Austin Kleon

How did you become a writer?

Like most of our kind, I started out as a reader. I just really, really love to read. My parents read to me every night, we’d make weekly trips to the public library, and my mom would buy me a new book whenever she went to the mall on the weekend and I’d sit in a chair and read it while she shopped. In elementary school, we had a young author’s program where we wrote and illustrated our own books, in sixth grade, I won a big national essay contest, and in high school I took English courses at the local branch of Ohio University.

When I went to college I started studying writing more intensely. I took a lot of creative writing workshops, wrote music reviews and other pieces for a few rags and zines, and studied literature for a semester abroad at Cambridge University. But my senior year I discovered comics again and realized that I needed to figure out a way to bring my writing and drawing back together again.

I joined a writing group in Cleveland after college, got a job at a public library, and started submitting stories to journals. I soon decided I wasn’t a short story writer and that I had no talent for fiction. So I started a blog, drew a lot, thought I might do a graphic novel, wandered a bit, and then I started making my newspaper blackout poems. Those took off big in 2008 after I moved to Texas and got a job as a web designer, and my first book, Newspaper Blackout, came out in 2010. Based on my work on that book, my web skills, and my modest success online, I got a job as an interactive copywriter in 2011. I worked as a copywriter for a year until the release of my new book, Steal Like An Artist.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

I think when I was younger, I was shaped by movies, comics, and pop music more than anything else. I remember watching VCR tapes over and over, stuff like Back to the Future and Ghostbusters, reading comics from the bookmobile like Far Side and Garfield, and copying down song lyrics in my notebook, from acts like Beck and the Velvet Underground. As for books, in elementary it was Choose Your Own Adventure, in middle school, Orwell’s 1984, in high school, Howard Zinn’s People’s History.

When I got to college two people really influenced me: my writing teacher, Steven Bauer, and my good friend Brandon Abood. Steven turned me on to George Saunders and Kurt Vonnegut and helped me discover my sense of humor in my writing, and Brandon turned me on to writers like Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver.

When I moved to Cleveland after college, my (soon-to-be) father-in-law was a big influence on me. He’s such an incredible writer and a mind. He’s been at it professionally for almost 40 years, and his chops are just so honed from a life or working. He just inspired me to not bullshit, to be a good family man and a mensch.

I also befriended a writer named Dan Chaon who teaches writing at Oberlin College. He invited me to see Lynda Barry speak and to hang out with her at a bar afterwards. That night literally changed my life. Getting to know Lynda and her work just kind of unlocked something in my brain, and I saw that there was a model for putting pictures and words together in your career. Then, a few months later I saw a Saul Steinberg show on my honeymoon, and I loved his autobiographical phrase “a writer who draws” so much that I decided to steal it for myself.

After that I found myself mostly influenced by really good blogs and bloggers online. People like Hugh MacLeod, Maud Newton, Jason Kottke, and the 37 Signals guys.

When and where do you write?

I like to write and draw in the morning at my desk. (I aspire to John Waters’ routine: make stuff up in the morning, and sell it in the afternoon.) I have an “analog” desk where nothing digital is allowed — and then, when I’m finished, I’ll go over to my “digital” desk and fiddle with whatever I’ve made. Sometimes I go back and forth between the two.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing and researching a little essay about forgery vs. plagiarism as different models for creating new work, and I’m also starting to think about my next book, which is going to be about marriage and creativity.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Yes! My newspaper blackout poems were a direct response to the writer’s block I had after college. The thing about creative writing workshops in college is that they’re the perfect, artificial environment for writers: your teacher is getting paid to pay attention to your writing, and your fellow students are paying to care about your writing. It’s what every writer dreams of: a captive audience. Then, you get out of school and you realize that nobody gives a crap about you. That really paralyzed me, and it took me a while to really be honest about what I liked and what I wanted to be writing.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Well, my whole book, Steal Like An Artist, is basically a big list of advice I wish I’d had when I was 19, but four things that are really, really important to me:

1) Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started. The way you figure yourself out is by making things.

2) Write the book you want to read. Don’t screw around writing work to please your teachers or agents or literary journals. Think about the books you love, and mash them up into something of your own. Think about the writers you love, and pick up the torch from them.

3) Do good work and put it where people can see it. That’s the only real secret. The internet is the major medium of our time, so don’t ignore it, embrace it.

4) Be boring. It’s the only way to get work done. Get a day job, find a regular hour or two a day to write, take care of yourself, and be a good friend.

How has the Internet influenced your writing?

Pretty much everything good that’s happened in my career has been the result of my engaging with the internet. Having a blog meant I felt like I needed to fill it with something which made me make a lot of new work. Both my books started on my blog. Blogging also meant I could post not just my own work, but I could point to the things I loved, and I gained a readership that valued me as not just a writer, but a kind of curator and thinker. Now, with Twitter, I find myself constantly being influenced by my readers — they send me good stuff just as much as I send it to them. I’m so happy to be alive and working right now.

Austin Kleon is a writer who draws.