How to balance the contagiousness of raw enthusiasm with the humility of knowing we’re all in this together.
In 2012, artist Austin Kleon gave us Steal Like an Artist, a modern manifesto for combinatorial creativity that went on to become one of the best art books that year. He now returns with Show Your Work! (public library) — “a book for people who hate the very idea of self-promotion,” in which Kleon addresses with equal parts humility, honesty, and humor one of the quintessential questions of the creative life: How do you get “discovered”? In some ways, the book is the mirror-image of Kleon’s debut — rather than encouraging you to “steal” from others, meaning be influenced by them, it offers a blueprint to making your work influential enough to be theft-worthy. Complementing the advice is Kleon’s own artwork — his signature “newspaper blackout” poems — as a sort of meta-case for sharing as a modern art that requires courage, commitment, and creative integrity.
Kleon begins by framing the importance of sharing as social currency:
Almost all of the people I look up to and try to steal from today, regardless of their profession, have built sharing into their routine. These people aren’t schmoozing at cocktail parties; they’re too busy for that. They’re cranking away in their studios, their laboratories, or their cubicles, but instead of maintaining absolute secrecy and hoarding their work, they’re open about what they’re working on, and they’re consistently posting bits and pieces of their work, their ideas, and what they’re learning online. Instead of wasting their time “networking,” they’re taking advantage of the network. By generously sharing their ideas and their knowledge, they often gain an audience that they can then leverage when they need it — for fellowship, feedback, or patronage.
He later considers the seemingly obvious but underappreciated heart of sharing — something most obviously and gruesomely assailed by trolls and haters, but also routinely forgotten amidst our more subtle everyday negligence — and writes:
The act of sharing is one of generosity — you’re putting something out there because you think it might be helpful or entertaining to someone on the other side of the screen.
One of the myths antithetical to this networked generosity, Kleon points out, is that of the lone genius — a creator propelled by divine inspiration along a path of solitary work. But while this notion might be deeply engrained in our cultural mythology of genius, it is not only false but also toxic to the creative spirit, to the kinship of creativity that Robert Henri so memorably extolled. Kleon writes:
If you believe in the lone genius myth, creativity is an antisocial act, performed by only a few great figures — mostly dead men with names like Mozart, Einstein, or Picasso. The rest of us are left to stand around and gawk in awe at their achievements.
Instead, he borrows Brian Eno’s term “scenius” as a healthier alternative in conceiving of creativity:
Under this model, great ideas are often birthed by a group of creative individuals — artists, curators, thinkers, theorists, and other tastemakers — who make up an “ecology of talent.”
Being a valuable part of a scenius is not necessarily about how smart or talented you are, but about what you have to contribute—the ideas you share, the quality of the connections you make, and the conversations you start. If we forget about genius and think more about how we can nurture and contribute to a scenius, we can adjust our own expectations and the expectations of the worlds we want to accept us. We can stop asking what others can do for us, and start asking what we can do for others.
Indeed, this is what history’s greatest booms of innovation embody, from the cross-pollination at the heart of “the age of insight” in early-twentieth-century Vienna to the broader cultural history of how good ideas spread. But more than a way to explain history, “scenius” is one of the best models for making sense of the modern world — as Kleon keenly observes, the internet itself is “a bunch of sceniuses connected together, divorced from physical geography.” Finding yourself a “scenius” to belong to is an essential part of making sure your work takes root in culture.
Another of Kleon’s life-tested pointers focuses on embracing the status of amateur — not in the derogatory sense, but in the revolutionary spirit that propelled H.P. Lovecraft’s Amateur Press Association, the proto-model of blogging. Being an amateur harnesses the Zen notion of “beginner’s mind” — a state of openness to possibility that closes up as we get calcified in expertise. After all, Frank Lloyd Wright put it perfectly when he asserted that “an expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows.’” However, the gift of the amateur — or the “curious outsider,” a term I’ve used for myself — is not only an openness to uncertainty, but also a boundless enthusiasm with a sharp focus. Kleon writes:
Amateurs [are] just regular people who get obsessed by something and spend a ton of time thinking out loud about it… Raw enthusiasm is contagious.
The world is changing at such a rapid rate that it’s turning us all into amateurs. Even for professionals, the best way to flourish is to retain an amateur’s spirit and embrace uncertainty and the unknown.
This intersection of the scenius and the amateur, Kleon argues, is a hotbed of creative power:
The best way to get started on the path to sharing your work is to think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment to learning it in front of others. Find a scenius, pay attention to what others are sharing, and then start taking note of what they’re not sharing. Be on the lookout for voids that you can fill with your own efforts, no matter how bad they are at first. . . . Share what you love, and the people who love the same things will find you.
This notion of doing what you love and sharing it also goes to the heart of a familiar quarterlife-crisis concern: finding your voice. Kleon offers the beautifully simple, if uncomfortable, answer:
The only way to find your voice is to use it. It’s hardwired, built into you. Talk about the things you love. Your voice will follow.
