The subtitle of the writer and artist Austin Kleon’s new book, Show Your Work! is "10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered." But that subtitle could just as easily be, "How to Self-Promote Without Being a Jerkface." It’s an incredibly useful and compulsively readable short book about how to use social media and networking if you’re a creative person of any stripe.
Kleon, who gave the Keynote speech at this year’s SXSW, isn’t giving the same tired advice. The key to his method is to continuously share your work, whether or not you think it’s absolutely perfect, or absolutely finished. In fact, he encourages writers, artists, and musicians to pull back the curtain on their work and show the process. "By letting go of our egos and sharing our process," Kleon writes, "We allow for the possibility of people having an ongoing connection with us and our work, which helps us move even more of our product."
We spoke to Kleon from his home in Austin, Texas, about how to use networking to your advantage, how to set boundaries to avoid burnout, and how to stop being what he calls "human spam."
Kleon cribs the term "scenius" from the musician Brian Eno. It means that you should get a group of creative people around you and have a collaborative relationship with them. Kleon cautions against the artistic myth of the lone genius pounding away in a garret somewhere. "Being a valuable part of a scenius is not necessarily about how smart or talented you are, but about what you have to contribute," Kleon writes.
He created his own scenius online. Kleon says, "I think what has been the most remarkable in my career is that I’ve never been part of a geographical scene. I didn’t move to New York after college. I didn’t move to L.A. I moved to Cleveland, and there’s not a whole lot of a scene there. But what I did have was the Internet, and I became part of a scenius by putting my work out there. I started blogging in 2005, and back then, we were all connected, we just didn’t have social media in the same way as we do now. You’d just post things to your blog and people would send you comments or emails and you’d slowly find people as they stumbled across your work. When I did work I really liked and put it online, it attracted the people I wanted to meet. For me, being online, that was my scenius. That was my moving to New York in the '70s. Or Paris in the '20s."
Kleon notes that you don’t have to be in the same medium as the people in your scenius. In fact, it helps if you’re not. He says since moving to Austin, he’s fallen in with musicians and filmmakers in addition to writers and artists, and those relationships have informed his work.
When it comes to sharing, Kleon says, "The stakes are pretty low in a lot of cases." If it’s not your best work, people will forget about it fairly quickly. That’s the ephemeral nature of the Internet. And putting up work that he’s not fully confident in has an upside: It can even serve as an impetus to create more. If you make something new, it pushes the old work off the page. "In some ways, you’re only as good as your last post, and I find that actually kind of heartening," Kleon says. Even though the flip side is true—even good work is forgotten—it still inspires Kleon to produce more. "Be constantly working and moving. If you’re doing it right online, putting yourself out there should lead to more work."
"I’ve got my mornings blocked off every day for work," says Kleon. " I come out to my studio, I meditate for 10 minutes, get in the zone, and then I write three pages on a legal pad by hand to get warmed up. You could call it free writing, probably. It’s not very directed. It’s half journal, half me trying to figure out what I’m trying to work on for the day. Then I do one of my newspaper blackout poems. Then the rest of the morning if I have a longer piece of writing I’m working on, I’ll work on that. As long as I’ve got my pages and do a poem, I’ll feel like I’ve gotten my 'work with a capital W' done. As my old creative writing teacher used to say, it’s just about applying ass to chair."
Kleon says the daily routine is the only way he's found to both get work done in the short term and be able to handle it in the long term. "Short term: 'I have to get something in on Friday, and I have to work this much to get it in.' The other part is, 'Oh God, I have 50 years to work, but I’ll just take it one day at a time.' It’s been the only way I can think about attacking a career in the short term and the long term. There’s a reason Alcoholics Anonymous adopted one day at a time, it’s just the way to get through life."
Kleon names the cartoonists Lynda Barry and Charles Schulz, the artist David Hockney, and the writer Kurt Vonnegut as major inspirations. But he says that since he got married and had a child, he has been inspired by others who have managed to combine creative work and family life:
"I really look up to artists who have managed to weave family lives into their art, like Ed Emberly, the children’s book illustrator. Role models are so important for young people. When I was younger and had a day job, I looked up to Philip Larkin and Wallace Stevens, writers who had sort of boring day jobs but wrote fantastic poetry at night.
I know that a lot of times when we’re talking about an artist’s work, their biography isn’t important. But I think when you are trying to be an artist, biography is super important. You’re trying to figure out, how did they do it? How did they do this wonderful book that I love?"
Kleon quotes John Cleese on the idea of boundaries. The Monty Python star said, "You have to create boundaries of space and then you have to create boundaries of time." For Kleon this means "Having an actual work space that I go to"—his converted garage.
Kleon continues: "I have to go out the back door, I have to go into my garage, and turn the computer on, the ritual of going back and forth, that really helps. My wife has a line in the book, ‘if you never go to work, you never get to leave work.’ I make sure when I go into the studio, I’m going to work.
In this culture we don’t set enough boundaries. Here we are, we’ve got basically these augmented brains [with the Internet], and they’ve got us working more hours than we ever have. And I think for creative folks, it’s even worse. We’re fed this line, you’re doing what you love, you should do it all the time. I didn’t get into art so I could work all day and never see my family."
"I feel particularly sensitive to [self-promotion] as a topic because I fear I am human spam with this book out. I am constantly sending out stuff," Kleon says.
The way to avoid being "human spam" is that "before you have something to shill, you need to build up a network of goodwill," Kleon explains. That way, when you’re sending out a Tweet about your latest radio appearance, your followers will think, "When he’s not on book tour, he’s giving me all these interesting things," so I’ll understand it if he needs to be self-promotional when he has a big product out.
Another tip for avoiding the human spam label? Straight from Kleon’s book: "Unless you are actually a ninja, a guru, or a rock star, don't ever use any of those terms in your bio. Ever."