“None of this is direct,” Kleon said. “It’s not do these things and you will immediately see these results. Sam Anderson (@shamblanderson) at The New York Times is really interesting. Every day he shares with his fans on Twitter the best sentence that he’s read. He doesn’t say anything about himself, but you get a feel for what his reading habits and interests are. People tend to follow him because he’s interesting. When he wants to do a story, you know it’s coming, or he’s able to use his Twitter network for help.”
Kleon studied art and writing at Miami University in Ohio, where he met his wife. Her father was a longtime writer and editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Between his studies and what he learned from his father-in-law, he knew what to expect from a writing life. He knew, in short, that it wouldn’t be easy.
“I wanted to be a writer,” he said, “but I didn’t see how I could make that work. I figured I’d get a really good job with benefits somewhere, and I’d kind of put my writing work out on the side.”
He worked as a librarian for awhile, then moved to Texas when his wife enrolled in graduate school and became a Web designer for the University of Texas. He was working as a copywriter for an advertising agency when his blackout poetry book started paying off enough that he was able to turn to writing full-time.
“All of my jobs came from what I was doing on the side,” he said. “People can advance their careers just as far on nights and weekends as when they’re at work.”
Even before “Newspaper Blackout” came out in book form, his poems struck a chord with newspaper editors across the country. Some, like this one, held blackout poetry contests for their readers. Kleon helped judge The Oklahoman’s contests.
“The poem I picked that was the weirdest and most interesting was from this 80-something-year-old woman who had about 30 grandchildren,” he recalled.
(Rose Gorr, then 80, of Oklahoma City, was the adult winner he remembered. Her untitled poem read: “What if / the apollo astronauts brought back / a large iceberg / a tall church in an ice cave / three objects that look like rocks / playing cards, and men with forked staffs? / Question its truth / Only hope and imagination can save us.”)
Seeing how newspapers embraced his art form taught him a lot about sharing.
“When you teach people how to do your work, it doesn’t mean instant competition,” said Kleon, who spoke at SXSW in Austin last week. “If you’re good at what you do, there’s a craft to it, and it takes some time to do it.”
He shares through his books and websites, newspaperblackout.com and austinkleon.com. He has become a coveted public speaker, and by all indications, he’s enjoying a happy, creative, positive life. He certainly has a good sense of humor.
“My book, you can get it for cheaper than a burrito,” he said. “It’s not a real hard sell. … If you’re in any career and want to figure out how to take advantage of this day and age and get your work out there into the world, then this is a very cheap $10 guide.”