Interview by Madeleine Dore
Photography supplied by Austin Kleon with
excerpts from Keep Going: 10 Ways To Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad by Austin Kleon (Workman) © 2019
A writer who draws
With his daily life currently in flux while on a two month tour for his latest book, Keep Going, writer and artist Austin Kleon has been thinking about how to create a portable version of his routine.
“I think routine is so important, especially when you're getting started creatively, but for me right now, I almost need checkboxes and rituals more than I need routine.”
Currently, the daily checkboxes include writing in his diary, publishing a blog post, taking a walk, and reading a book.
Such a sequence has been influenced by the ‘the two Davids’ – Henry David Thoreau and David Sedaris, who essentially share the same approach to the writing process. That is, spending a large majority of their day walking. "Thoreau took these insanely long four to eight hour walks and then he would come back and write about them. Sedaris will wake up in the morning and will write in his diary for a couple of hours about the day before. Then he walks and picks up trash on the street for seven or eight hours a day.”
This repeatable process of collecting ideas, recording them in a diary, and then turning findings into public lectures and books is something Austin has duplicated in his own way. "I always keep a pocket notebook on me, and then I diary in the morning, and then create a blog post, and those blog posts will become talks, which then become books. You don't have to worry about what to write about, you just write every day and things begin to develop.”
Whether in the form of checkboxes or a routine, this process makes the morning hours crucial to his creativity. "The most important thing for me to do is to write my diary and to write a blog post. If I have done that, then the day in some ways is a success.”
While the process seems very achievable on paper, Austin is the first to admit that he doesn’t have it all figured out. “I think all routines are about aspiring rather than always executing.”
Instead of aspiring to perfection, we can learn to accept and nurture our imperfect tendencies. We don’t need to sand off our edges, as Austin puts it. “We're so obsessed with life hacking and with becoming these productive, shining examples of ourselves, but so much of good creative work comes from being a person that has tensions in their life.”
For Austin, embracing this tension means embracing his ‘deeply lazy’ side as well as his ‘driven workaholic’ side. “For a long time, I thought I had to pick one side, but I’ve realised it’s sometimes bouncing between these two modes that really gives my life meaning – I don't feel the work would be meaningful if I didn't have those deeply lazy moments, too.”
We all experience different tensions at different times, making it all the more important to find our own way. “You have to come up with your thing. Hopefully you would find little bits and pieces from people's routines if you think it can help you with a problem, but if there's not a problem, then don't worry about it.”
As Austin Kleon remind us, it’s about asking how we can be productive in our creative lives but also retain these imperfect parts of us that make us interesting – and keep going.
A day in the life
I get up at seven o'clock with my kids and we go downstairs and I fix them some breakfast. I try to stay off my phone for that first hour. We might sit in the kitchen and I’ll just drink hot water with lemon, kind of wake up and bring the kids anything they need. Some mornings we might all sit and read, some mornings I put on Netflix for them.
Then at about eight o'clock, my wife will come downstairs and I'll make her coffee and toast and we'll have a little bit of breakfast together.
At about eight thirty, I'll go up to the studio where I have a digital desk and an analogue desk. I’ll start at the analogue desk and get out my pocket notebook that I have with me all the time to scribble notes in throughout the day.
I'll use my pocket notebook to reconstruct yesterday in my logbook – I'll write down very simple things like, got up, wrote, did this errand, read this book, had this for dinner. It's just a very boring recounting of the previous day in list form.
After that, I start writing in my diary for anywhere between 20 to 45 minutes. I’ll write three to five pages about anything interesting that happened or that I want to unpack. I might even copy a passage from a book I'm reading or flesh out something from my pocket book – the goal of the diary is to warm up and to figure out what I'm thinking about.
If I really don't have anything to write about, I'll cut up newspaper comics, New York Times articles and a bunch of magazines I have laying around and I'll make what I call ‘sad teenager collages’.
Then I'll switch over to the digital desk and turn whatever seemed kind of interesting to me in the diary into a blog post.
Sometimes I'll spend an hour or two writing a blog post, and sometimes I'll spend ten minutes, it just depends. Sometimes I work a day in advance, so I'll write a post and schedule it for the next day.
Once I'm done with that, I will usually check Twitter, check Instagram, and go on my email to see if there's any pressing thing I need to get done. If I'm working on a book, I'll work on that. But if I have free time, I'll make one of my newspaper blackout poems.
My six-year-old, Owen, doesn't do a full day at school yet so sometimes I will bring him up to the studio with me. I like having him in the studio because he's a really creative guy and he really likes to tinker on his projects. He also inspires me because he'll start making a collage and I'll be like, "Oh that looks really fun, I want to make a collage too." Like a lot of six-year-old’s, he just has this raw creative drive that is completely unfiltered and I get kind of a buzz from being around him.
I'll work until lunchtime, which is usually around 11.30am, so I'll be in the studio for three hours.
We’ll eat lunch and then I put Owen on the school bus and my wife and I will take a walk.
We'll go for a three mile walk every afternoon and we'll push our four-year-old in the stroller for about an hour. Then we come back and shower up and I'll work for the rest of the afternoon, usually.
I adhere to John Waters' routine which is to make stuff in the morning, sell it in the afternoon.
