Title: Keep Going
Author: Austin Kleon
Read In: 2023
Purchase: Bookshop.org (affiliate link)
“I think I need to keep being creative, not to prove anything but because it makes me happy just to do it . . . I think trying to be creative, keeping busy, has a lot to do with keeping you alive.
Life is short and art is long.
When I’m working on my art, I don’t feel like Odysseus. I feel more like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the hill. When I’m working, I don’t feel like Luke Skywalker. I feel more like Phil Connors in the movie Groundhog Day.
In a moment of despair, Phil turns to a couple drunks at a bowling alley bar and asks them, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”
It’s the question Phil has to answer to advance the plot of the movie, but it’s also the question we have to answer to advance the plot of our lives.
I think how you answer this question is your art.
The creative life is not linear. It’s not a straight line from point A to point B. It’s more like a loop, or a spiral, in which you keep coming back to a new starting point after every project. No matter how successful you get, no matter what level of achievement you reach, you will never really “arrive.” Other than death, there is no finish line or retirement for the creative person. “Even after you have achieved greatness,” writes musician Ian Svenonius, “the infinitesimal cadre who even noticed will ask, ‘What next?'”
The truly prolific artists I know always have that question answered, because they have figured out a daily practice—a repeatable way of working that insulates them from success, failure, and the chaos of the outside world. They have all identified what they want to spend their time on, and they work at it every day, no matter what. Whether their latest thing is universally rejected, ignored, or acclaimed, they know they’ll still get up tomorrow and do their work.
We have so little control over our lives. The only thing we can really control is what we spend our days on. What we work on and how hard we work on it. It might seem like a stretch, but I really think the best thing you can do if you want to make art is to pretend you’re starring in your own remake of Groundhog Day: Yesterday’s over, tomorrow may never come, there’s just today and what you can do with it.
The creative journey is not one in which you’re crowned the triumphant hero and live happily ever after. The real creative journey is one in which you wake up every day, like Phil, with more work to do.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
“Relying on craft and routine is a lot less sexy than being an artistic genius. But it is an excellent strategy for not going insane.”
There will be good days and bad days. Days when you feel inspired and days when you want to walk off a bridge. (And some days when you can’t tell the difference.)
A daily routine will get you through the day and help you make the most of it. “A schedule defends from chaos and whim,” writes Annie Dillard. “It is a net for catching days.” When you don’t know what to do next, your routine tells you.
“every day” goethe screenshot
I suppose for some people a strict routine sounds like prison. But aren’t we all, in a sense, “doing time?” When rapper Lil Wayne was in prison, I found myself envying his daily routine, which consisted of waking up at II a.m., drinking coffee, making phone calls, showering, reading fan mail, having lunch, making phone calls, reading, writing, having dinner, doing push-ups, listening to the radio, reading, and sleeping. “Man, I’lI bet I could get a lot of writing done if I went to prison,” I joked to my wife. (When I visited Alcatraz, I thought it would make the perfect writer’s colony. What a view!)
A little imprisonment—if it’s of your own making—can set you free. Rather than restricting your freedom, a routine gives you freedom by protecting you from the ups and downs of life and helping you take advantage of your limited time, energy, and talent. A routine establishes good habits that can lead to your best work.
Best of all, I think, is that when your days pretty much have the same shape, the days that don’t have that shape become even more interesting. There’s nothing like a good prison break, and playing hooky isn’t as fun if you never go to school.
Lists bring order to the chaotic universe. I love making lists. Whenever I need to figure out my life, I make a list. A list gets all your ideas out of your head and clears the mental space so you’re actually able to do something about them.
When I’m overwhelmed, I fall back on the old-fashioned to-do list. I make a big list of everything that needs to get done, I pick the most pressing thing to do, and I do it. Then I cross it off the list and pick another thing to do. Repeat.
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When I’m stuck in the morning and I don’t know what to write about in my diary, I’ll modify the pros-and-cons list. I’ll draw a line down the middle of the page, and in one column I’ll list what I’m thankful for, and in the other column, I’ll write down what I need help with. It’s a paper prayer.
