Author Austin Kleon first published his book Newspaper Blackout in 2010, a collection of poems made from Sharpie-tipped redactions of newspaper articles. His follow-up book, Steal Like An Artist toes the line between an advice book for creatives and a primer on combinatorial creativity. In its pages, he outlines 10 rules on how to glean inspiration from just about anything you come across, and how new originality stems from repurposing and re-engineering antiquated memes and ideas.
We sat down with the author, who is currently traveling on his #StealAcrossAmerica Tour, about the new book, his inspirations, how the social platforms like tumblr and Pinterest have changed the way creative minds work, and how Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch The Throne inspired a chapter in Steal LIke An Artist.
Interview by Jian DeLeon (@jiandeleon).
Yesterday kicked off the #StealAcrossAmerica Tour which I’m assuming coincides with your recently published book?
Yeah the book was published about a month ago and we’re doing a 21-city tour, which is great and huge. I kind of named it the Steal Across America Tour just for fun (laughs) the hash tag.
Are you doing mostly colleges in this tour?
We’re doing a mix actually. We’re doing like a few colleges, a few art schools and were kind of peppering that with some really good bookstores. It’s a really nice blend.
I asked because the inspiration behind the book was that you were invited to speak at a college...
Creativity is literally taking the things in front of you... and transforming them into something that we didn’t have before.
Yeah exactly, so about a year ago I was asked to give a talk in upstate New York at a community college out there — Broome Community College in Binghamton, New York. That’s how the book started really. It started at this talk. I was kind of terrified of talking to students at that age about what they should be doing with themselves so I just figured: “well, I’ll just make a list of things that I wish I heard when I was their age.”
And I thought it was kind of over when I gave the talk. I mean, it was a nice response but when I looked back and posted the slides and the text to my blog, that’s when it kind of blew up and went viral on the web. And the book came out of that post. It’s weird now — it’s gone from a talk I gave, to a blog post of a talk, to a book expanded from a blog post, and now we’re doing talks based on this book that’s based on a blog post that’s based on a talk.
It’s very meta.
So has that made it easier to speak at colleges now that you have the book?
I don’t know — this is my first [college] since the last talk. I did a few speaking engagements in between the original talk and the book — but I haven’t really done any [colleges] yet, so I’m really interested to see how students from all over respond to it. We’re hitting a nice mix tonight. We’re doing Columbia; tomorrow we are doing Penn, and then were going to some art schools like RISD. So it will be interesting to see what the mixed reactions are. But I love talking to students. It’s fun.
We were talking about SXSW earlier, and I know there you were with Kirby Ferguson from “Everything is a Remix” and the whole notion of this book is that creativity isn’t magic, which is pretty much what he says as well. How would you describe creativity?
You know it’s funny because Jonah Lehrer, his new books says that creativity is a catch all-term, and that neuroscience tells us that our brain is doing all these different things when we are “being creative” or whatever.
To me, creativity is literally taking the things in front of you with things out in the world and the things you’ve been given and the things you’ve collected and then just combining them and transforming them into something that we didn’t have before. Very simple, like you’re given the little LEGO pieces and then you make your own castle out of it.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, how he sort of made that by kind of mastering all of these different styles, so what I want to know is what kind of rules, skills, and theory do you think people need to master before they can steal from these different fields and industries and apply it to something creative?
It’s funny that you mention Bruce Lee, because when Kirby was staying at my house for SXSW there was a Bruce Lee documentary on, so we started googling and talking about Bruce Lee. There is so much in this documentary. People are like: “oh he stole that from this,” and “oh he plagiarized this text,” and then one guy was arguing who was the originator of mixed martial arts and all this stuff, and it’s really fascinating.
To me, what makes really good theft effective is when you’re very, very familiar with what you are stealing from. When you’ve almost immersed yourself completely and you’re not just skimming the surface. You’re not just scraping the style off of what you are taking from. You really dive into it, and you learn what was at the heart of it in order to combine it with something else. Like with Bruce Lee for example, Bruce Lee studied those boxing films. He would watch those boxing films over and over until it was deeply embedded in his brain — the footwork and stuff. Then he brought it into his technique. It wasn’t like he said, “Oh I’ll take a couple of things from boxing” and that was it you know. There is a little graph I have in the book which is “skim vs. study,” and I think what stealing is about is trying to drill as deep into your influences as you can and that’s what the idea of building a family tree, or a lineage of creativity or creative people is about.
You use the term the “genealogy of ideas.”
