Until this time last year, Austin Kleon was best known for Newspaper Blackout, poetry made by redacting newspaper articles with a permanent marker.
Then the writer and artist was invited to give a talk to some students. He knew what they were feeling as young creatives struggling to find a voice – so he told them everything he wished someone had told him back when he was starting out. Afterwards, he put the talk up on his blog.
Within hours, his post How to Steal Like an Artist, and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me became the best thing since sliced bread. (This is the phrase we must employ now that “it went viral” is no longer allowed.)
The talk began,
Every artist gets asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” The honest artist answers, “I steal them.” Here’s what artists understand. It’s a three-word sentence that fills me with hope every time I read it: Nothing is original. It says it right there in the Bible. Ecclesiastes: “That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun.” Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of previous ideas.
It’s now a book, Steal like an artist: 10 things nobody told you about being creative.
What were you doing before you became an artist who writes and a writer who draws?
I always drew, and I always wrote, but it took me a while to figure out how to put the two together. In school, I thought I had to keep them separate — my English teachers wanted me to be a writer, and my art teachers wanted me to be an artist. Then, when I got out of school, I realized I was an okay writer, and a okay artist, but if I put the two together, I was pretty good.
You’ve said that all advice is autobiographical. Is Steal Like an Artist the book you wish someone had given you when you started out?
Yeah, that’s how it began — I was supposed to give a talk to a group of college students, and I was nervous, so I went for a walk with my wife and asked her advice. She said the best talk she ever heard was in high school — this lady got up and just had a list of things she wished she’d known in high school. I thought that was a great idea, so I stole it.
Could you have written the book without your Tumblr and the community you built up?
Yeah, I think so, but it would’ve been a lot harder. My Tumblr is kind of like my public swipe file — it’s where I do my research in public. Every post is tagged, so if I need to look at what I have in my files on “drawing,” all I have to do is click the drawing tag. A lot of the book was written that way — if I needed a quote about procrastination, I had a tag for that.
My community of readers has been really helpful to me, too, but I wouldn’t restrict that to Tumblr — a lot of the good stuff people send me comes through Twitter and email.
We’ve been watching your promotional campaign for the book with interest. Can you describe your approach, and in particular, which element do you think is working best?
I worked in marketing for about a year, and honestly, I don’t really believe in long, planned-out campaigns, especially online. I think you put your stuff out there, you watch how people respond, and then you react to it.
For instance, when the book launched, I made sure there was a landing page with all the right information, a “Blogger’s Kit” full of photos and video that bloggers who wanted to write about the book could use, and, even though I hate book trailers, I know people like them, so I made a short little book trailer with my dog, Milo.
When the book started shipping early, I saw that people were posting pictures of their books and even posting pictures of their dogs with the book. I decided there needed to be an archive of all this stuff, so I used Storify.com to make a Praise page. Now that page has hundreds of photos and posts and tweets, and it sells the book better than any page I could’ve come up with myself.
But that’s the cycle of working online: make good stuff, share it with people, see how they react, use their reactions to make more good stuff.
Thank you Austin!