When the sun goes down and you look back on the day, go easy on yourself. A little self-forgiveness goes a long way. Before you go to bed, make a list of anything you did accomplish, and write down a list of what you want to get done tomorrow. Then forget about it. Hit the pillow with a clear mind. Let your subconscious work on stuff while you’re sleeping.
“It’s hard to find anything to say about life without immersing your self in the world, but it’s also just about impossible to figure out what it might be, or how to best say it, without getting the hell out of it again.
In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell said everyone should build a “bliss station”:
“You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.”
“The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds and makes of all political and social life a mass illness. Without this housecleaning, we cannot begin to see. Unless we see, we cannot think.
“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”
In 1852, Henry David Thoreau complained in his diary that he had started reading a weekly newspaper and he felt that now he wasn’t paying enough attention to his own life and work. “It takes more than a day’s devotion to know and to possess the wealth of a day,” he wrote.
My writing teacher used to joke that the first rule of writing is to “apply ass to chair.”
In her piece “How to Graciously Say No to Anyone,” Alexandra Franzen suggests the following: Thank the sender for thinking of you, decline, and, if you can, offer another form of support.
“I paint with my back to the world.”
“I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing—a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process.”
—R. Buckminster Fuller
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.” That, said Vonnegut, was the whole purpose of making art: “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.” Vonnegut repeated variations of that advice throughout his life. He would suggest to his daughter Nanette that she should make a piece of art and burn it “as a spiritual exercise.” (There’s something cathartic about burning your work: Artist John Baldessari, disgusted by his previous work, had it all cremated and put in a ceremonial urn.)
If you’ve lost your playfulness, practice for practice’s sake. You don’t have to go to such dramatic lengths as combustion. Musicians can jam without making a recording. Writers and artists can type or draw out a page and throw it away. Photographers can take photos and immediately delete them.
If you want maximum artistic freedom, keep your overhead low. A free creative life is not about living within your means, it’s about living below your means.
“Do what you love” + low overhead = a good life.
“No artist can work simply for results; he must also like the work of getting them.”
—Robert Farrar Capon
“the ordinary + extra attention” screenshot
Finding God in all things is one of the tasks of the believer, and [Mary Corita] Kent found God in advertising, of all things.
It is easy to assume that if only you could trade your ordinary life for a new one, all your creative problems would be solved. If only you could quit your day job, move to a hip city, rent the perfect studio, and fall in with the right gang of brilliant misfits! Then you’d really have it made.
All this is, of course, wishful thinking. You do not need to have an extraordinary life to make extraordinary work. Everything you need to make extraordinary art can be found in your everyday life.
René Magritte said his goal with his art was “to breathe new life into the way we look at the ordinary things around us.” This is exactly what an artist does: By paying extra attention to their world, they teach us to pay more attention to ours. The first step toward transforming your life into art is to start paying more attention to it.
To slow down and pay attention to your world, pick up a pencil and a piece of paper and start drawing what you see. (The pencil’s best feature is that it has no way of interrupting you with texts or notifications.) You might find that this helps you discover the beauty you’ve missed.
“Drawing is the discipline by which I constantly rediscover the world. I have learned that what I have not drawn, I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing, I realize how extraordinary it is, sheer miracle.”
“For anyone trying to discern what to do with their life: PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU PAY ATTENTION TO. That’s pretty much all the info you need.”
—Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Your attention is one of the most valuable things you possess, which is why everyone wants to steal it from you. First you must protect it, and then you must point it in the right direction.
We pay attention to the things we really care about, but sometimes what we really care about is hidden from us. I keep a daily diary for many reasons, but the main one is that it helps me pay attention to my life. By sitting down every morning and writing about my life, I pay attention to it, and over time, I have a record of what I’ve paid attention to. Many diarists don’t bother rereading their diaries, but I’ve found that rereading doubles the power of a diary because I’m then able to discover my own patterns, identify what I really care about, and know myself better.
