Austin Kleon Is Not a Creativity Guru

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S1: Hello, Slate podcast listeners. Help us make a better slate by answering our survey. It’ll only take a few minutes and you can find it at Slate Dotcom survey. Thanks. This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.

S2: You listen to enough Silicon Valley people talk about their creativity, it’s like make your mark put a dent in the universe, move fast and break things. It’s like all vandalism metaphors. And this is the kind of thing people like, whatever. But I’m like, no, this stuff matters, man. How you conceive of this stuff, it impacts the way you do it.

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S3: Welcome back to Working.

S1: I’m your host, Isaac Butler, and I’m your other host, REMON alum.

S4: And the voice you heard right before we started talking belongs to Austin Cleon Woman who is Austin Cleon.

S1: It’s kind of a trick question, honestly, because Austin describes himself as a writer, which you’ll hear in our conversation, and that’s absolutely true. But Austin is also incredibly well known as what you might call a creativity guru. He’s written these three books, Steal Like an Artist, Show Your Work and Keep Going, that are all about the creative process, sort of demystifying and distilling it.

S4: Got it. Well, OK, this is, I think, the point where I should admit my priors, I get reflexively I’m going to go so far as to say inappropriately suspicious of people who are like creativity, coaches and stuff, despite the fact that I kind of think our job here at Slate means both of us, our kind of creativity coaches.

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S1: You know, I don’t disagree with that. I’m a bit of a skeptic myself, but I read Austin’s books and I listen to them on audio as well. And I have to say that I see a lot of value in them. I think that he is up to something kind of interesting.

S4: And so what sets him apart from the pack?

S1: To me, the accomplishment in Austin’s work is that it’s not prescriptive, really. He’s describing or endorsing an attitude toward art and that will mean something different to every reader. You know, I’m connected to creativity and making air quotes, creativity by virtue of what I do, but also as a consequence of my formal education and so on. So but. Formal education or profession shouldn’t be a barrier to entry and the creation of or the enjoyment of art is a fundamental human endeavor. It belongs to all of us. Whether or not we went to school for it, whether or not we make money practicing it.

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S4: Well, that’s so exciting. I cannot wait to listen to your conversation with Austin, Cleon. And I should say after Ramen’s conversation, we have a listener voice mail asking us for some help with finding a community of Like-Minded Artists. But before we get to any of that, let me just take a second to remind you, if you are listening to this, two things. One, if you like the show, please, please, please subscribe to it, too. Maybe you want to subscribe to Slate Plus as well. If you enjoy this podcast and the rest of Slate’s journalism, please consider supporting us by joining Slate. Plus, those of you who are already members will hear a little more from Roman’s conversation with Austin, which is one of many, many benefits of membership. Slate plus members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And you’ll be supporting the work we do right here on working. It’s only one dollar for the first month to sign up. Go to Slate Dotcom working plus.

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S3: OK, enough out of me, let’s hear Ramen’s conversation with Austin Cleon.

S1: So often if I went to the library or to the bookstore in search of your trio of related books, which are called Steal like an artist, show your work and keep going.

S2: In which section, what I find those books, all, you know, as a former library worker, I am going to be very embarrassed. I you know, I think it probably depends. You probably weirdly find them in like 150, like in the self-help section. My artsy fartsy side of me would say I would hope that they would be in the seven hundreds with the other books.

S1: Yeah. What do you think of that? Have you ever thought of this body of work or yourself as in the self-help business?

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S2: I didn’t at first. You know, it concerns me that there are people who want to be a self help author. I’m very like I meet these people now and I’m like, why? Why really? Because for me, it’s been accidental. Like, I didn’t set out. I just when I was 19, I mean, I want to be a self-help author, you know, I want to be an artist, be a writer. And I feel like me coming into this is really by accident. I mean, all I was doing in the beginning was I was just sharing what I was learning while I was trying to get good. And then it just turned out that the sharing, what I was learning turned into the work, the thing that people really wanted for me. And that’s still a balance in my life. You know, like I still have to balance that. Like, OK, people come to me for, like a certain thing now. But what I really want to do is surround and make collages, you know what I mean? Like, it’s that it’s that tension that, you know, keeps things interesting for me. But I never wanted to be a self-help writer. And I’ve you know, because here’s the thing about self-help. It’s like as you like, you know, someone to be like creativity guru Austin Cleon or creativity expert and 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, like, super certain about to tell you to impart to you some sort of wisdom. That’s not how artwork’s, you know, that like art requires not knowing. It requires like this uncertainty to always be questing and always be questioning. And like, the minute you’re an expert, you know, it’s like Milton Glaser said about Picasso, it’s like every time Picasso learned something, he abandoned it. Because, you know, it’s like Carlin said, an artist has a responsibility to be en route, to be moving, to be advancing, you know, so it’s like it’s that hard thing of like being a teacher and remaining a student, you know? And so for me, it’s just it works better for me if I avoid any kind of guru.com or expertise. And I just go with the I’m a fellow student. Like 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 is the worst. Because the worst thing is, as someone who has artistic pretensions and wants to be an artist, like the worst thing in the world for you would be to be on stage talking about art and someone saying, oh, what the hell does he do, though? Like, what does he make? You know? And that’s like something I’m a you know, it’s just a fight. It’s not a fight. It’s, um, it’s a it’s a dance.

