Austin Kleon's new book is a great reminder of what is most important not only in our creative lives, but in our life in general.
Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad by Austin Kleon, Workman Publishing Company, 224 pages, Paperback, April 2019, ISBN 9781523506644
Austin Kleon’s books always arrive like an unusually pleasant day in early spring in the north—feeling easy, full of inspiration and excitement for the substantial amount of work you know awaits you as you get out in the yard and garden for the first time of the year, and over all too soon. I don’t mean to be negative; That last quality, his books’ brevity, is a strength. It’s just that, like that early spring day you know will be followed by one more round of snow and cold, you want the book to never end.
Kleon understands that creativity, like the seasons, is a cyclical process. And yet, the creative life can feel like “you’re starring in your own remake of Groundhog Day.” He has found that:
The creative journey is not one in which you’re crowned the triumphant hero and live happily ever after. The real creative journey is one in which you wake up every day … with more work to do.
That may sound a bit depressing, but it is, in fact, a great and enduring blessing. As he writes near the end of the book, while we live in a culture that celebrates youth and early success, he is more interested in hearing “how an eighty-year-old spent her life in obscurity, kept making art, and lived a happy life.”
I want to know how Bill Cunningham jumped on his bicycle every day and rode around New York taking photos in his eighties. I want to know how Joan Rivers was able to tell jokes up until the very end. I want to know how in his, Pablo Casals still got up every morning and practiced his cello.
I personally want to know how Jeffery Joyce, the man who tuned-up our furnace every autumn before he passed away two years ago, never missed a day of work over 40 years running his heating and cooling business, and radiated as much warmth as the furnaces he serviced when he visited. The way he updated our furnace when it began sputtering and making funky noises the year before he died was a work of art in its own right, and it kept our house at a steady 67 degrees through the polar vortex this past winter while many of our friends’ thermostats dropped as much as ten degrees.
A book that champions the making of old-fashioned to-do lists, Keep Going is itself a list of ten things that have helped Kleon, well, keep going. And while it is ostensibly aimed at an audience of artists and writers, he notes that “these principles apply to anyone trying [to] sustain a meaningful and productive creative life, including entrepreneurs, teachers, students, retirees, and activists.” And, of course, gardeners. But more on that later.
He wrote the book, he tells us, because he himself needed to read it:
A few years ago, I’d wake up every morning, check the headlines on my phone, and feel as if the world had gotten dumber and meaner overnight. Meanwhile, I’d been writing and making art for more than a decade, and it didn’t seem to be getting any easier. Isn’t it supposed to get easier? […]
Everything got better for me when I made peace with the fact that it might not ever get easier. The world is crazy. Creative work is hard. Life is short and art is long.
The advice he gives is mostly practical, but it can have a profound influence if you take it to heart. He writes about the power of adhering to a routine, not to restrict or confine the creative impulse, but to make sure we set aside a time to set it free. As noted earlier, Kleon champions the making of to-do lists, and the importance of forgiving ourselves for not accomplishing everything on it—why, paraphrasing Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Some days you just have to get rid of as best you can.”
Kleon steals (like an artist) the idea of building a “bliss station,” a sacred place or time away from the troubles of the wider world for creative incubation and activity, from Joseph Campbell. He also suggests we stop checking the news when we wake up. “Even if it’s just for fifteen minutes,” he writes, “give yourself some time in the morning to not be completely horrified by the news.” It reminds me of a verse from the song “Milk Thistle” by Conor Oberst:
Can't take no more
You're here every morning
Waitin' at my door
I'm just tryin' to kiss you
And you stab my eyes
Make me blue forever
Like an island sky
And I'm not pretending
That it's all okay
Just let me have my coffee
Before you take away the day
Lest we think this information overload a modern phenomenon, there is a quote from Gertrude Stein about how “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense,” and a lamentation from Henry David Thoreau’s diary that reading a weekly newspaper made him feel as if “he wasn’t paying enough attention to his own life and work.” None of this is to suggest we not stay informed, but as Kleon puts it, “You can be woke without waking up to the news.”