“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”
If art begins with where we point our attention, a life is made out of paying attention to what we pay attention to. Set up a regular time to pay attention to what you’ve paid attention to. Reread your diary. Flip back through your sketchbook. (The cartoonist Kate Beaton once said if she wrote a book about drawing she’d call it Pay Attention to Your Drawings.) Scroll through your camera roll. Rewatch footage you’ve filmed. Listen to music you’ve recorded. (The musician Arthur Russell used to take long walks around Manhattan, listening to his own tapes on his Walkman.) When you have a system for going back through your work, you can better see the bigger picture of what you’ve been up to, and what you should do next.
If you want to change your life, change what you pay attention to. “We give things meaning by paying attention to them,” Jessa Crispin writes, “and so moving your attention from one thing to another can absolutely change your future.”
“Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.”
—José Ortega y Gassett
“The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair,” writes Sarah Manguso. “If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.”
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald
“The world needs you at the party starting real conversations, saying, I don’t know, and being kind.”
Most everybody alive is so obsessed with what’s new that they all think about the same things. 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!)
Cartoonist Kevin Huizenga makes the point that having your studio organized does not mean it needs to look organized. “If papers everywhere on the floor makes working easier right now, because you need to constantly refer to them, then they should stay there.”
There’s a balance in a workspace between chaos and order. My friend John T. Unger has the perfect rule: Keep your tools organized and your materials messy.
“Keep your tools very organized so you can find them,” he says. “Let the materials cross-pollinate in a mess. Some pieces of art I made were utter happenstance, where a couple items came together in a pile and the piece was mostly done. But if you can’t lay your hands right on the tool you need, you can blow a day (or your enthusiasm and inspiration) seeking it.”
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I keep one of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s “Oblique Strategies” on a big sign above my desk:
WHEN IN DOUBT, TIDY UP.
Note that it says “when in doubt,” not “always.” Tidying up is for when I’m stalled out or stuck. 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.)
The best thing about tidying is that it busies my hands and loosens up my mind so that I either a) get unstuck or solve a new problem in my head, or b) come across something in the mess that leads to new work. For example, I’ll start tidying and unearth an unfinished poem that’s been buried in a stack of papers, or an unfinished drawing that was blown across the garage by the air conditioner.
The best studio tidying is a kind of exploring. I rediscover things as I work my way through the clutter. The reason I tidy is not really to clean, but to come into contact with something I’ve forgotten which I can now use.
This is a slow, dreamy, ruminative form of tidying. When I come across a long-lost book, for example, I flip to random pages and see if they have anything to tell me. Sometimes scraps of paper fall out of the book like a secret message from the universe.
I often stop tidying because I get swept up in reading. This is the exact opposite of what Marie Kondo prescribes. When going through your books, she says, “Make sure you don’t start reading it. Reading clouds your judgment.” Heaven forbid!
Tidying in the hope of obtaining perfect order is stressful work. Tidying without worrying too much about the results can be a soothing form of play.
When in doubt, tidy up.
“Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking.”
Scientists and philosophers have long wondered about sleep and what it’s for. They’re slowly catching up to what artists have known all along: Sleep is an excellent tool for tidying up your brain. When you sleep, your body literally flushes out the junk in your head. Neuroscientists have explained that cerebrospinal fluid in your brain starts flowing more rapidly when you sleep, clearing out the toxins and bad proteins that build up in your brain cells.
Naps are the secret weapon of many artists. “It’s mostly napping,” says filmmaker Ethan Coen of his and his brother Joel’s creative process. I consider naps to be another form of magical tidying that seems unproductive but often leads to new ideas.
That’s right: One of our most popular living authors estimates that he spends three to eight hours a day in the service of waste management. [David] Sedaris has picked up so much trash that the locals literally named a garbage truck after him: “Pig Pen Sedaris.” He’s best known to his neighbors as a litter picker. When the West Sussex County Times wrote about him, they didn’t even mention he was a writer.
