Austin Kleon bounced onto the literary scene — yes, bounced, he’s that overflowing with creativity — four years ago with the publication of his first book, “Newspaper Blackout.”
It was an odd product, original poetry composed by redacting newspaper articles, covering long columns of words with black marker and leaving only a word or two exposed here and there. The remaining words, read together, spelled out his poems.
By the time the book came together, he was an expert at his task. His blackout poetry had been featured on NPR, in newspapers and on the Internet. It wasn’t a particularly novel idea — I’d done something similar with church bulletins throughout the endless religious services of my youth — but it was something that Kleon stuck with, perfected … and shared.
That last bit is the subject of the Austin, Texas, resident’s latest book, “Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered.” The book, released this month, is a follow-up to “Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative.” That book spent six months on The New York Times’ best-seller list.
“‘Steal’ was about stealing influences from the community to make your own work,” Kleon told The Oklahoman in a recent phone interview. “‘Show Your Work’ is about sharing your ideas so people in the community can steal from you. I like to think of them as the Robin Hood box set.”
In the digital age, having a respectable resume isn’t enough to land you the best jobs. Getting hired these days is often like applying to a well-regarded university: Great grades nudge the door a crack, but extracurriculars open it wider.
“We all have access to tools that kind of let us manipulate our own media and how we’re shown to the world,” Kleon said. “I like to joke that everyone who has a smartphone basically has their own little multimedia studio. It’s just a question of what you decide to put out there.”
All of us are more than our job titles or work skills. We’ve all learned from countless teachers, tradesmen, mentors or more experienced colleagues. We’ve already taken from them; giving back shows not only what we’ve learned but that we’re willing to share it.
“The first step is to be around,” Kleon said. “Find a platform where you feel the people you want to hang around with are hanging out. Writers, for example, tend to congregate around Twitter. Think about some sort of daily dispatch … that you can send out to people that’s funny or interesting or helpful. Look at your everyday life. What kind of things are you working on that might be interesting to others? Nonfiction writers or journalists or reporters are constantly coming up with interesting facts and tidbits.”
Those in other professions will have access to other information to share. My father-in-law, for example, spends his off time restoring old cars and perusing websites about hot rods and car parts. With his decades of mechanical knowledge, he could be a great source for anyone involved in car projects. He’d just have to offer that knowledge to others online.
Why share what you’ve worked hard to learn? Why not? What does it cost you, and how much benefit could it provide?
“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.”