Keep Going by Austin Kleon teaches us how to stay productive, creative, and prolific as an artist during the good and the bad times.
Book Title: Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad
Author: Austin Kleon
Date of Reading: April 2019
What Is Being Said In Detail:
The book covers 10 chapters that take us into the creative process, daily routines, the do’s and don’ts, and the beauty of creating art. Kleon wrote this book because he wanted to read a book like this, but couldn’t find it anywhere.
The chapters are titled:
- Every day is Groundhog day
- Build a Bliss station
- Forget the Noun, do the Verb
- Make gifts
- The ordinary+extra attention= the extraordinary
- Slay the art monsters
- You are allowed to change your mind
- When in doubt, tidy up
- Demons hate fresh air
- Plant your garden
Most Important Keywords, Sentences, Quotes:
The world is crazy. Creative work is hard. Life is short and art is long.
Every day is Groundhog day
I sit down at my desk and stare at a blank piece of paper and I think, “Didn’t I just do this yesterday?”
“Any man can fight the battles of just one day,” begins a passage collected in Richmond Walker’s book of meditations for recovering alcoholics, Twenty-Four Hours a Day. “It is only when you and I add the burden of those two awful eternities, yesterday and tomorrow, that we break down.
When you don’t know what to do next, your routine tells you.
“One’s daily routine is a highly idiosyncratic collection of compromises, neuroses, and superstitions,” Currey writes, “built up through trial and error and subject to a variety of external conditions.”
A little imprisonment—if it’s of your own making—can set you free.
What your daily routine consists of is not that important. What’s important is that the routine exists.
“The simple thing I’ve learned over the years is just to have a starting point and once you have a starting point the work seems to make itself,”
After spending the day with his five-year-old son, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his diary, “We got rid of the day as well as we could.” Some days you just have to get rid of as best as you can.
Build a Bliss station
You must retreat from the world long enough to think, practice your art, and bring forth something worth sharing with others. You must play a little hide-and-seek in order to produce something worth being found.
Writer Oliver Sacks went so far as to tack up a huge “NO!” sign in his house next to the phone to remind him to preserve his writing time.
Forget the Noun, do the Verb
Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb.
Job titles aren’t really for you, they’re for others.
Art and the artist both suffer most when the artist gets too heavy, too focused on results.
The writer Kurt Vonnegut wrote a letter to a group of high school students and assigned them this homework: Write a poem and don’t show it to anybody. Tear it up into little pieces and throw them into the trash can. “You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.”
I’m so insanely lucky right now. I live the dream, in a sense, because I get paid to do what I would probably do anyway for free. But things can get very, very tricky when you turn the thing you love into the thing that keeps you and your family clothed and fed. Everyone who’s turned their passion into their breadwinning knows this is dangerous territory. One of the easiest ways to hate something you love is to turn it into your job: taking the thing that keeps you alive spiritually and turning it into the thing that keeps you alive literally.
“Do what you love!” cry the motivational speakers. But I think anybody who tells people to do what they love no matter what should also have to teach a money management course.
“Do what you love” + low overhead = a good life.
“Do what you love” + “I deserve nice things” = a time bomb.
When you ignore quantitative measurements for a bit, you can get back to qualitative measurements. Is it good? Really good? Do you like it? You can also focus more on what the work does that can’t be measured. What it does to your soul.
If you’re bummed out and hating your work, pick somebody special in your life and make something for them.
You never know when a gift made for a single person will turn into a gift for the whole world. Consider how many bestselling stories began their life as bedtime stories for specific children. A. A. Milne made up Winnie-the-Pooh for his son, Christopher Robin Milne. Astrid Lindgren’s bedridden daughter Karin asked her to tell a story about a girl named Pippi Longstocking. C. S. Lewis convinced J. R. R. Tolkien to turn the fantastical stories he told his children into The Hobbit. The list goes on and on.
The ordinary+extra attention= the extraordinary
The first step toward transforming your life into art is to start paying more attention to it.
What you choose to pay attention to is the stuff your life and work will be made of. “My experience is what I agree to attend to,” psychologist William James wrote in 1890. “Only those items which I notice shape my mind.”
When you pay attention to your life, it not only provides you with the material for your art, it also helps you fall in love with your life.
Slay the art monsters
My nominee for one of the dumbest sentences ever spoken about art goes to 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney, who said of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain after his suicide, “No one’s art is better than the person who creates it.”
Take a quick dip into any one of the thousands of years of art history and you’ll find that, no, actually, plenty of great art was made by jerks, creeps, assholes, vampires, perverts, and worse, all of whom left a trail of victims in their wake. To steal a term from Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, these people are what we call “Art Monsters.”
The world doesn’t necessarily need more great artists. It needs more decent human beings. Art is for life, not the other way around.
You are allowed to change your mind
I thought I was wrong about everything. I was wrong about that too.
The Dunning-Kruger Prayer: Let me be smart enough to know how dumb I am and give me the courage to carry on anyway.
But hope is not about knowing how things will turn out—it is moving forward in the face of uncertainty. It’s a way of dealing with uncertainty. “Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable.”
“Think for yourself!” goes the cliché. But the truth is: We can’t. We need other people to help us think.
“To think independently of other human beings is impossible,” writes Alan Jacobs in his book How to Think. “Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said.”
If you’re having trouble finding people to think with, seek out the dead. They have a lot to say and they are excellent listeners.
