kid, you might have a family—I had all of those things when I was writing my first book—but when you get ruthless about what you really want to do, there are so many gaps. So many little spaces in the day where you can find the time. I know a lot of writers that just straight up steal time from work. It’s just a matter of prioritizing. Are you going to watch five episodes of Duck Dynasty in a row? Or are you going to write a novel?
Do you think working a little bit each day also helps because you build momentum?
It happens a lot of in creative work that you finish a project and you don’t know what to do next. It can be a bit disconcerting. And I think that’s why it’s so important to have a daily practice that you do no matter what you are working on.
My thing is that I make one of these blackout poems every day. I just do it every day, no matter what. It gets me in the zone. Then, from there, I can work on different things.
It’s all about staying in motion. Inertia is the antithesis of creativity.