Yeah, exactly, so it’s like trying to drill back as far as you can and what happens when you do that is that you kind of realize, is that stuff didn’t come out of nowhere, there is actually a history to all of this, and knowing the full history means you can grab whatever you want from it. A lot of times when we talk about creative theft — if you want to talk about the newness of the work — a lot of times it comes from the breadth of diversity of the sources you steal from.
Like if you’re only stealing from the Urban Outfitters catalog, you’re only stealing from your contemporaries. Theft isn’t going to be as interesting because everyone has seen it, but if you go back and drill, like Van Gogh stealing from Japanese wood blocks or Picasso going to African Art. The more different from your own experience what you’re borrowing from is, the more unique the work you get.
There is that notion that progression and originality comes from knowing the rules well enough to know what to break. Is it the same for creativity?
If you constantly just skim the surface of the Internet then you’re just going to have everything else that everyone else does.
I think that there are artists out there that can… you know there is that whole concept of outsider art? But they don’t know the rules and they still come up with something that we think is very original. I’m thinking about someone like Daniel Johnston someone would say Johnston is kind of like an outsider or just came out of nowhere, but like this is a guy that completely saturated himself with The Beatles, comic books and stuff like that. I mean even Daniel Johnston had influences. So that’s where I come from with it.
Speaking of comic books, I understand you grew up a fan of comic books as well, especially cartoonist Lynda Barry, and you bring up this notion of imitation versus emulation. Her book 100 Demons was sort of an emulation of a Zen art exercise. Was it the same idea with this book when you were writing it?
I think for me it was a matter of the imitation vs. emulation… The emulation is when you push through into your own thing, you don’t want to just become Lynda Barry; you want to become the next best thing that Lynda berry occupies. I actually ripped off 100 Demons structure wise in my last book.
My last book was Newspaper Blackout. What I loved about 100 Demons was that Lynda came out and said, “Here’s this form that I came to. This is how I came to it,” and she tells this little short story and then there’s the work. And at the very end there’s this explanation of how it’s done and this call like “you do it too,” so I totally ripped that off for Newspaper Blackout.
The beginning of Newspaper Blackout is about how I came to the form, how everyone did it before me, and then the poems, the collection, and at the end it’s like “you try it too.” When I came to see like an artist I was thinking of a bunch of different books. It wasn’t just one book; it was several different books. The book is full of stuff that I lifted over the years, but as far as the actual structure of the book, I actually borrowed more for the look and feel of the book.
My editor and I talked very early in the process about what size we wanted it to be. And when I came into work, I came in with a dummy book, which I actually had taken from one of my favorite cartoonists, James Kochalka. He has this book, The Cute Manifesto, and it’s the same size so I photoshopped what I thought the cover should look like and I wrapped it up in this book, and I brought it in and put it on the table and was like “this is what I think it should be.” My art director was like “aww” and it’s funny cause the book actually looks pretty similar to the dummy book.
What other cartoonists and authors helped influence this book?
I would probably say there’s this guy named Huge MacLeod who’s been kind of a mentor to me. He wrote a book called Ignore Everybody that I would say definitely influenced this book. Lynda Barry’s, What It Is, definitely influenced me, especially the “use your hands” section. It pretty much all comes from Lynda and my own take on it. My friend Mike Brodie actually did the illustrations for REWORK by the 37signals guys and I just thought he did such a kickass job with it. I found a lot of inspiration there and also, this is kind of an odd influence — Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage. I kind of picked that up while we were making the book and loved the texture of that book like how there were drawings and photographs and stuff, and I really wanted the book to feel like that.
I wanted there to be a lot of stuff in the book. I wanted there to be a lot of different textures and different things to look at, and I wanted it to feel like my blog, but I wanted it to be kind of special. I wanted it to feel like the blog, but designed to be a book. I worked really closely with a fantastic book designer Leah Thomas is her name, and she did an incredible job. I worked closely with my editor Bruce Tracy. There was no wasted space in the book. We nailed it right. And now where that came into weirdness is when we went to do the e-book. What’s really interesting is that no one complains about the length of the book — they feel like it’s meaty and there’s a lot to look at, but the only complaints come from people who read the e-book. They think its’ too short, which is really strange, like it feels light to them when they are whipping through the e-book, but when they have the book in front of them it feels good and the cover’s really nice.
In terms of the digital realm, how would you say the Internet changed the way creative minds work?
Aw man. I think it’s funny cause it’s been really good and bad. I think for one thing the Internet is a copy machine. The Internet makes it so easy to copy things that idea of lineage gets completely lost. I mean attribution is such a huge problem on the Internet — knowing where something came from. Honestly, college-aged people are existing more in this tumblr era where images just exist on the Internet and just kind of like pick them up and remix them.