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S1: When I hear you describe yourself, I usually hear you talk about yourself as a writer who draws. Right. 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, as you mentioned, 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, period. Yeah. 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 it true? Is that fair?

S2: Yeah, absolutely, and my wife always reminds me she’s like, you know, you’re you’re primarily a writer. I mean, 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. And that is true for me. I don’t know if that’s just because so much of what I love is rooting and root and reading. I don’t know if it’s because that’s 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.

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S1: So in these three books, you’re using the skill of writing to talk about the act of writing itself. But I wanted to ask you actually, in those day jobs that I mentioned as a designer, working in a library, working in an ad agency. What were the tangible lessons from that work that informs the work that you do now?

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S2: When I was a librarian, the amazing thing for me is, I mean, a couple of things happened. First of all, I just had access to I learned how to research, find stuff I was looking for. You know, I stumbled on books in the course of researching that influenced me greatly. Like I found the work of Edward Tufty and learned what a designer was and all this kind of stuff, the seven hundreds, you know. But the other thing I learned that really blew my mind was I taught senior citizens how to use computers and work on the Internet. And I just thought, holy moly, these websites are terrible. Like, the Web is really bad, like it’s really an accessible and like it’s not easy to learn. And so that just like got me really interested in Web design. And then when we moved to Texas, my wife got into the to the architecture program here in Austin and I just decided I had a really good creative writing professor was like, don’t don’t go to grad school right away. Just. Get a job and write for a little bit and see where it takes you. And so I just got another day job, but I actually got a job as a web designer at the law school here and here in Austin. And that job was incredible because I learned how to make websites. And that was just turned out to be, you know, I mean, this would have been like two thousand eight twenty seven twenty eight. So all that went into building my own site, like learning the Internet and all that. Now, my first book, newspaper Blackout, came out while I was a Web designer. No poets ever quit their day job after their book. So yeah, it’s like so I went to the dark side after that one newspaper blackout came out. I got really interested in advertising and marketing. And so I said, well, let me you know, a lot of my friends who are really good cartoonists or, you know, writers, they have like a copywriting background. So I knew a buddy that was in advertising. So he got me this job and in digital marketing as a copywriter. And that was, you know, working in advertising is eye opening in many ways. But then I just learned just to string a really, you know, just to sell stuff with words was really valuable in marketing. You learn like people like to be told what to do. Buy this toothpaste. Yeah. Like click here, buy my book, you know, like you got to tell people. So there are all these little lessons.

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S1: I mean, the reason I ask actually is because they think that we have. I think there can be a way of demeaning the dayjob where somebody yearns to be a painter, but they’re stuck working in real estate and that’s just what they do because they need to have health insurance. They have a family to take care of. They have responsibilities. And I am someone who has had a resume, 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 that there were tangible things that informed my ability to do my work.

S2: Yes. And. No experiences lost everything you’re into and interested in, anything you spend time on, those things will start to talk to each other, you know, and there’s such I think a day job connects you to the world and such. For better or worse, it really you’re in the world in a particular way. And I think that is so grounding because my life now is just so like it’s just kids and writing, you know, it’s not it’s not really I have to kind of go out of my way to be connected with the actual world, you know, whether it’s taking a walk or going to the bank or having to get, I don’t know, like people come to work on the house. And I find myself like. You know, having these it’s just so hard to it’s so easy to stay in your little especially now during quarantine, like, you know, it’s easy to get disconnected. But I think that that was the thing for me is that my day job, it teaches you so much, but then also connects you to this particular world, you know.

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S1: So you mentioned that you have two kids, yes, two little boys. One thing I really I love asking this question of men in particular because they think that our colleagues who are women have been ask this for a really long time and it’s less often asked of fathers. I’m curious to hear what the experience of becoming a parent, how that affected your relationship to your work and to the work that you’re actually producing.

