Monday, April 11, 2011

the art of stealing from austin kleon

My friend S recently linked me to Austin Kleon's blog post How To Steal Like an Artist (and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me), which basically validated my creative existence, so I knew I had to share it with all of you. If you are a writer/artist/musician/photographer or otherwise inclined to creativity, especially if you have a 9-5 job, you definitely need to read this article, and because I awoke to a thunder-and-lightning storm (which I love, don't get me wrong), I opted to skip my outfit post for the day, especially since I suspect that the dozens of bobby pins I stick in my hair on a daily basis would most likely act as semiconductors and I would be fried on the spot. Or something. Okay, I didn't want to get wet. But anyway... this is better than photos of me standing around in the middle of the road:
(beware, this will be rather long)

On St. Patrick's Day this year, I told my brother that I wanted to take a bus trip around Ireland and make a documentary about old men playing folk songs in bars. He told me I should do something else because that had "been done." Of course, I know this. But if I told you what my novel was about, you would tell me that had "been done" to death as well. The truth is, there really is nothing new under the sun--it's the perspective that we bring to our subject that can make it breathe with new life. That's like saying there is no point in living because it's been done before. Our experiences on this earth are all so varied that even if we are rather alike at our core, we have been shaped by our choices and our opportunities and experiences and have taken an infinite number of alternative paths to get to what we consider our "self" today. I have chosen for my art to be informed by the authors and filmmakers I respect, and I'm sure that I do steal from them in some ways, just as I take advice from and aspire to be like people in my real life who I admire.

Why this validated me: I already knew that there was no such thing as a truly original idea, so that didn't affect me very much. But then, Austin said:

"Your job is to collect ideas. The best way to collect ideas is to read. Read, read, read, read, read. Read the newspaper. Read the weather. Read the signs on the road. Read the faces of strangers. The more you read, the more you can choose to be influenced by."

So the $20 I spent on used books at Goodwill this weekend was an investment in my future. I really do love to read. I love it almost more than anything, which is sometimes unfortunate because it's so damn antisocial, but in general it is an inspiring activity. Last weekend I was sitting on the couch with a notebook while reading "Walden," and K asked me if I was "writing Thoreau." I wasn't, of course, but while I was reading it kept inspiring me to express similar sentiments in my own work (hence the frenzied notetaking and his suspicion). It was like running up a hill over and over again (reading passages), jumping off a rock when I reached the top (sparking an idea) and swimming around in a lake below (my own project) before running up the hill again.

Sometimes I do feel like I'm "not ready" to write my masterpiece. I know I have a hell of a lot more living to do before I can really give anything truly meaningful back to the world. But the fact of the matter is we probably will never be able to completely comprehend ourselves, especially as we continue living and changing and adapting to our environment and learning new things and having new experiences and meeting new characters. "Who I am" is always in flux, and it always will be. Sure, we will hopefully be able to explain ourselves and why we believe certain things or why we behave a certain way, but, as he said, "it’s in the act of making things that we figure out who we are." This is absolutely true. I have been journaling since I was in third grade, both about what was going on in my shallowest day-to-day life and my deepest innermost thoughts (of course, when I was eight this was mostly a laundry list of the candy I was able to eat that day, but you have to start somewhere). However, even if my consumption of gummy worms was what I deemed most worthy of record, I was also creating paper dolls by cutting photos of models out of my mother's catalogues and dreaming up exciting lives for them, or staging plays in the backyard with the neighborhood kids. I was constantly creating. I had no idea what I wanted out of life or why I was doing those things, I didn't even think about it. All I wanted to do was create, and that has been such an enormous part of my life ever since. I can't even imagine who I would be right now if I were only just starting to explore the numerous artistic avenues--I imagine I would get lost pretty quickly. The trouble is, a lot of the time I do feel like I don't know anything, that everybody is more talented and more articulate and more interesting than I am and I will never produce anything worthwhile.

Why this validated me: Austin basically says that you should just keep making until you make "it." It, to me, is the ultimate body of work. I am trying to externalize my internal experience and create something that can be understood and appreciated from an outsider's perspective. I want to create something that others can identify with, so I'm going to tell myself that's what I'm doing. Deep down, I do think that is what I'm doing--I hope that's what I'm doing--but if this particular book doesn't do it, I'll keep trying. I'll fake it until I make it:

"The point is: all the world’s a stage. You need a stage and you need a costume and you need a script. The stage is your workspace. It can be a studio, a desk, or a sketchbook. The costume is your outfit, your painting pants, or your writing slippers, or your funny hat that gives you ideas. The script is just plain old time. An hour here, or an hour there. A script for a play is just time measured out for things to happen. Fake it ’til you make it."

