In Austin Kleon’s first book (based on his blog), Steal Like an Artist, he pushes aside stereotypes of how “real artists” create. In this follow-up, Show Your Work! he tackles the next step: once you’ve unblocked your creativity and made something cool, how do you get the right people to see it? Kleon has an inclusive world view and infectious optimism in his writing, and believes that the amount of success available to artists is not finite. In other words, if your creative nemesis wins a grant, gets a great review, or is liked by Oprah, that praise builds the audience and appetite for all artists in the artform; it doesn’t take opportunity away from you. Show Your Work! is Kleon’s strategy for getting discovered, and he’s willing to share those state secrets because he practices what he preaches.
Kleon’s ten main ideas are insightful and well-honed, and they make the chapter headings for the pocket-sized book. “Think process. Not product.” “Share something small every day.” “Learn to take a punch.” Each idea forces readers to think about an aspect of a modern artist’s life that’s often ignored in the quest for creative genius. The book is like a conversation with your uncle who’s made a modest living as a painter, not a Hollywood movie about Picasso.
While the chapter headings are fresh, the prose within is often frustratingly vague. Chapter 5 asks us to “Tell Good Stories,” but doesn’t offer much help on how to distinguish good from bad. Kleon returns to that worry in Chapter 7, “Don’t Turn Into Human Spam,” and while I was glad to see Kleon return to the concept, there still wasn’t much advice on separating content from drivel. Of course this is understandable, because telling good stories is very hard, and if the tricks to the trade were simple then everyone would have a million followers.
Kleon doesn’t tell artists exactly how to get noticed, but he does help artists think about parts of their process they may have ignored. His enthusiasm is infectious, and feeds back into the creation of work. The shelf of creative self-help books is increasingly crowded, but Kleon’s ideas offer fresh perspectives for the age of the internet. He deserves top billing, right next to Ray Bradbury’s frenzied Zen and the Art of Writing, that original tome that gets you, above all, back to work, dammit!
(Newspaper Blackout Poetry by Austin Kleon, from Show Your Work!)