If I have an interview to do, I'll do that. If I have email to work on, great. If I have a book to work on, I'll keep working on the book.
Every Thursday afternoon I take a look at all my stuff to find ten links for the newsletter. I’ll have my logbook and diary in front of me, and Twitter, Instagram and blog open and pick out the best stuff from the week. I usually don't have to generate anything new, it's literally just sifting through the debris of the week.
In some ways the newsletter started out as a marketing device, but over time it has become one of my favourite things that I do and I think that’s because it’s like a diary in and of itself.
It's a very meaningful ritual to me because I get to look back at the week and think, "Did I write enough good stuff this week? Was I on track?"
One of my favourite writers Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who passed away not too long ago once tweeted, "To anyone trying to figure out their life, pay attention to what you pay attention to. That's pretty much all the information you need." The newsletter's a way of paying attention to what I'm paying attention to.
If I don't have anything to do, I will read or I'll just potter around. I'll make another collage or I'll scribble a little bit. I'll do that until dinnertime.
We have dinner and we put the kids to bed at about seven o'clock. Then my wife and I usually watch television for at least two hours, which I think shocks a lot of people, just because you're not supposed to be able to watch TV and get things done, but that's our hang out time. We'll watch a movie or we'll watch Netflix, maybe drink a couple of whiskies.
Then about nine o'clock I try to shut things down and I'll go upstairs and get ready for bed and read. Some nights I only get 15 minutes in and then some nights I'll get two or three hours of reading done.
That's pretty much the basic structure of the day. The only thing is when we're in Texas, which we'll be again, we will go for a walk first thing in the morning because otherwise you'll sweat to death.
The walk is really important to us. As long as I write in my diary, publish a blog post, take a walk and read a book, that's been a good day.
Behind the scenes
On the privilege of living off your creative work…
I don't have a life that looks like a lot of people's lives and I'm super privileged with that. I'm lucky because my wife and I are both at home full time with the kids. We live off of book royalties and my speaking engagements, and any art I sell.
It's very unusual to be able to live off your books and your creative work; it's a dream come true and I always try to stress that when people ask about my routine. When I had a day job. I was always scrambling to find pockets of time but I usually used my commute – it was really important to me to take an hour bus ride instead of driving 20 minutes because that way I could read or write.
Before Steal Like An Artist, my wife was a student, and she was getting her PhD, and we didn't have kids yet so we would work all night together.
On how daily writing became a creative life saver…
The thing that really got me going again around the beginning of 2017 was writing in my diary every morning.
I was feeling bottomed out in many different ways – the 2016 election and the catastrophe of that, but also the fact I hadn’t written a book for three years. Keeping a daily diary pulled me out of that in this really important way.
Then the other thing that pulled me out was going back to daily blogging in October of 2017 – before that, everything was kind of scattershot.
Those two things together have served my writing life – they have just been complete life savers for me.
On keeping track of ideas and archiving work…
One of the things that's changed my blogging life is that the WordPress app has made it easy to blog from your phone now. When I have an idea for a blog post, I'll just type the title in and throw in the quote I want to talk about or something and I'll just save the draft on my phone and get to it the next morning.
I started cataloguing my poems a couple of years ago, so sometimes I'll do a full text search to see if there is anything I have to use for the cover.
Sometimes I'll go back through my diaries and I'll find a collage or a drawing or something that'll work for a blog post. Then I'll scan that and put it at the top, but a lot of the time I'll just go on my Instagram and find something that I hadn't blogged yet and use that as the cover. I wish I had a better system but it's kind of just like picking up bits and pieces over time. I do flip back through my notebooks a lot.
On how messiness has a place…
We want our lives to always be tidy, or we think we do, but then there are times when messiness is really important because that’s how connections are made.
In terms of my studio, sometimes really interesting juxtapositions for my writing or for my collage work come from two scraps on my table, or laying on the floor. I see them next to each other and I'm like, "Oh, those work.” I try to cultivate a little bit of a mess because it's where you find interesting stuff.
Agatha Christie, the novelist, talked about how she always kept her notebooks super messy because she wanted to have to look through them to find something because in the act of looking, she would bump into something else.
I will use tidying as a way to amble around my studio until I find an idea. If I kept a perfectly Marie Kondo'd studio or my notebooks were neat, I wouldn’t find a lot of these connections and weird juxtapositions.
On being flawed and still figuring it out…
There’s a Wendell Berry poem called A Warning To My Readers and he starts the poem saying something like, "Do not think me gentle because I sing and praise gentleness."
One of the things I'm always trying to tell my readers is that I’m a totally flawed human being in everyday life, which maybe makes me a dumb marketer! I am the most helpful, nicest version of myself in the books, and on a day-to-day basis, I struggle all the time. A reason that these books exist is because I've had to figure out this stuff and they're just the by-products. Very few of my books start by me saying, "Oh, I've got all these things figured out, I should publish them."
I wrote this latest book for me because I needed it to exist, I needed the pep talk so to speak, but I'm publishing it so it can help others.
It's so helpful to have a private and a public space and that's something I think a lot about now because I have this dual diary and daily blogging routine. The diary is for me – I get as ugly or as sad or as pathetic or angry or hostile as I can be in the diary. Then I switch to the blog and share with other people what I think would be interesting or helpful to them.
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