One of Kleon’s more unusual creative-centering strategies has to do with letting death put life in perspective — every morning, he begins his day by reading the obituaries in the paper. It might seem like an odd habit, but it’s actually a remarkable tool for clarifying one’s priorities. Citing Maira Kalman’s memorable observation that “the sum of every obituary is how heroic people are, and how noble,” Kleon writes:
Obituaries are like near-death experiences for cowards. Reading them is a way for me to think about death while also keeping it at arm’s length. Obituaries aren’t really about death; they’re about life. . . . Reading about people who are dead now and did things with their lives makes me want to get up and do something decent with mine. Thinking about death every morning makes me want to live.
In another section, Kleon advises to send a “daily dispatch” to your community, a practice that counters the equally toxic myth of the overnight success — something I feel very strongly about myself — and instead turns the invisible process of your becoming, as a person and an artist, into something people can see. Kleon writes:
Overnight success is a myth. Dig into almost every overnight success story and you’ll find about a decade’s worth of hard work and perseverance. Building a substantial body of work takes a long time — a lifetime, really—but thankfully, you don’t need that time all in one big chunk. So forget about decades, forget about years, and forget about months. Focus on days.
A daily dispatch is even better than a résumé or a portfolio, because it shows what we’re working on right now. . . . A good daily dispatch is like getting all the DVD extras before a movie comes out — you get to watch deleted scenes and listen to director’s commentary while the movie is being made.
One way of knowing what to share is to understand the notion of “stock and flow” — an economic concept that Robin Sloan transformed into an apt metaphor for media. “Stock” refers to the timeless, evergreen stuff — things as interesting and meaningful today as they are in a year or even a decade. “Flow” is the reverse-chronology feed of short snippets of the present, things that “remind people you exist” — tweets, Instagram photos, and so forth. The key is to keep up your flow without letting it detract or distract from your stock, on which you continue working in the background. But the two aren’t diametrically opposed — with some pattern-recognition, bits of flow can coalesce into stock. Kleon writes:
Social media sites function a lot like public notebooks—they’re places where we think out loud, let other people think back at us, then hopefully think some more. But the thing about keeping notebooks is that you have to revisit them in order to make the most out of them. You have to flip back through old ideas to see what you’ve been thinking. Once you make sharing part of your daily routine, you’ll notice themes and trends emerging in what you share. You’ll find patterns in your flow.
When you detect these patterns, you can start gathering these bits and pieces and turn them into something bigger and more substantial. You can turn your flow into stock. For example, a lot of the ideas in this book started out as tweets, which then became blog posts, which then became book chapters. Small things, over time, can get big.
Indeed, this notion of fragmentary accumulation of big ideas is closely linked to one of the most important points Kleon makes, a throwback to his first book: Our minds are constantly assembling bits and pieces from the things we are exposed to, our interests and our influences, which we then combine into our own ideas about the world. But the two processes — collecting and creating — are intertwined. After all, as Amanda Palmer eloquently reminded us, “we can only connect the dots that we collect.” Kleon writes of the osmosis:
We all carry around the weird and wonderful things we’ve come across while doing our work and living our lives. These mental scrapbooks form our tastes, and our tastes influence our work.
There’s not as big of a difference between collecting and creating as you might think. A lot of the writers I know see the act of reading and the act of writing as existing on opposite ends of the same spectrum: The reading feeds the writing, which feeds the reading. “I’m basically a curator,” says the writer and former bookseller Jonathan Lethem. “Making books has always felt very connected to my bookselling experience, that of wanting to draw people’s attention to things that I liked, to shape things that I liked into new shapes.”
Your influences are all worth sharing because they clue people in to who you are and what you do — sometimes even more than your own work.
One of Kleon’s most urgent points, by virtue of being the least understood and least applied in our day-to-day lives online, has to do with our integrity around acknowledging this interplay of curating and creating by giving credit to others whenever we share their work. Kleon captures this contemporary conundrum beautifully:
If you share the work of others, it’s your duty to make sure that the creators of that work get proper credit. Crediting work in our copy-and-paste age of reblogs and retweets can seem like a futile effort, but it’s worth it, and it’s the right thing to do. You should always share the work of others as if it were your own, treating it with respect and care. When we make the case for crediting our sources, most of us concentrate on the plight of the original creator of the work. But that’s only half of the story — if you fail to properly attribute work that you share, you not only rob the person who made it, you rob all the people you’ve shared it with. Without attribution, they have no way to dig deeper into the work or find more of it.
Online, the most important form of attribution is a hyperlink pointing back to the website of the creator of the work. This sends people who come across the work back to the original source. The number one rule of the Internet: People are lazy. If you don’t include a link, no one can click it. Attribution without a link online borders on useless: 99.9 percent of people are not going to bother Googling someone’s name.
And here comes the money quote, which I couldn’t second more zealously and which I wish could be sticky-noted onto ever computer screen in the world — a neglected but essential form of modern media hygiene:
What if you want to share something and you don’t know where it came from or who made it? The answer: Don’t share things you can’t properly credit. Find the right credit, or don’t share.
The rest of Show Your Work! goes on to explore how Vonnegut’s taxonomy of the shapes of stories applies to sharing your art, why giving “freely and abundantly,” in the words of Annie Dillard, is the key to reaping great rewards, how finding your people helps you find yourself, why asking for help without shame is the only way to get it, and more.
If you haven’t already, do treat yourself to Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist and his disarmingly wonderful blackout poetry.
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