On this week’s episode of Working, Rumaan Alam spoke with Austin Kleon, the New York Times bestselling author of Steal Like an Artist. They discussed his advice for people trying to jump-start their creativity, why he identifies as a writer who draws, and how fatherhood has transformed his way of looking at art and the world. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rumaan Alam: Have you ever thought of yourself as being in the self-help business?
Austin Kleon: I didn’t at first. It concerns me that there are people who want to be a self-help author. I meet these people now and I’m like, “Why, really?” For me it’s been accidental. When I was 19, I didn’t want to be a self-help author—I wanted be an artist, to be a writer. I feel like me coming into this, it’s really by accident. All I was doing in the beginning was sharing what I was learning while I was trying to get good. Then it turned out that sharing what I was learning turned into the work, the thing that people really wanted from me. That’s still a balance in my life. People come to me for a certain thing now, but what I really want to do is sit around and make collages.
It’s that tension that keeps things interesting for me, but I never wanted to be a self-help writer. Here’s the thing about self-help: Someone will be like, “Creativity guru Austin Kleon.” Or, “Creativity expert.” I will always be like, “No, no, no,” because that requires certainty. For me to be a guru or an expert, I have to have something that I’m supercertain about to tell you, to impart to you—some sort of wisdom.
That’s not how art works. Art requires not knowing. It requires this uncertainty, to always be questing and always be questioning. The minute you’re an expert, it’s like Milton Glaser said about Picasso: Every time Picasso learned something, he abandoned it. It’s like Carlin said: An artist has a responsibility to be en route, to be moving, to be advancing.
It’s that hard thing of being a teacher and remaining a student. It works better for me if I avoid any kind of guru-dom or expertise. When I talk to my readers, I’m like, “I’m a fellow student. I’m trying to figure this out. This is just what I’m learning.” As someone who has artistic pretensions and wants to be an artist, the worst thing in the world for you would be to be onstage talking about art and someone saying, “Well, what the hell does he do, though? What does he make?”
When I hear you describe yourself, I usually hear you talk about yourself as a writer who draws, not someone who’s engaged in the business of being a guru, as you say. But you are also someone who’s had a lot of jobs. You once worked in a library. You’ve worked as a web designer. You’ve worked as a copywriter. My sense is that, from an early age, you’ve wanted a life as a writer, and that being cast in this role as a writer who writes about writing itself is a little bit of a surprise even to you. Is that true?
Yeah, absolutely. My wife always reminds me: “You’re primarily a writer. You love art and you love to draw, but that’s why you say you’re a writer who draws. Your identity really comes from thinking of yourself as a writer.” That is true for me. I don’t know if that’s because so much of what I love is rooted in reading. I don’t know if it’s because the most formal education I’ve had is in writing. But I think at the end of the day, I do consider myself a writer more than anything else.
The reason I ask is that I think there can be a way of demeaning the day job, where somebody yearns to be a painter, but they’re stuck working in real estate. That’s just what they do because they need to have health insurance, they have a family to take care of, they have responsibilities. I am someone who has had a résumé not unlike yours. I worked in publishing and then I worked in advertising, and I always like to stress how much I learned in that experience and how much there were tangible things that informed my ability to do my work.
Yes. No experiences lost. Everything you’re into and interested in—anything you spend time on—those things will start to talk to each other. I think a day job connects you to the world for better or worse. You’re in the world in a particular way. I think that is so grounding, because my life now is just kids and writing. I have to go out of my way to be connected with the actual world, whether it’s taking a walk or going to the bank. Especially now during quarantine, it’s easy to get disconnected, but a day job teaches you so much, but then also connects you to this particular world.