Kleon also warns of the danger of chasing job titles, and of letting those titles become the definition of success—and of what kind of work we do. He worries that our creative attention is too often skewed toward the money and online metrics we can generate, and that chasing those quantitative measurements can not only undermine the quality of our work, but how much we enjoy it and what we get out of it creatively, how much it feeds our souls.
We used to have hobbies; now we have “side hustles.” As things continue to get worse in America, as the safety net gets torn up, and as steady jobs keep disappearing, the free-time activities that used to soothe us and take our minds off work and add meaning to our lives are now presented to us as potential income streams, or ways of having a traditional job.
Echoing a point at the heart of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette (though he doesn’t reference it by name) Klean quotes the great Ben Shahn, who said “However glorious the history of art, the history of artists is quite another matter.” He suggests we “slay the art monsters,” that while plenty of great art may have been made by terrible people, making great art can no longer be “a Get Out of Jail Free card for their monstrous failures as a human being.” Because, when it comes down to it:
The world doesn’t necessarily need more great artists. It needs more decent human beings.
It reminds me of a passage from The Four by Scott Galloway, who wrote of Steve Jobs' passion for bringing consumer products into the world, even while denying for years—and in court—his paternity of a child he knew he brought into it:
It is conventional wisdom that Steve Jobs put “a dent in the universe.” No, he didn’t. Steve Jobs, in my view, spat on the universe. People who get up every morning, get their kids dressed, get them to school, and have an irrational passion for their children’s well-being, dent the universe. The world needs more homes with engaged parents, not a better fucking phone.
And that brings me to the only thing I can find any fault with in Austin Kleon’s Keep Going. It is when he writes:
I think it instructive, sometimes, to think about some of the slogans we use for creative work.
MAKE YOUR MARK.
PUT A DENT IN THE UNIVERSE.
MOVE FAST AND BREAK THINGS.
The slogans presuppose that the world is in need of marking or denting or breaking and that the cosmic purpose of human beings is vandalism.
Worse than that, I think, it is yet another example of how business culture, specifically Silicon Valley culture, has infected all other aspects of our life, even our creative life. “Put a dent in the universe” is a quote that comes from Steve Jobs himself, “Move fast and break things” was Mark Zuckerberg’s mantra for Facebook, a company that did just that. It is unfortunate that this kind of business literature and sloganeering is often taken as creative literature and sloganeering, and though Kleon has already rejected that ethos elsewhere in the book, he more directly does so here:
Things are already a mess out there. We’ve made enough of a mark on the planet. What we need are fewer vandals and more cleanup crews. We need art that tidies. Art that mends. Art that repairs.
Let’s find some better slogans. Maybe we could look to medicine:
FIRST, DO NO HARM.
Or maybe we could lift the language from signs you see in parks:
LEAVE THINGS BETTER THAN YOU FOUND THEM.
It’d be a start.
To be clear, “art that tidies” does not mean art that sanitizes. It is still going to be a mess out there, no matter what. One of Kleon’s ten principles, “When In Doubt, Tidy Up” comes from Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s “Oblique Strategies,” and it is not about staying entirely tidy all the time, but “a form of productive procrastination” when you’re not sure what else to do—or overwhelmed by the task at hand. Kleon feels that, for his own creativity, it’s important to have a mess of inspiration, a “mess of what you love” around. The reason he tidies when feeling stuck is not so much to clean, but to reacquaint himself with those things, to rediscover something he may have cast aside that may now be useful once again.
We live in an age, like all ages, when we must rediscover that which we have discarded that is useful to us once again more broadly. Rather than business thinking dominating all other aspects of our life and society—from philanthropy to education, from civic life to our creative life—we ought to let the traditional values of those fields into our businesses and business lives. Kleon’s book is a reminder of that, a reminder to pay attention to what we’re paying attention to, a reminder that we can create extraordinary things out of and in our ordinary lives, and that we should not measure our success in life by what title we’re given, how much money we make, or how many likes we can get online. It is a reminder that "creativity has seasons" of its own, as do our lives, and the importance of getting a feel for "nonmechanical time," for the cycles of life. It reminds us that we need to plant seeds of creativity and tend to them like a garden. It is a call, so sorely needed today, for “less despair” and “more repair,” and that is exactly what it offers.