Interview: Austin Kleon, author of Show Your Work

In mid-June, fresh from attending The Web Conference at Penn State, I picked up my copy of Show Your Work: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon, which I had purchased a month or two earlier but was still on my “to read” stack. The book helped me maintain the energy — and creative high — from the conference, which I might add was filled with amazing sessions led by my peers and topped off with several inspiring keynoters, including the closing speaker: a co-founder of Reddit.

See, I work in higher ed by day — in the web, social and content marketing world — and I attend and speak at quite a few conferences each year. At these events, we always hear about breaking down silos, sharing meaningful content, and taking risks. I enjoy speaking at these conferences because I love to share what’s working for me and the College — and what’s not. I’m in the same camp as Kleon in that respect — sharing your ideas and work is a good thing. And that’s what Show Your Work is about.

Kleon’s book — as well as the final inspirational speech at the conference — motivated me to dust off some of my own ideas in the writing realm and also to inspire others in the literary community to take risks. We creative writers are a sharing bunch, but are we sharing enough? I instantly knew that Kleon’s work and philosophy would inspire Hippocampus readers. He gladly agreed to speak to us.

Autstin kleon

Photo by Ryan Essmaker.


Before we dive in, I’ll introduce you a bit more to Kleon, courtesy of his official bio: He’s the New York Times bestselling author of three illustrated books: Steal Like An Artist (Workman, 2012) is a manifesto for creativity in the digital age; Show Your Work! (Workman, 2014) is a guide to sharing creativity and getting discovered; and Newspaper Blackout (Harper Perennial, 2010) is a collection of poetry made by redacting words from newspaper articles with a permanent marker. He speaks about creativity in the digital age for organizations such as Pixar, Google, SXSW, TEDx, and The Economist. In previous lives, he worked as a librarian, a web designer, and an advertising copywriter.

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Donna: One of the things I love about you is that you’re this hodgepodge of worlds: tangible and intangible, print and web, written and visual. I read that when you were a kid you loved tracing and copying comics — how words and pictures looked and worked together. Then, once you hit school, words and pictures separated into “art class” and “English class.” When I read that, I was like, “Wow. That is totally what happens!” Tell us a little about how your interests in seemingly different areas collided to get you to where you are today — and who knows where next.

Austin: Well, I grew up idolizing “Renaissance Men.” I remember reading Shel Silverstein’s bio on the back of Where The Sidewalk Ends, and it saying that in addition to being an author, “He also writes songs, draws cartoons, sings, plays the guitar, and has a good time.” I thought, “Man, that’s what I want to do — a lot of different stuff.” Most of my career has just been about figuring out how to unite my love of reading, writing, drawing, monkeying around on the computer, and playing music. So far, I’ve gotten the first four together, and the music I keep to the side. Everybody needs a hobby.

Cover of show your workIn the creative realm, especially in the literary area, many people are protective of their ideas. Your third book, Show Your Work, argues against that mentality for many reasons. Hugh MacLeod’s Ignore Everyone also touched on this. I understand the resistance to share, I do. (I’m pretty much a sharer myself!) You obviously go into depth about this in the book, but could you give our readers a sense of why you feel people are so resistant to share, and why do you encourage people to change that mentality?

Mostly, it has to do with fear. Some people are afraid their ideas will be stolen. The best response to that fear is from Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to shove them down people’s throats.” The other major fear is rejection: if you put your work out there, people will tear it down. But that’s not actually the worst that can happen: the worst that can happen is you put your work out there and nobody cares. In the beginning, the biggest battle is against obscurity — so get yourself and your ideas and your work out there. The sooner the better.

I’ve been following you on Twitter and love that you live-Tweeted to Ghostbusters last week. (I can’t walk through a library without thinking I’ll see Slimer, by the way.) Since about 2007, Twitter has become my #1 professional development tool. When I think of “show your work” I think of all of the sharing that happens on Twitter. What’s your take on how Twitter can help us grow creatively? And who are a few gems on your “Following” list?

Sharing on Twitter and sharing on social media in general is great, but you have to make sure that you’re not spending all your time sharing instead of actually doing your work. My recommendations for Twitter: set limits. Limit the amount of time you spend, limit the number of people you follow, and limit the frequency of your own posts. Some of my favorite follows on twitter who I think other people would dig are @brainpicker and @openculture.

“Productive procrastination” is just about having a few projects going at the same time, and procrastinating on one project by working on the other.


Since we’re a magazine focusing on entertaining, educating and engaging writers and readers of creative nonfiction, I should ask you about your writing process. You used a few interesting phrases in an interview with Copyblogger’s Kelton Reid: “little writing and big writing” and “productive procrastination.” Could you tell us about these approaches?

Well, a lot of people make a distinction between little writing and Big Writing — “little writing” is when you’re just typing into boxes online, posting to Twitter or blogging, or whatever. Big Writing is the real work—typing essays or writing a book. I don’t really make any distinction between the two — it’s all writing. I’ve typed tweets that become blog posts that become book chapters. You never know what writing is going to end up being the most valuable to you.

“Productive procrastination” is just about having a few projects going at the same time, and procrastinating on one project by working on the other.

Courtesy of author's website.

Example of newspaper blackout, courtesy of book’s blog.

Your newspaper blackouts are incredible. Aside from getting to smell that fresh marker smell, what drew you to this form of found poetry? How often do you create them?

Writer’s block, mainly. I was right out of college and needed something to post on my blog. I thought I was ripping off the government — they looked like if the CIA did haiku— but it turns out there’s a 250-year-old history of finding poetry in the newspaper, which I wrote about in Newspaper Blackout. I’ve been making them for almost nite years now. I try to make one every day.

You get to fly off the page — web and print! — onto stages and inspire live audiences. You’ve become a coveted speaker at industry conferences and corporate events. You’ve been on some kick-ass stages. SXSW. Confab. TedX. And for some kick-ass companies, including Google and Pixar. What do you enjoy about this aspect of your career?

I’ve always liked to perform — I like being in front of people and trying to make my ideas come alive in person, and I like all the people I get to meet and hear from afterwards. But there’s also the problem of becoming someone who talks about being creative more than actually, you know, actually being creative…

How do you stay inspired? What do you do when you’re not?

I read. Whenever I’m uninspired, it’s usually because I’m not reading enough.

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