Austin Kleon on being creative when your kids are home allll day
The bestselling author shares his Covid routine.
Welcome to the 40th issue (!) of Subtle Maneuvers. Browse the complete archive of posts here.
Austin Kleon (b. 1983)
Kleon is the New York Times bestselling author of a trilogy of illustrated books about creativity in the digital age: Steal Like An Artist, Show Your Work!, and Keep Going. He is also, full disclosure, one of the chief inspirations for me starting this newsletter nine months ago. On Twitter, Kleon has frequently encouraged writers to “log off this hell site” and start a newsletter or a blog, and last February I finally listened to him—and I’m so glad that I did; sending out this weekly dispatch has been an invaluable routine for me during disorienting times. Kleon’s own newsletter is one of my favorites, a list of ten links that he sends out every Friday, which never fails to point me to at least one piece of brilliance that I missed during the week. And his books are truly indispensable guides to fostering and sustaining a creative practice—especially the latest one, Keep Going, which came out in 2019 but feels tailor-made for 2020’s ongoing dumpster fire. Last week, over email, Kleon kindly answered my questions about his current routine and how he’s keeping himself going these days.
Where and with whom are you riding out the pandemic?
I’ve been at home here in Austin, Texas, for over 250 days with my wife, Meghan, and our two boys, Owen (8) and Jules (5).
What are you working on these days?
Before the pandemic, I was working on a book about kids and creativity inspired by being home with my boys and our adventures making art and music together. Of course, now that they’re home with me all day, the last thing I want to do is write about them!
These days I’m just trying to keep my mind clear and my hands busy. (My mantra during the election was “Keep Calm and Make Ugly Art.”) Earlier in the pandemic, I gave myself daily projects, like drawing blind contour self-portraits, making zines, or cutting and taping collages.
This summer I finally locked myself in our bedroom closet for two days and recorded the audiobook for my Steal Like An Artist trilogy. That comes out this month, so I’m gearing up for promotional stuff.
Your latest book, Keep Going, is about staying creative in challenging times. Since it came out last year, I think it’s fair to say that times have gotten even more challenging. Have you found yourself referring back to your own advice? Anything you’d add to the book now that we’re eight months into a pandemic?
Keep Going was really the first book I wrote because I personally wanted to read it. So, yeah, it’s a little embarrassing how often I’ve cracked it open for a little boost here and there. (Your own medicine, of course, is often the hardest to swallow.)
I emphasize the role of repetition and routine so much I the book, I wish I’d written something more about what you do when you want to shake things up. Unfortunately, many of the things I used to do to break up life’s monotony have been taken away now. Going to museums, seeing a movie, book shopping—what Julia Cameron calls “artist dates”—I haven’t done any of those little simple things that worked for me in 8 months. It’s rough.
What does your typical day look like right now? Is this a big departure from your pre-Covid routine?
I was talking to a friend of mine who doesn’t have kids, and he asked me what our days are like, and I said, “Well, the kids get up every single day at 6:30 a.m.” We both started laughing, and I said, “Is there really anything else I need to tell you?”
But, yeah: Kids get up at 6:30 a.m. They go downstairs and turn on the TV. At some point they shout up to us that they’re hungry. So one of us feeds them, and one of us will then make coffee and breakfast and bring it back to the bedroom. And we sit there and read and wake up. Then we’ll go for a 3-mile walk. (The kids are too big for the stroller, but desperate times, desperate measures.) Then we’ll have another cup of coffee, and I’ll go work for a few hours. Then at 11 a.m. we’ll have lunch. After that, I’ll usually work for another hour. Then I watch the kids from 1–3 p.m. to give my wife a break. And I’ll go back in the office from 3–5 p.m. and do “admin” stuff like answer emails, etc. Then at 5 p.m. we eat dinner. Kids go to bed at 7 p.m. and stay up for an hour or so reading in their room. My wife and I drink whiskey and watch TV until 9:30 p.m. or so and head to bed. I read until I fall asleep.
The biggest difference between our pre-Covid routine—and it’s a big one!—is that the kids would be at school from, oh, 7 a.m.–3 p.m. during the week. And now they’re here alllll day.
When I think about how privileged we are and how hard it still is to do this it makes me want to assassinate someone.
Do you normally have any rituals or superstitions that you rely on for getting your work done?
Not really? I’ve been doing my work so long there’s not really much friction: just my sheer laziness and the fact that I’d rather do pretty much anything else other than write books.
I drink coffee. I shut the door and put on my noise-cancelling headphones. Sometimes I smoke a cigarette pencil. If nothing works, I make a collage, and that usually gets my brain warmed up.
What have you been doing to relax and recharge?
Walks. Unmoderated drinking. Eating junk food. Watching a lot of TV. Playing old Wii games with the 8-year-old, like Dr. Mario. Fiddling with my Rubik’s Cube.
Finally, have you read, watched, or listened to anything amazing lately that you can recommend?
Some books I’ve loved this year: Sam Anderson’s Boom Town, E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead, Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn, Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice, Shirley Jackson’s Life Among The Savages, Tom Hodgkinson’s How To Be Idle, Mary Ruefle’s Dunce and My Private Property (I love her; I hope she’s doing well because she’s my quarantine saint), old Ray Bradbury short stories, Kenko and Chomei’s Essays in Idleness and Hojoki, Erno Rubik’s Cubed, Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, and Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, which deserves every bit of praise it’s getting.
Movies and TV I’ve binged: Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Parasite, Sex Education, Dolemite is my Name!, Teenage Bounty Hunters, Better Things, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Master and Commander, My Octopus Teacher, Ted Lasso, The Crown, Spongebob Squarepants, Toast of London, Curb Your Enthusiasm reruns, and How To With John Wilson. I also recommend re-watching your favorite movies in black and white. I’ve recently enjoyed Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Jaws, and Nacho Libre.
Albums and songs on repeat: Fiona Apple, Fetch The Bolt Cutters; Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately; Deerhoof, Love Lore; Cardi B, “WAP”; Sturgill Simpson, “Make Art Not Friends”; the new Dylan album, which has no right to be so good; Cocteau Twins, Heaven or Las Vegas; Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, Ethiopiques 21; The Durutti Column, LC; Gary Numan, The Pleasure Principle; and Yaz, Upstairs at Eric’s. Favorite writing music: Yasuaki Shimizu’s Kakashi; Aphex Twin; Barker’s Utility; and the Uncut Gems soundtrack.
For more of Kleon’s work, check out his blog, follow him on Twitter or Instagram, or pre-order his Steal Like an Artist audio trilogy.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya on resisting “forced productivity” during the pandemic
WRIGGLING THROUGH 🐛
I’m devoting the last newsletter of each month to an advice column. Send me your creative dilemmas and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into great minds’ work habits.
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