S2: I don’t know. My kids have just taught me. I mean, it’s funny because I’m working on a book right now that’s sort of about, ah, I’ve been trying to write about what’s going on. But, you know, you’ve had this experience with your kids. Like just going to a museum with a five year old is just the most you know, I know you’ve written about this. It’s like it just blows your mind. You just learn this new way of looking. And so many of the great artists, sort of like Corita Kent, who’s one of my heroes, that, you know, she was a nun and she did screen prints in the 60s and 70s in Los Angeles. She in her book, Learning by Heart, she’s like, borrow a kid. Like that’s part of her advice. She’s like Borro kid. Hang out with the kids for a while. That’s the kind of role seeing without knowing the words for things. Yeah. You know, her saying that versus Robert Irwin saying seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees. It’s the same advice, it’s that same kind of role. And so, you know, I’m a quote collector, of course. So I’ve just collected I just have this gigantic file of of artists who have said, you know, just being around kids just blew my mind and.

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S1: So I guess I’m wondering how broadly you define creativity in these three books specifically, like if you are someone to whom people are going for creative advice, do you think that that audience is coming to you to be told here is how to. Make a painting or write a novel and sell it and prosper, or do you think that they’re coming to you for something else?

S2: Probably the latter. I think that I have always been a synthesised. So I’m trying to pull in. I’m trying to be as expansive as I can when I talk about creative work, because part of my vision is that everyone should do it. Not everyone should try to do it for a living. You know that I truly believe that we need more handywork. We need more of what? Like Ursula Keila, Glen called the hand mine. I think that is missing in people’s lives the idea of making and fixing repair. You know, it’s as the books go on to my vision of what is creative work expands to. So in the last book, I’m talking about things that might be thought of as maintenance work, like repairing or fixing or mending. I’m starting to you know, I’ve gotten to this place where I’m like I just feel like so many of the metaphors we use for creativity. You know, I realize a certain point is like you listen to enough Silicon Valley people talk about their creativity. It’s like make your mark put a dent in the universe, move fast and break things. It’s like all vandalism metaphors. I was just like, this is just so and this is the kind of thing people like, you know, whatever. But I’m like, no, this stuff matters, man, because if you think about it this way, you’re going to do this whole how you conceive of this stuff. It impacts the way you do it. And so, you know, in the last book, I’m starting to think like, well, maybe they’re just like better metaphors for doing creative work. What if we think about repair and healing and, you know, especially in collage, there’s this sense that I’m taking things that aren’t you know, when I make a collage, it’s like you’re taking two things that should be together but aren’t, you know, and you’re putting it. And and I think so much of writing is that, too. It’s like the writer sees something over here and he sees something over here. And it’s like, what if I juxtapose those two things? And also sudden I have an essay.

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S5: We’ll be back with more of Remands conversation with Austin Cleon after this.

S4: Listeners, we would love to know your questions about the creative process, big or small, whether you’re trying to stick to a New Year’s resolution about learning to paint or struggling to finish that novel in your drawer. We are here to help. You can drop us a line at working at Slate Dotcom or give us an old fashioned phone call. Remember those? Well, you can call us at three four nine three three work. That’s three four nine three three nine six seven five. Like your parents, we love phone calls. OK, let’s rejoin Roman’s conversation with Austin Cleon.

S1: My feeling about it, reading your books is that creativity can simultaneously seem really like vaunted and high, but it can also seem really tied to production and capital. And it feels to me like you’re talking about a practice that is almost and this is where we get back to self-help, almost spiritual, that there can be some good in making something with your hands that you can’t use, that doesn’t do anything useful, that doesn’t you can’t sell it for fifteen dollars. It’s it’s just the joy of making a.

S2: It’s like Vonnegut said, you know, you do it to make your soul grow. I mean, at the end of the day, either makes your soul grow. I don’t know a better reason. You know, to me, it feels like it just feels I mean, so like the tire lights on my car because it’s cold here in Austin right now. And I’m going to pump up the tires after we talk. And I’m going to feel so satisfied afterwards. I’m going to be like it’s going to feel so good for air in the tires. Right. And to be topped up and but it’s weird. It’s like, isn’t that kind of what it’s like after a good, like, sketchy journaling session? You know, you feel a little bit filled up. There was a we had an older house. We moved to leave. We’re never moving again. I’m saying this on there. So hopefully it doesn’t happen again. But there was an older house I had where Meg bought a bunch of doorknobs. And whenever I got really stressed or upset, I would I would go I would take a doorknob and replace it. But that’s what I would do as my stress relief. And I think when I sometimes when I think about writing or art now, I’m like, well, it’s a solvable problem. You’re creating a there was no problem. No one’s asking you for a piece of work. No one’s asking for another book. I mean, maybe if you’re like a famous writer or something, someone that no one’s asking, you sit down and make something, you know, like no one’s asking it. You’re creating that problem for yourself. So I wonder sometimes if it’s like or it’s like doing a puzzle or something or it’s like you’re sitting down and, you know, you mess. This happens with drawing a lot. It’s like you make a mark on the page and then you’re like, wow, I don’t waste this page. How can I fix you know, there’s like there’s this idea that, you know, an artist creates problems to solve.

