Steal His Book

Well, in a way, that would be the ultimate homage to writer (who draws) Austin Kleon, who says he has based much of his success on stealing from other people. In fact, one of his most popular books is entitled “Steal Like An Artist.”

But the main focus of his opening keynote during the first day of SXSW’s interactive festival in Austin, Texas, today was more like the title of one of his other books: “Show Your Work.”

“Instead of maintaining absolute secrecy and hoarding all their work, they are openly sharing what they are doing,” Kleon said of the people he steals from, er looks up to.

Fundamentally, he says the new creativity comes from sharing and collaboration and riffing off of other people’s ideas, more than it does from conceiving big ideas in private and then unleashing them on the public.

As for who he looks up to most for inspiration, it is older people. In fact, some of the oldest possible people. Dead ones, both recently and those who passed on a long, long time ago.

Kleon claimed his favorite daily ritual for creativity is “reading obituaries,” and even though he is known for a book and an artform of “blacking out” sections and articles from newspapers, he says he never blacks out the obits and always reads them, because it is about what people have accomplished in their lives.

In fact, Kleon said his most indelible SXSW moment was one that could well be described as the ultimate obit. It was in 2011 when he attended the screening of director Werner Herzog’s documentary on one of the best preserved cave paintings in Southern France, “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams.”

After leaving the darkened movie theater and stepping out into the blazing Texan daylight, he said he spotted a grandfather and his granddaughter drawing in chalk on the streets of Austin -- making a connection between the 32,000-year-old painting on the Chauvet Cave, and what the contemporary Austinians were doing in front of him.

“[I was] thinking about the way marks can last and travel through time,” he said, adding, “I’d also had a lot of beers at the Alamo.”

Still, he was sober enough to make the connection between the markers he had been observing on the street and in the Herzog film to realize how “lucky” he was to have “spent my life learning how to make marks and make meaning.”

What does it all mean, according to Kleon, inquired, asking the audience what they were doing “that’s going to last? Picture this, everyone in this room is going to be dead someday.”

While some people might find that thought morbid and to be avoided, Kleon said he embraces the concept as a form of motivation, and to put the quality of one’s life into perspective. He noted how people how have near-death experiences supposedly have an even greater appreciation of life, but he said he was too much of a “coward” to “want to die and taunt death,” which is why he likes to read obits.

“I think obituaries are like near death experiences for cowards,” he explained.


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