I can’t speak to their psyche, but for me personally, I feel like I’m constantly swimming against this tide of trying to track things down. I see something and love it and then I have to dig to figure out where it came from and who posted what. To me, it’s really important to figure out where it came from because the funny thing about the Internet is, like I said before, everyone is just skimming along the surface. We blog that, but if you figure out who the artist was, then you would have dove down to find out if they have this other cool stuff.
If you constantly just skim the surface of the Internet then you’re just going to have everything else that everyone else does, but if you just dive and go one step further than everyone else, and you research just a little more deeply — there’s this rich world no one is looking in. The Internet helps that because research is so easy. The big thing that Internet has done is that someone like me can come along. I’ve never had a gallery show, I didn’t get an MFA, I didn’t do any of the things that you’re supposed to do to have an art and writing career, and that’s because of the Internet. There’s no way I would have the career I do without the Internet or without my fan base and being online. It’s just enabling people to build whatever they want.
During your speech for The Economist, you said that “people want to save the things they love from oblivion,” which is very much what services like tumblr and Pinterest provide. Do you think that this sort of hoarding of ideas is detrimental to creating because it’s promoting regurgitation than emulation?
It’s funny when you save something to Pinterest or tumblr, because it means you’re almost blowing it out into the world and making it more available. When you think about clipping a newspaper article, it just stays on your fridge, but tumblr is your public fridge so anyone else can grab it and put it on their fridge. It’s really strange and it’s a really good question. I would think the opposite might be true, in that, maybe in this day and age, the things you keep to yourself are more valuable than what you tumble or tweet.
There’s definitely been times for me where I see something that I’m like “this is a gold nugget, I should stick it online,” but it’s just always been really important to me to share my influences and to be as open as I can. That’s what comes from literature. I share almost everything. If you were an insane person you could go back and say well this quote in the book came from this post and you could re--engineer the book.
Lynda Barry is tumbling right now and an artist in residence at University of Wisconsin, Madison and it fits perfectly with her personality and it fits perfectly with her artistic ethos. She is so open about her technique and is so open about her process and that just fits. She’s a great blogger as it turns out. She does this YouTube video where she says “’Kay class you have your composition books? All right we are going to write for five minutes,” and just sits there and writes for five minutes in front of this YouTube video — so you can play along and anyone can do it. I don’t know if it was her idea, but tumblr or not, that to me is what is so cool — when these artists that have been really inspirational to me, but aren’t digital natives, engage with the medium.
What ways do you think people can break out of this notion that curation equals creativity — people who repurpose content without taking it to different level?
I think listening to hip-hop, and especially Jay-Z and Kanye, gives you this artificial confidence.
I don’t know, there are people that would argue curation is in its own way creative. Organizing things, for instance, someone like Maria Popova, who runs Brain Pickings. Maria is a friend of mine and I think she’s engaged in mind as a lot of the artists I know are. I would think that she’s in touch as much, she reads and is more influenced than a lot of lazy artists. For me I don’t want to touch that because there are plenty of curators that we might make a distinction between a curator and an over-sharer, but I don’t want to make that argument either.
There’s a glory in saying “this is the thing that I love and I think a lot of you will love it.” I want people to read this stuff too that I love. I want everyone in the world to read Lynda Barry cause I think she is brilliant. She’s had such an effect on me and I’m amazed that she isn’t more widely popular. But to me it’s about that love that brought you to the form in the first place, and to continue to share it.
Not just pinning your own work all the time, it’s also like paying tribute to the people that came before you. There’s a quote in the book that came from Kobe Bryant — I’m not a basketball fan, but Kobe Bryant, as far as athletes go, he’s a really interesting case because he’s one of the first generations to be able to watch VHS tapes, so that influences his basketball game. He can study moves and emulate. He’s got that great quote “When I go out on the court I’m honoring all the guys that I stole from who came before me.” To me what’s even greater about being online is that you can be like “here’s one of these guys I stole from.
Going on with that, one of your pieces of advice is that artists should figure out what to steal and take that. How does an artist figure out what’s worth taking and why?
That’s a really good question. I mean, first of all you take stuff that you love. A lot of artists think that they have to do certain things because they tell you to in art school, or they tell you that’s popular, and I think really the way to come up with some sort of voice for yourself is to just stay really in touch with what really sets you off, what really gets you going.