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S1: I’m curious to know who your audience is, I guess, who your reader is and who the hell knows? You do not know. Do you not have a sense of what it is people are coming to you for?

S2: Well, they’re just it’s just such a diverse and I mean that in many ways, I mean, like, I just it’s just so there’s just so many different kinds of people that I meet. But I think it’s some I think at the end of the day, it’s someone who is you know, you probably come to the books just because you you want this thing in your life and you’re just not sure how to get it in, you know, I mean, like, there’s something you want access to this thing, the word that people use a lot for me that I bristle against. But I get it now. People used to say to me, your books give me permission. You gave me permission to do this stuff. I thought you had to go to school for someone had to like night you, you know, but like, your books gave me permission. And I used to get really kind of like permission waiting for permission for this isn’t school. This isn’t like I don’t hand out bathroom passes. Like, what is this permission then and then I got to thinking some more about it. And I was like, well this is just Lewis hide and the gift. I mean, he talks about this, that our gifts are activated by the gifts of other people and it’s seeing other people work that says, wait a minute, I’d like to do that. Right. I mean, I love that story about Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rogers would have like musicians or sculptors or whatever on the show. And they’d be like, well, I don’t know how to talk to kids, and Mr. Rogers would say, well, I don’t want you to talk to the kids, you know, he’d say, like, I just want you to do what you do in front of them. Right. And someone will see you. You will activate something in them. And they and and so I think, like when you have a certain attitude or you have a certain way of looking at this stuff, it’s just it’s like a little I like that term permission. Now, I look for artists. Now I’m like, who’s giving permission for you know, I like this, but I think like because we’re such a schooled culture, you know, we’re we’re like very early on, we get that idea that, like, well, an adult has to tell us it’s OK to do this, you know, so we’re kind of trained to look for permission.

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S1: But to your point, like so we do live in a culture that is accustomed to kind of teacher student relationship or like an adult kid relationship. Have you ever had an experience where a reader comes to you frustrated or angry and says like, oh, you’re you’re telling me you’re not giving me whatever it is, you’re not giving me a specific exercise, you’re not telling me how to make money? I’m you know, I don’t want a nebulous, creative life. I want to know how to crack this nut and become a fine artist or a sculptor or whatever a dancer or whatever it is that they want to do. Has that ever happened to you?

S2: Yeah. I mean, sometimes people are looking for things that I can’t give them, and that’s when the librarian in me kicks in, you know? I mean, I’m like, well, go read so-and-so like someone said to me the other day, well, what do you think about vulnerability? I’m like, well, I don’t because I’m a sociopath. So you could go read Bernard Brown, you know what I mean? It’s like it’s like you can’t do everything for everyone. I can’t do everything, you know. And it is funny how, you know, I got a lot of holes. I got a lot of things I don’t address. What I try to do is point to other people and say, look to them because I’m trying to do what I do well. And then, you know, there’s a there’s a feminist writer named Ursula Franklin. And she said her dream of democracy is a potluck dinner. You know, I’m Midwestern, so this appeals to me. You know, you bring your best dish. Yeah. You know, some people are going to bring bring in potato salad. Some people are just going to bring a bag of chips from the grocery, whatever. I’m trying to bring my best dish. There’s like something that I do. And then I’m like, go over there if you want more potato salad or whatever it is that you know.

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S1: So I’m going to admit I’m going to admit to you that I.

S2: A self-help skeptic, sure, as you should be. I mean, you know, functioning brain. So I would hope that you were skeptical.

S1: Well, and especially when it comes to something that’s really nebulous and hard to define, like creativity. You know, I know that you can learn how to bake a cake or conjugate verbs and Russian. And I don’t know if you can learn how to be more creative. Over the last week, I have listened to your three books on audio, which is there’s a new audio recording. I understand that you read it in your house. And so I’ve had your voice in my ear for the past week, you know, while I was working out or I was cleaning the kitchen. I know, I know that nothing is more boring than a skeptic. But I also know that you’ve probably heard from skeptics over the course of your career saying exactly what I just said. You can’t learn how to be creative. What do you say to those people?