Read old books. Human beings have been around for a long time, and almost every problem you have has probably been written about by some other human living hundreds if not thousands of years before you. The Roman statesman and philosopher Seneca said that if you read old books, you get to add all the years the author lived onto your own life. “We are excluded from no age, but we have access to them all,” he said. “Why not turn from this brief and transient spell of time and give ourselves wholeheartedly to the past, which is limitless and eternal and can be shared with better men than we?” (He wrote that almost two thousand years ago!)
It’s amazing how little human life changes. When I read Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, I marvel at how every ancient poem is basically a withering commentary on our contemporary politicians. A dip into Henry David Thoreau’s journals paints a portrait of a plant-loving man who is overeducated, underemployed, upset about politics, and living with his parents—he sounds exactly like one of my fellow millennials!
When in doubt, tidy up
Tidying up a studio is—sorry, Ms. Kondo—not life-changing or magical. It’s just a form of productive procrastination. (Avoiding work by doing other work.)
MAKE YOUR MARK.
PUT A DENT IN THE UNIVERSE.
MOVE FAST AND BREAK THINGS.
These slogans presuppose that the world is in need of marking or denting or breaking and that the cosmic purpose of human beings is vandalism.
Things are already a mess out there. We’ve made enough of a mark on this planet. What we need are fewer vandals and more cleanup crews. We need art that tidies. Art that mends. Art that repairs.
Demons hate fresh air
“Solvitur ambulando,” said Diogenes the Cynic two millennia ago. “It is solved by walking.”
The list of famous artists, poets, and scientists who took strolls, hikes, and rambles around the city and countryside is practically endless. Wallace Stevens composed poems on his walk back and forth from the insurance agency where he worked. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote many of his books while hiking around lakes. “If I couldn’t walk far and fast,” Charles Dickens wrote of his twenty-mile marathons around London, “I should just explode and perish.” Both Ludwig van Beethoven and Bob Dylan got picked up by the police while wandering the suburbs—Beethoven in nineteenth-century Vienna, Dylan in twenty-first-century New Jersey. Henry David Thoreau, who used to spend four hours a day walking around the woods outside Concord, wrote, “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”
“No matter what time you get out of bed, go for a walk,” said director Ingmar Berman to his daughter, Linn Ullmann. “The demons hate it when you get out of bed. Demons hate fresh air.”
So get outside every day. Take long walks by yourself. Take walks with a friend or a loved one or a dog. Walk with a coworker on your lunch break. Grab a plastic bag and a stick and take a litter-picking walk like David Sedaris. Always keep a notebook or camera in your pocket for when you want to stop to capture a thought or an image.
Explore the world on foot. See your neighborhood. Meet your neighbors. Talk to strangers.
The demons hate fresh air.
Plant your garden
“She learned from that tree. The beauty is produced in spring was only because of what it went through during the winter, and sometimes the harshest winters yielded the most glorious springs.”
In winter, “the tree looks dead, but we know it is beginning a very deep process, out of which will come spring and summer.”
You have to give yourself time to change and observe your own patterns. “Live in each season as it passes,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “and resign yourself to the influences of each.”
Our lives, too, have different seasons. Some of us blossom at a young age; others don’t blossom until old age. Our culture mostly celebrates early successes, the people who bloom fast. But those people often wither as quickly as they bloom. It’s for this reason that I ignore every “35 under 35” list published. I’m not interested in annuals. I’m interested in perennials. I only want to read the “8 over 80” lists.
I want to know how Bill Cunningham jumped on his bicycle every day and rode around New York taking photos in his eighties. I want to know how Joan Rivers was able to tell jokes up until the very end. I want to know-how in his nineties, Pablo Casals still got up every morning and practiced his cello.
I want to make octogenarian painter David Hockney’s words my personal motto: “I’ll go on until I fall over.”
“There is no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years is nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!”
—Rainer Maria Rilke
Worry less about getting things done. Worry more about things worth doing. Worry less about being a great artist. Worry more about being a good human being who makes art. Worry less about making a mark. Worry more about leaving things better than you found them.
Book Review (Personal Opinion):
This is one of those books that hits you deep in the soul, mind, and heart. Kleon has done it again! If you’re any kind of artist, this is a book for you. While reading “Keep Going,” you understand that the author goes through the same daily motions as you do and it’s fascinating to see how he’s dealing with “Resistance.” A marvelous book every artist needs to have in his library.
This Book Is For (Recommend):
- For any artist who achieved “suckess”
- For a creative struggling with having a daily routine
- Any person who has a story in them that needs to come out
If You Want To Learn More
Here’s Austin Kleon talking about the process of creating his book.
How I’ve Implemented The Ideas From The Book
Whenever I go into that weird mental space that just makes everything meaningless, I open my health app and notice that I haven’t walked in a couple of days. So I just stop everything and take a long walk. It’s so simple, yet so helpful—just take a long walk.
One Small Actionable Step You Can Do
This is the only time I won’t write a small actionable step you can do— because the author already did that. He has a part at the end titled “What Know” and this is what he recommends:
- Switch your phone to airplane mode
- Draw up some lists
- Hire a child to teach you to play
- Make a gift for someone
- Tidy up
- Lie down for a nap
- Take a long walk
- Give a copy of this book to someone who needs to read it
- Sign up for Growthabit.com newsletter (okay, I had to insert something of my own)