For me there’s all kinds of artists that resonate with other people that I just don’t get, and there’s artists that I love that people don’t like, so I think part of it is having confidence in your taste and liking what you like, and I think when you get into the art world, it’s not even art — it’s any career. Any career has its figureheads, or what’s important, or what you should pay attention to, and it’s really important to keep some sort of personal compass on what you like and what jazzes you.
I think that’s how you figure out whom to steal from. What to steal is really interesting because when I write a book — if you just steal the style from someone’s work its not going to be anything other than a knockoff, but if you try and reverse-engineer the style and figure out where the artist is coming from — like where the thinker was coming from, what they were reading, what their biographical details were, then you can really get a sense of how they were looking at the world. That’s what you want to steal. You don’t want to look like someone else. You want to see like someone else.
Speaking of careers, there’s a big contradiction in the book. I think it was in Rule Number 9, which is “Be boring.” You talk about how you do creative work when you live a boring life…
When I talk about boring, a lot of it is a little bit tongue and cheek but its more about being like the Flaubert quote “I try to be regular and bourgeois in my daily life so I can be violent and original in my work.” It’s really about having energy. There are people out there that do drugs and come back and do great art. We know them. They’ve been around. Now the question is how long they stay, what kind of lives they lead, and what’s left in their wake.
Crazy, wild artists are going to be crazy, wild artists. But for the majority of people I think the advice to be boring, to take care of yourself, to not go into debt, to marry well, to think about your relationships. I think that advice is not saying be safe, it’s being boring in that you get your work done. When I think about Lynda Barry, Lynda lives in a farmhouse with her husband on a prairies and acreages. She used to be pretty wild, but I don’t think she’s that wild now. I can’t speak to what her life is about now, but I live a really quiet life with my wife. We live in this suburban new development and we have a little dog, but the things we say to each other are insane. We have this insane personal life. It looks boring on the outside but we constantly are on fire for our work — coming up with crazy ideas. The boring part is just about energy — it’s just about not wasting it on poses or scenes or whatever and really channeling it into your work instead.
One of your rules is to have side projects. I know you were listening to Watch The Throne while you were writing the book. Could you explain how that inspired you?
I’m going to be real honest. I was neither a Jay-Z nor Kanye fan until Watch The Throne came out, and that was really the gateway drug to both of them for me. What’s amazing to me is to even think Watch The Throne is a side project. It seems so fully formed and so canonical. I would think in like ten years we’re going to be listening to Watch The Throne. There’s no way we wont.
To me, it’s the idea that like in my own career there are so many different entryways that people have, like sometimes they come to me because of my drawing, and sometimes they come for the poems, and a lot of people have come from the #StealAcrossAmerica tour, but there are all these gateways and entryways into the main show. But you are so uncertain when you are writing a book that uncertainty can creep in and you start, and you get these feelings like “Do I have any right say in this? Am I right? Am I wrong?” I think listening to hip-hop, and especially Jay-Z and Kanye, gives you this artificial confidence.
“Don’t let me get in my zone.”
That’s right! Don’t let me get in my zone! Yeah I mean exactly. Don’t let me get in my zone. You gotta get in your swag.
Lastly, since 2005 you’ve kept a list of best things you’ve read every year. What is on your list this year?
Well one thing about my reading here is that it’s not actually for the year, it’s just whatever I happen to read that year. I don’t make a point to say this is the best book that came out this year, it’s just a very personal list like “this is what I read this year.” Every year I try and pick a writer that I think I can get their whole outlook done in the year, so last year I did Charles Portis because he only has 5 books and this year I’m going to do Nicholas Baker.
Let’s see. I thought Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts was really good. My wife is an introvert and I’m a super extrovert so that knowledge has really helped us a lot. I think Susan Cain’s book is really good. I actually read a book called Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, which was a little bit too long, but that was a great book. I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity this year because when you start talking “fake it until you make it,” and thinking about where authenticity is real, which is kind of a funny statement, like “what is this thing that makes us want things that are authentic?”
I like Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story; I thought that was fun. And So It Goes, the Vonnegut bio, bummed me out but it was really good. Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence inspired me a lot — I remember when the original plagiarism piece came out in Harper’s Bazaar and that was kind of a time bomb for me, as well as David Shield’s book, Reality Hunger. And they’re buddies so I know they’re pushing this stuff out. Probably the best book I’ve read so far this year was Will Hermes’ Love Goes to Buildings On Fire about the five years in New York that changed music forever. I love music so much and it’s such a perfect portrait of New York in that time. That was just a great book!