S2: For me, I just I just feel like creativity is dished out in different ways and in different amounts to different kinds of people, but I also think that I just think it’s a tool to get you somewhere that you want to go to. So, like, I like the slipperiness of creativity. It’s not necessarily like being about making art. It’s it can be used. I mean, it’s just like you can use it to reorganize your living room. You can use it to, like, paint a painting or you can use it to, like, make a good gun to kill people with, you know, I mean, it’s just such a it’s like a it’s almost like an amoral tool in some ways, you know. So I think what you’ve really hit on see, this is this is what’s so fascinating to me. And I’m trying to bring it back around how we began the conversation. The word creativity was not something I thought about before. Still like an artist went out in the world. If you read that book, creativity only pops up like a couple of times. It’s like the last chapter is creativity or subtraction. But the word creative only pops up a couple of times in the text. That book to me was like how to be an artist, you know? And so but I think creativity is just like almost this catch word now that we use is just like I want something else. I want something else other than what this default setting is. However, however, I’m operating and this seems I want something else other than this time, which is which, if you think about it, that is the root of creative work is looking around and say and being maladjusted. Right. Being like this is not. I mean, everyone quotes Martin Luther King as a kind of and you’re just like, you know, especially to be a middle aged white guy and quote Martin Luther King. It’s like, oh, but like what he said about creative maladjustment, I think about all the time. It’s like. That maladjustment is kind of the root of the like, if you look around, everything’s great, great, sign me up for this. There’s no reason to be creative about anything because you’re not inventing anything new. There has to be a certain kind of itch to feel like there’s something here that needs to be here. And I don’t know if you can teach that that has to exist. And then the ability to make something is like a different thing, you know? But I you know, it’s funny because my friends think it’s hilarious that I’ve written these books because I’m sort of known as like a curmudgeon amongst them. I kind of like agitation is my kind of natural state. So, like, I I’m the most creative when I’m kind of like when I see something that I hate, like disgust for me. So like a lot of these books, they come together because I see someone that I can’t stand doing something and I’m like, I take it all in. And instead of railing at that person or that thing, I just think, what’s the opposite? What’s the opposite of that? And then I try to make that case. And I think that’s why the books feel so positive. They’re like me on the most helpful, friendly day. I feel like if the books have any like real. The deal is, though, is that I’m just so angry and disgusted and agitated and I’m just trying to like, get this vision of how I think it should work.

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S1: I mean, I should say I should say that the work itself, these three books. Really kind of defeated my own skepticism. The reason being that they’re not prescriptive, that they’re not telling you how to have a career making paintings, you’re not saying get up every morning, touch your toes 10 times, and you’ll be able to write a Sophina, you know? Yeah, and it’s exactly the same way that a good personal trainer doesn’t say, OK, get up every morning and do these 10 exercises and you’ll have a perfect body. A good personal trainer says to you instead, do these exercises, you’ll feel better, you’ll be healthier, you might look different, but that’s a bonus. That’s not the focus. That’s not the point of it. And your books reminded me that, like, I probably can’t learn to be a better writer because the answer to that is just the same. It’s always ever been, which is to write, but that I can prepare myself to be better. And there is tangible stuff in here about how you do that preparation that I found really interesting.

S2: That’s a lovely way to put it. I can prepare myself to do that work. I just I could never, ever promise anyone anything. I just can’t because I’m still not convinced, you know. I mean, like, I was lucky because I had a great teacher early on, Steven Bauer at Miami, and he just said, you know, the reward you get for being a writer is you get to write. Yeah. And I just took that in really early. And I was just like, oh, yeah, that’s the reward for being a writer, is you get to write the reward for being a musician is you get to play music. The reward for being a painter is you get to make paintings. And that’s it. That’s it.

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S1: Your books, as I said, are not necessarily about like concrete exercises, but I’m going to ask you for one now, OK, because one of the pieces of advice in your book is to make sure that you have, like, the tools at hand that are going to be useful for you. And right now, we’re all kind of stuck in home. We’re all stuck at home. We’re all sort of like disconnected from the friction of daily life. If I gave you a hundred dollars and I said, OK, go to the office supply store and spend 100 dollars on the things that are going to change materially, change my everyday relationship to what I’m making. How would you spend that hundred dollars?