This is so obvious, but I feel like artists often get sidetracked by what other people seem to want to read or watch and abandon their own tastes in favor of pleasing others. As I've mentioned, I read a lot and I read favorite authors religiously and almost indiscriminately. I would go so far as to say that I have an unconditional love for those writers who made me sit up and take notice in the beginning, and even if they slip up now and then I continue to believe in them. As I mentioned before, I'm sure I steal some ideas from those authors, not because I am purposefully plaigiarizing but because their philosophies have become so ingrained in my own that I'm not sure I would be able to avoid expanding on those same ideas, but I definitely know that I don't want to. Those are the books that got me fired up, that changed the way I thought, that affected my life--those are the books that I want to read, so those are the books I should try to write.

Why this validated me: Austin says, "All fiction, in fact, is fan fiction." I can only hope that my books might invite comparison to Simone de Beauvoir or Doris Lessing or Margaret Atwood or Erica Jong. To say that the likelihood of the NYT naming me the next Simone de Beauvoir on my book jacket is slim would be the understatement of the century, but I do aspire to inspire the way that I was, and I do feel like there aren't enough women in our generation writing about the philosophy of life in the same way. Most of my favorite female authors had their heyday in the sixties and seventies. So maybe I am a fan. I want to be that voice for our generation. Lofty, yes?

This is a big one for me. Last summer I mentioned that I was writing my novel by hand--in notebooks, with a pen. I have always preferred the thick expanse of college ruled paper to the computer's impatiently blinking cursor, and there is something so much more organic about the flow of phrases from mind, through matter, and onto paper. I feel so much more connected to what I am creating when I am using my hands, without the hindrance of a machine. I feel the same way about sewing. I hate my sewing machine. She is a fickle bitch, humming merrily along one minute, then inexplicably shuddering to a shredding, snapping halt the next. But I have always felt impaired by technology (which is funny because I was a film major--I think film was the closest I could come to actually capturing what was going on in front of me with a minimal amount of technological intervention). I remember very clearly the nervous breakdown I had in my introductory film production class when I tried to set up my own lighting equipment and really just wanted to smash it all on the floor in a fit of frustration. And my sewing machine. The godforsaken devil. Before my mom handed it over, I was altering everything by hand--mostly hemming, but still. It took a long time but it was quiet and meditative and my fingers rarely failed me. I scalloped a pair of shorts last week on the machine and knew I was in for a treat when I sat down to work and couldn't remember how to wind the bobbin. The very first step. It was all downhill from there, and though I somehow fumbled my way through to the end of the very last row of scallops, they are still structurally unsound and I was emotionally unsound by the time it was all over. This past month, I transferred all of my notebooks onto my laptop and started to organize and add to them, and I noticed that my writing started to change. I didn't like it as much... it felt more like blogwriting or screenwriting than writing-writing, which is fine but not the effect I was going for. It felt too casual. So I'm switching back. When I come up with an idea and want to write it down, I reach for my notebook, not my laptop. That's how I need to write my novel. Rage against the machine(s)!

Why this validated me: Because I knew it! People always find it odd that I am writing my novel by hand. But that's just the way it works for me. Austin says,

"I think the more that writing is made into a physical process, the better it is. You can feel the ink on paper. You can spread writing all over your desk and sort through it. You can lay it all out where you can look at it."

I've always known this but it's hard for me to accept. I'm constantly working on multiple projects, whether it be a screenplay and a TV pilot or a novel and a play. And there are always even more ideas germinating in my mind, waiting to be attended to at a later time. Still, I have a hard time setting one project aside to make room for another one. I guess kind of like this in all areas of my life--I'm not very good at multi-tasking and am secretly glad. I like to see things through completely before moving on the next. I wish that people gave all of their attention to one activity once and a while. K and I spent way too much time eating dinner in front of the television, occasionally while surfing the internet. I try to avoid this as much as possible, but it does still happen. Anyway, I do think that it is important to get outside of a project now and then, to step back when it isn't flowing anymore and come back to it when it calls. I've also suddenly rediscovered the importance of a social life. I was starting to feel like I was descending far too deep into my own psyche after reading and reading and writing so much and was beginning to feel a little self-righteous. So I am going to try to spend more time with my friends, outside of myself, having conversations. That will be my hobby. And sewing. Because if my scalloped shorts are any indication, I will never be able to make a living with my sewing machine.