What’s funny is that Sedaris’s litter picking totally fits into his writing work. Sedaris, like many artists, is a scavenger. He collects the discarded debris from the chaos of life—overheard bits of dialogue and overlooked experiences—and recycles them into essays. (His collection of diaries is appropriately titled Theft by Finding.) Some of his diaries, which he prints out and binds into books every season, contain pieces of the trash he comes across on his walks.
Art is not only made from things that “spark joy.” Art is also made out of what is ugly or repulsive to us. Part of the artist’s job is to help tidy up the place, to make order out of chaos, to turn trash into treasure, to show us beauty where we can’t see it.
“I walked myself into my best thoughts.”
Walking really is a magic cure for people who want to think straight. “Solvitur ambulando,” said Diogenes the Cynic two millennia ago. “It is solved by walking.”
“No matter what time you get out of bed, go for a walk,” said director Ingmar Bergman to his daughter, Linn Ullmann. “The demons hate it when you get out of bed. Demons hate fresh air.”
After being a nun in Los Angeles for thirty years, Corita Kent moved across the country to Boston so she could live quietly and make her art. Her apartment had a big bay window and a maple tree out front, and she liked to sit there and observe the tree changing throughout the seasons. (Something much harder to do in Los Angeles, or here in Austin, Texas, where we have two seasons: hot and hotter.)
“That tree was the great teacher of the last two decades of her life,” her former student Mickey Myers said. “She learned from that tree. The beauty it produced in spring was only because of what it went through during the winter, and sometimes the harshest winters yielded the most glorious springs.”
A journalist came to visit her and asked what she’d been up to. “Well . .. watching that maple tree grow outside. I’ve never had time to watch a tree before,” she said.
She talked about how she moved into the apartment in October when the tree was in full leaf, and how she watched it lose its leaves for the rest of the fall. In the winter, the tree was covered in snow. In the spring, little flowers came out and the tree didn’t look like a maple tree at all. Finally, the leaves became recognizable, and the tree was itself again.
“That, in a way, is very much how I feel about my life,” she said. “Whether it will ever be recognizable by anyone else I don’t know, but I feel that great new things are happening very quietly inside me. And I know these things have a way, like the maple tree, of finally bursting out in some form.”
For Kent, the tree came to represent creativity itself. Like a tree, creative work has seasons. Part of the work is to know which season you’re in, and act accordingly. 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 pay attention to the rhythms and cycles of your creative output and learn to be patient in the off-seasons. 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.”
I don’t want to know how a thirty-year-old became rich and famous; I want to hear how an eighty-year-old spent her life in obscurity, kept making art, and lived a happy life. 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.
These are the people I look to for inspiration. The people who found the thing that made them feel alive and who kept themselves alive by doing it. The people who planted their seeds, tended to themselves, and grew into something lasting.
I want to be one of them. 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 are 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
The outer demons I mentioned in the last chapter—the men who are hell-bent on wrecking this planet, carving it up for profit like cartoon Lex Luthors—they’re not going to last forever. They are going to leave this place just like us. They might take us with them, for sure. But we’re all headed toward the same end. No matter what, this, too, shall pass, and they shall pass, too. I take comfort in that.
I don’t know for sure what kinds of flowers I’m planting with my days on this planet, but I intend to find out, and so should you.
Every day is a potential seed that we can grow into something beautiful. There’s no time for despair. “The thing to rejoice in is the fact that one had the good fortune to be born,” said the poet Mark Strand. “The odds against being born are astronomical.” None of us know how many days we’ll have, so it’d be a shame to waste the ones we get.
“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.”
Whenever life gets overwhelming, go back to chapter one of this book and think about your days. Try your best to fill them in ways that get you a little closer to where you want to be. Go easy on yourself and take your time. 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.
Keep working. Keep playing. Keep drawing. Keep looking. Keep listening. Keep thinking. Keep dreaming. Keep singing. Keep dancing. Keep painting. Keep sculpting. Keep designing. Keep composing. Keep acting. Keep cooking. Keep searching. Keep walking. Keep exploring. Keep giving. Keep living. Keep paying attention.
Keep doing your verbs, whatever they may be.