S2: Whoa, that is a great question. It’s hard. I want to be material agnostic because I don’t know what you necessarily want to do. But like for a writer, I would buy a kitchen timer and I’m stealing this from Linda Barry. I would buy a kitchen timer. I would buy. Some junkie composition books and then markers, pens. And now I would buy we have one hundred dollars, so, you know, I buy a box with a lock like one of those little lock boxes that you can, like, keep cash in and stuff that you’d see. So I buy a little box with a lock, a kitchen timer and then some composition books and like some fun pens. And maybe one of those stampers, because I love those those little office dates. Stamper’s every morning you lock your phone in the box before you look at it, and then you set a kitchen timer for an hour and you just you don’t have to do anything else. You just literally have to sit with an open notebook and a kitchen timer going. And I’d say, just do that for two weeks and see how your life goes. I do the Marikar thing where she says, why don’t you try praying for 30 days and see if it makes your life better? Yeah, I would just I would be like every morning you lock your phone in the box, click, set the kitchen timer for an hour, see how your life goes. That’s what I would, particularly people who are having trouble writing, because I have found for me personally the final look at my phone for the first hour in the morning. And I just sit with my notebook. Things just come because there’s space, and as much as I don’t believe in the muse or the divine inspiration, I do believe that if you make a space, your mind hates being bored so much. It hate staring at a void that it will invent something for you and things that you didn’t even know were in your head will come forth.

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S6: Austin, thank you so much for your time, sir. It was really such a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

S4: Ruman, what a wonderful, hilarious conversation that you just had with Austin. I am so curious about what surprised you about this interview.

S1: Oh, that’s a great question. I was really struck by Austin’s awareness of being the creativity guru and his desire to maybe get back to the very thing he espouses, which is just the work itself, you know, whatever that means to him, whether that’s playing with poems or drawing or engaging in something that’s not for public consumption.

S4: Yeah, that’s great. You know, he describes himself as a, quote, collector in that interview. And it was really fascinating for me to just notice how many different adages, aphorisms, approaches he seemed to have on file in his brain like he was once a librarian. But now he’s like a living card catalog or something.

S1: It was really impressive to me his ability to sort of summon the wisdom of these really well-known creative folks. You know, just earlier this week, the novelist Karan Mahajan posted on Twitter a link to this really long document of quotes about writing and process that had been collected by the late Dennis Johnson, who is one of Caron’s teachers. It was extraordinary stuff. I really love that peek into how artists get themselves motivated or get themselves moving or sort of refresh their kind of creative.

S4: Well, yeah, absolutely. And I also just felt like it was such a sign with Ostin of how, like, the thing you wind up doing may be partially just connected to, like, what your personality is like. Like if you have a really good mind for quotes. Right. You know, some sort of creative process that involves other people’s texts might actually be like a really important thing for you. You know? You know, for example, I really appreciated his answer about the you know, on some level, the fundamental and I’m putting this in air quotes uselessness of creative endeavors that sometimes you do creative work for its own sake or maybe for your sake, because it helps your soul to grow. And I thought that was really beautiful. But I also sometimes feel a little suspicious of that. Like you and me and Austin, we are people who actually do make money from our creative work. Are we hypocrites for telling other people that making art is its own reward?

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S1: I don’t think so. I think that it is important to be reminded, as I was when I read these books, that some of the ways that I approach art are informed by my education or my immersion in a. And there is someone out there who may not know that they have permission to write a poem or make a collage, and I think that’s fundamentally what Austin is saying. You know, one of my favorite things about his books is that he’s not telling any reader how to succeed as an artist. You know, that has to do with luck and timing, getting paid as an artist, as a whole. Other thing. What he’s telling them, I think, is that these are attitudes that can help you find your way to a work that will reward you personally. That’s an important distinction. And I also think that that personal reward. Is very real. It’s really tangible, you know, it’s kind of it’s something that I even forget because I’m in the business of making a living. I forgot that it’s possible to just have fun and do something with my hands.

S4: I get to have that experience, particularly vicariously when, you know, Iris is working on some art project of like, oh, right. There’s a thing that doesn’t have to do with making money off of this. That’s really vital.

S1: Absolutely. I mean, I like, you know, the theater. So, of course, you will know in six degrees of separation where the fancy art dealers are talking about, the second graders are all Matisse like every single one of them is Matisse, because they’re so connected to this sort of inherent impulse. Right. Art making.

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S4: That has to do with joy, you know, but they’re also Matisses because the teacher takes the painting away from them. They know when to stop because they know when to stop. And actually, that’s sort of weirdly connects us to the voicemail we got from a listener today, which is about what to do with the thing you’ve created once you’ve created it.

S7: Hi, Slade, this is Helen. I live on a very small rural farm in Virginia with a little baby girl, and I’m finishing my first novel. The Challenge, other than trying to just do my work and write, is trying to find a good fit writing community. I would just love to be able to work with other writers to kind of discuss all the work, discuss my work, we work it and kind of share and commiserate together. So any suggestions regarding a writing community would be very helpful. Thank you so much, my.