Why this validated me: It made me feel okay about stepping away from projects and maybe working on something else for a while. It's not only allowed, it's necessary. And if I want to go out with friends on a Saturday night instead of holing up in a small room with a bottle of wine and a pen and paper, that's good too. Even if I have to spend the next day recovering and getting nothing accomplished.

"So the lesson is: take time to mess around. Have a hobby. It’s good for you, and you never know where it may lead you…"

For a creative person, life is research. The more adventures you have, however ordinary, the more in touch you will be with the human condition. You can only learn so much from books and films--you learn so much more from moving through the world.

I am very secretive about what I'm writing when I am writing it, and I am always reluctant when it finally comes time to share. I think this is fine because I want to make sure my work is the best it can be before I invite others to comment on and critique it. On the other hand, some people might prefer to have others along every step of the way, offering advice for improvement before getting so far along they can't turn back. We all work differently. This one didn't hit home quite as much because Austin's suggestion is that you put your work on the internet. Maybe that could work, but I honestly don't think that the internet is the proper forum for the writing I ultimately want to do. People tend to skim when reading online, but so much of reading is about what is between the lines, the little subtleties that you can miss if you're not paying close enough attention. I think that novels are meant to be read while curled up in a big chair with a glass of wine or a cup of tea. You're meant to be absorbed. The internet does not allow for absorption--there is always some other tab to explore or email to check or facebook status to change. Still, it's definitely a valid suggestion. And I would like to think that some of you guys might read my book one day :) I just have to 'do good work' first.

First of all, Austin talks about geography's relative unimportance because of the globalizing effect of the internet. I do agree with this. After all, I've been exposed to so many lovely, talented and inspiring people through this blog and I genuinely respect and appreciate your opinions and perspectives. I happen to have creative and talented real-life friends as well, but it is true that a lot of the art-related dialogue I engage in (either actively or passively) is on the internet, which I think is just as valuable. The great thing about this is that you don't necessarily have to go where "things are happening" to be involved in what is happening. That said, there is no substitute (in my mind) for leaving your comfortable time zone and putting yourself at the mercy of the universe. So many more interesting things happened to me when I was traveling than when I am sitting on the couch or doing the dishes or going to the laundramat. Obviously. Good or bad, those experiences make for the best material. Luckily for us, travel is pretty easy these days (as long as gas prices stay at a manageable level).

This isn't one of those things that you really need to think about. It is the Golden Rule, after all. Austin says that Kurt Vonnegut said it best, and I'll go ahead and agree:

"There’s only one rule I know of: goddamn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

I identified with this one, big time. Not because I'm boring, but because I have chosen some pretty boring things to spend my days doing (aka work, chores) and I often feel guilty about this. Sometimes I complain about it and people make me feel guilty for sticking with it. But! Again, a quote within a quote:

As Flaubert said, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

Austin admits that he leads a pretty regular, "boring" life. He works 9-5 and lives in a quiet neighborhood with his wife. He says that the bohemian ideal of a wild lifestyle is too difficult to maintain, and while I still tend to romanticize it, I realize he's probably right. He says,

"The thing is: art takes a lot of energy to make. You don’t have that energy if you waste it on other stuff."

It's true. Sure, when I led a more "exciting" existence I was constantly journaling and scribbling, but I didn't get any actual work done. Austin encourages us to be happy and healthy people, even if we have convinced ourselves (as I have in the past) that misery makes for the best work. It probably just makes for the most whiny work. Clarity comes from stress-free living, and while my life certainly isn't stress-free, it's pretty routine. And that gives me the freedom to let my imagination run wild (instead of running wild myself).

Why this validated me: Like I said, I was feeling pretty guilty for settling into a humdrum office environment, working to pay the bills. But I am so much more productive this way, so maybe it works for now. This doesn't mean that I never want to have adventures or do anything crazy or spontaneous ever again. But for now I have to readjust my thinking: I'm in a groove, not a rut.