S4: Ruman, I feel like finding a community of like minded artists in your field is something that is as important as it can be, very daunting to do. Like I’ve recently found a new group of writers that have kind of attached myself to and honestly, I can’t imagine navigating the revision time with my manuscript without them. And they’re not, like, necessarily offering feedback. A lot of it is just, you know, being with people who’ve dealt with these problems. And it’s like tending to myself psychically. Right. But it’s a real challenge to find people. And it’s not just a challenge. If you live on a small rural farm, it’s a challenge for everyone right now due to the pandemic. I will say being on a farm is not necessarily a hindrance. Almost all of the writing community I have found in my life, with the exception of in graduate school, are people I have met online. But I didn’t have a planned way of doing that. I just kind of put myself out there a lot. First I had a blog and now there aren’t blogs. And then I was on Twitter and through that I just met people and started messaging them. And a community evolve. Right. But telling someone to get on Twitter to find a writing community is the shittiest advice I could possibly think of. So I’m going to punt this while I think of better advice and ask you for yours.

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S1: Well. I want to start by saying that it’s easy to think that some of Helen’s circumstances, like living in a rural place or caring for a small child, might be curtailing her options. And the truth is that it’s very difficult to find and connect with the right creative partner or group. It’s like romance, you know, you might think, oh, yeah, it’d be so much simpler if I lived in Manhattan. But, you know, if Hallmark television movies have taught me anything, it’s that the right person is in your hometown. You know, Helen seems to know what she wants. She wants a reader. She wants a friend who’s engaged in the same work. I think there’s a lot of value than that, but I think it’s hard to predict where that person is waiting for her. So, yes, I think joining Twitter is not bad advice. Follow your local library, follow your local independent bookstore, follow writers you admire, figure out what literary magazines you like, you know, follow the local colleges and universities, see what visiting writers are coming in. Go to those readings and lectures. They’re all virtual now anyway. But in a better world where some of this stuff is happening in person, you might just happen upon a kindred spirit.

S4: That’s great, because I think one of the things that that you’re pointing out is that this is a process just like writing the book is a process and it is in itself a creative process. And once life is back to normal, going and doing all of that stuff is really, really helpful. Just to piggyback on that, there are also places where there is a kind of made community that you can plug into. One of them is writing conferences and book festivals. Right. I happen to know of one in Richmond, Virginia, the James River Writer’s Conference. Since you’re in Virginia, Helen, I’ve been to it. I have friends who go every year. You know, there’s a community there. There’s you could apply to residences or colonies if you can arrange the child care to attend. I actually don’t personally do that because I can’t arrange the child care to attend. But, you know, like, if you can, it’s probably worth checking out. You might even if you have the resources, et cetera, et cetera and so forth, want to consider a low residency MFA? I know lots of people have found community through those and they tend to attract more parents because of the low residency part. So there are a bunch of different ways out there that you can meet people. I will say that it’s not going to happen overnight, but it is part of just engaging in the process of being a writer and creating a community.

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S1: I also think you kind of have to come out as a writer. You know, it can be embarrassing to tell a stranger at a party that you’re writing a book, but that stranger could well turn out to be a writer or a literary agent or who knows what you know, I have one very dear friend who is my reader and I’m hers. And we met at a party making awkward, small talk about our children. It happens and you can never quite predict when or where it will happen. So I’d say you putting out feelers doesn’t feel as active and specific as Helen wants to be. She should just go big. You know, if she’s read a story that she liked in a literary magazine, she should email the writer and forge an acquaintanceship. You know, it’s not going to work if she’s emailing, you know, Lauren Groff and Louise Erdrich necessarily. But it might work better than she thinks.

S3: Helen, thank you so much for calling in. We hope this has been helpful. Write us let us know how it’s going. And as for the rest of you out there listening, we hope you’ve enjoyed the show. If you have, remember to subscribe where ever you get your podcasts, then you’ll never miss an episode. And yes, it is time once again for the slate. Plus pitch drumroll, please. Slate plus members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. But more importantly, you’ll be supporting the work we do right here on working. It’s only one dollar for the first month. To learn more, go to Slate Dotcom working.

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S1: Plus, thank you to Austin Cleon and as always to our producer Cameron. Drus will be back next week for Isaac’s conversation with cartoonist Noel Stevenson.

S3: Until then, get back to work.

S1: Hazlet plus listeners, thank you, as always, for your support. I asked Austin a couple of extra questions for your ears only. Austin, every Friday, I get an email and. I get a lot of email. We all got a lot of email. Most of it is garbage. You know, Citibank gets the money from you or J.Crew wants you to buy some pants or whatever. But I love getting this email from you, it’s a newsletter that is just a very brief I don’t know, there’s no way to distill it down because it varies from week to week. Tell me about your newsletter. Tell me about what you think the email newsletter can do. I happen to know I think I saw you say this on Twitter that you’re also a fan of Laura Olins newsletter, which I also love. And I love getting in. I always read it right away. What is the email newsletter for you as a form? What cannot accomplish or what are you trying to do with a.

S2: It’s so it’s it’s morphed over time. I mean, I started sending the newsletter probably seven years ago. To me, it’s become this high. This is going to sound so cheesy. But I read this interview with Bruce Springsteen, like back in the 80s before he was like an elder statesman or whatever, and he said, here’s the deal, man. We blow into town, we tell everybody to keep going and we blow out. And I have started thinking of the newsletter is just being like a pop pop in. And I’m like, hell, literally. It’s how I start every newsletter here, 10 things I think are worth thinking, like we’re sharing and I just point to stuff. It’s it’s just me pointing to stuff sometimes. Some weeks I did a lot. I wrote a lot. So it’s me pointing to my own stuff. And then some weeks I took in a lot. And so I point to that stuff, but it’s literally just pointing to things, just linking the things and just like, here’s some stuff I’ll see you next week. And the idea isn’t that I’ll have a million subscribers. The idea is that I’ll have, you know, a tenth of that. People who want to hear it, you know, people who are showing up for that. And I just try to be, you know, I. The word authentic, genuine, you know, I as a as a I have trouble with those words, but all I’m trying to do is just be genuinely interested in the things I’m interested in and share with people. It’s an act of generosity. And I try to think of sharing as a real act of generosity, like I actually found value in these things this week. And I think in and I’m just sharing them with you. Take it or leave it.

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S1: I’m curious about we talked a little bit about this, you found yourself inhabiting a place of, you know, creativity guru. Willingly or unwillingly. Do you think you’re going to stay engaged in this gig of making instructive work, thinking creatively about creativity itself, or do you imagine going back to poetry? Your first book was a book of poetry by Erasure, for example, or or just losing yourself in making visual art or recording music. What is next for you as a human being?

S2: I think there’s still a little bit more to say. With the instructive books I think I’m going to try to do with the next book is. I’m going to try to get weirder. That’s always my trying to be weird while still being commercial is kind of because for me it’s like I mean, I do have a family to support now with the work, which, you know, that’s another argument against the danger, you know, for the day job is there’s always the day job. So, you know, the books in a sense are, you know, for a lot of people, like, you know, teaching is like the day job and the books are like the art. For me, it’s kind of backwards. It’s like the books are kind of the day job. And then everything else is kind of the fun, artsy side of things. But so I’m just going to try to get a little bit weirder. But I’m trying to I’m trying to find. I feel I’ve read enough about how an artist deals with their audience, that I know that there’s a strategic kind of way that you can kind of ease into things. So I’m sort of interested with the next book to still have it be instructive or whatever, you know, like a. you want to use for it. But to be in a different format, like maybe a different trim size, maybe it doesn’t have a list of 10 and then I can offramp from that. You know, if nobody if nobody buys that book in some ways, that’ll be a great help to me, because then I’ll be able to do whatever I want, you know? But there’s this kind of like, OK, well, how gutsy are you going to be with this? But for me, it’s like I do feel like when I stop having something to say, I will stop doing these kinds of books, you know? Yeah, I, I would hope I would have the integrity, but I really I don’t know what to do. And I try to be open about that. You know, I mean, like, I don’t know what to do either. I’m just some thirty eight year old idiot, you know? I mean, like, you know, there’s so much more life to live and and I don’t know what to do, but I think what I love is that I have systems for exploring now and producing like one of the things I love about David Sedaris is he’s been very open about how he works. And like I remember reading about Sideris, him saying, like, well, I just have this pocket notebook and I scribble it all day. And then in the morning I open up my laptop and I look at my notebook, see if there’s anything worth writing about. And there right all morning. And then I start over and I just do that every day and things accumulate, you know, like it just accumulates. And I, I feel like when I was in, Thoreau kind of had the same deal. You know, it’s like he like takes all these walks all day and sits down, writes and as he writes, he accumulates things and then he takes his diaries and turns them into lectures and then those become books. So like I’m interested as an artist and a writer like of I’m glad I have a system now, like I have systems of production now that will always keep me kind of fed with new material. So like pocket notebook, diary, blog, newsletter, all that kind of flows. And then those, you know, the books really just become crystallisation of some of that stuff packaged together in a particular moment in time.

S3: Thanks again, sleepless listeners.

S8: So.