One of Austin's projects is creating poetry by blacking out newspaper columns (as above). I think this is a really cool, creative idea! Don't you? But that's not really what this is about. He says,

"In this age of information overload and abundance, those who get ahead will be the folks who figure out what to leave out, so they can concentrate on what’s important to them."

Why this validates me: I think in the age of information overload, I have become even more aware of what really matters to me. Maybe too aware. I have all but chosen to shut out a creative career because I think it would be too draining since I want a pretty traditional personal life. I stay away from most social media (never set foot--finger?--on twitter and I've long since abandoned Facebook and Myspace and all those networking sites). They take up too much time, and the rewards are, in my opinion, minimal. I'd much rather spend my time in the real world (this does not mean that I think twitter junkies are a bad people--I still watch more than my fair share of reality tv!), so this is something that I have cut out of my life, even when others balk and basically insist that it is impossible to exist in contemporary society without subscribing. I don't concern myself with gadgets or what is new and different. I have had the same cell phone (which they have since called to tell me to upgrade) for years and years and it works just fine. I try to simplify as much as I possibly can so that I can focus on writing what I want, when I want. There are so many opportunities available to us, we have to be more selective than we ever did before or we will be completely overwhelmed and will probably short-circuit.

Austin also says,

"What makes you interesting isn’t just what you’ve experienced, but also what you haven’t experienced. The same is true when you make art: you must embrace your limitations and keep moving."

Why this validated me: Like I said before, I often feel like I'm not "ready" to write a masterpiece. And maybe I'm not. But I'm going to try, and if I fail I will keep trying. Embracing the things that I don't know or haven't experienced cannot really hold me back because nobody has done or knows everything. It's shared experience and emotion that people relate to, so we just have to remember not to overreach. There is so much out there that I want to know about and write about, but I have to learn to black some things out--at least for now. Austin says that's okay.

So there you go! Everything you never wanted to know about my creative process :) I really suggest you check out Austin's original article--and I'll be back tomorrow with more photos of myself standing in the middle of the road. Because we all need hobbies :)
Happy Monday!


  1. um, I really needed to read/hear this so thank you :)

  2. Much of what this Kleon guy said bothered me, but one thing stood out in particular. He derided the bohemian lifestyle, and urged artists to lead boring lives to better support their art. That seems completely backwards to me. Why would you sacrifice an exciting real life in order to support a fake life of poems or stories? You say that for the creative person, life is research. I would say that life is the point.

  3. really awesome post.

    The thing about 'Be nice' though, is that it can lead to fear of people misunderstanding you. And on the internet, there will ALWAYS be haters and people who disagree with you, and people who misunderstand you- even if you have incredible clarity of expression.
    If you are afraid of not being perceived as 'nice' then you won't write anything at all. So I think this case 'being nice' might perhaps hold you back! I would say: just don't be afraid.

  4. thanks for posting this. "So the lesson is: take time to mess around. Have a hobby. It’s good for you, and you never know where it may lead you…: That really resonated with me, sometimes people try to put down my hobbies whether it be ukulele playing or painting as a waste of time but I know that these hobbies are important....its nice to have that though validated

  5. I can't believe... I just wrote a big comment and blogger "could not complete my request." How am I supposed to write my own masterpiece at this rate?

    Summarized, again:
    1. I love real journals. I write on my computer, but I like to take holidays with my journal to remember the mind-to-paper connection.
    2. I think you have to be boring, or at least, at some point you have to bow out of the debauchery and set pen to paper. The people who live the bohemian lifestyle are not the future artists for the most part... they just want to be.
    3. I will definitely read your book when you're ready to share it!


    This has been the most inspiring thing of my entire day, and probably the month. If not longer.

  7. Thanks for posting this. It's the kind of thing that seems obvious once you've read it. Like, oh of course that makes total sense...

    So yes, really inspiring.

  8. What is it with an artistic streak and social networking sites?! I can't hack facebook and its bretheren either.

    Great points, I am going to have to come back and reread. It's the getting my stuff out there part I struggle with. It's that social networking incapability that strikes me down - I should be applying for exhibitions, for grants, for residencies but doing it is such a strain on me I've all but decided I am just going to have to keep being creative and hope whoever finds all that stuff in my attic after I die doesn't just throw it in the bin ;)

    I flip flop between a real can do attitude and the above dreary paragraph :D

    Thanks for sharing!