“Read a Damn Book – 146: Show Your Work!”

Show Your Work! is by Austin Kleon, and this is one of the books I picked up when I was in Astoria, Oregon, a few weeks ago. (I’m sure you read THAT adventure, right?) Anyway, I read Kleon’s other book, Steal Like an Artist (2012), a few years ago and really enjoy it, so I assumed it was a safe bet that I’d like this one, too… Was I right???

show your work (2014) - (peg)
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual book that I read. The image is included for review purposes only!]

Austin Kleon – Show Your Work! (2014)

The short answer to the question, “Did I enjoy this book?”, is YES! I read it twice before writing this review—it’s a short book that I think normal folks could probably read, cover to cover, in an hour or two, although I, personally, read VERY slowly—and I definitely enjoyed what I read. For this book, Kleon deals with the problem of how a creative person can get the products of their labor into the minds (and in front of the eyes) of a potential audience. In other words, as Kleon says he is frequently asked, “How do I get noticed?” (p. 1). For new writers, artists, musicians—basically any creative type who wants to share their work with the world—this is THE big issue. You put your heart and soul into your work, expend blood and sweat and tears, shove every clichéd metaphor for “hard work” you can think of into your project, and when you’re done…it just sits there… What’s next?

Without spoiling the book by giving away all his secrets, Kleon does have some great advice in these pages, which he presents in ten chapters with titles like “You Don’t Have to be a Genius” and “Think Process, Not Product” and “Share Something Small Every Day” and “Learn to Take a Punch.” Some of this may seem like obvious platitudes—day one of the writers’ workshop type crap, but by collecting all of these element under one roof, Kleon has produced an excellent, inspirational, REALISTIC “how-to” for folks who may not be extremely wealthy or well connected or university educated or fabulously talented, but who still want to be creative and share their works with people who will appreciate them.

Without stealing too much of Kleon’s thunder, I want to look at just a couple of Kleon’s concepts, which I happen to agree with, to give potential readers a bit of a taste…

First, Kleon says we have to get over the idea of the lonely, tortured genius who crafts their paintings or dramatic plays or epic poems in isolation and then shares the products of their genius with the unsuspecting world. “The rest of us are left to stand around and gawk in awe at their achievements” (p. 9). But this whole concept is a false (or exceedingly rare) paradigm. Works of REAL genius take place in (or around) a community, where ideas can be thrown around, tested, debated. Look at punk or Dada or The Beatles, where rare innovations seem to appear in massive clusters, which then changed the way the WORLD looked at itself. The people involved in these groups weren’t lonely geniuses banging out solo conceptual models of the universe, these were impassioned individuals, each with their own influences and loves and styles, fighting with each other, competing with and reacting to each other’s ideas, building new techniques for creation, and taking their individual works to freaky new heights BECAUSE of the communities they were performing with (and sometimes AGAINST.)

Kleon borrows a term from Brian Eno, the idea of the “scenius,” to describe these communities of idea and action. Kleon then points out that the internet now provides a way for these types of communities to find each other and band together, even when separated by vast distances. “Blogs, social media sites, email groups, discussion boards, forums—they’re all the same thing: virtual scenes where people go to hang out and talk about the things they care about. […] Online, everyone—the artist and the curator, the master and the apprentice, the expert and the amateur—has the ability to contribute something” (p. 12). These virtual communities, where an artist or writer can find advice, share their work, get valuable feedback and critique, and feel less lonely, can be massively supportive and help folks progress in whatever media they may want to explore—and this is especially true for people who are geographically isolated and don’t have access to a local community that shares their interests. (Although he also says it IS important to meet up in the real world, or “Meat Space” (p. 142), from time to time.)

Another piece of advice that Kleon gives is for creative folks to share their influences! (I’m big believer in this one.) Not only does sharing your interests and influences give you a chance to GUSH for a bit, but it can also help others understand where YOU are coming from—give them insight into why you’ve made the creative choices that you’ve made. Sharing your inspirations can influence how others see your work, and it can help forge connections. As Kleon says, “When you share your taste and influences, have the guts to own all of it. Don’t give in to the pressure to self-edit too much. […] Being open and honest about what you like is the best way to connect with people who like those things, too” (p. 83). This goes hand in hand with the concept of a “scenius.” According to Jello Biafra, former lead singer of the Dead Kennedy’s, (as he explains in the 2004 documentary, Punk: Attitude), a lot of the original punks were the only Stooges or Velvet Underground fans in the small town where they grew up, who then all moved to bigger cities and found each other, and then formed bands—based on the LOVE they shared for the Stooges or VU! Sharing your interests can lead to connections, collaborations, meet-ups in Meat Space, the realization that you aren’t the only freak who likes these horrible things, and even further inspiration for yourself, as by analyzing what it is you love about your favorite things gives you the chance to add these elements to your own works! (You know, stealing like an artist!) If you share what you’re passionate about, other people, who are also fans of that THING, whatever it may be, can find you and you can love those things together!

And, one more quick Kleon quote that I quite liked, from the chapter, “You Want Hearts, Not Eyeballs”:

“Stop worrying about how many people follow you online and start worrying about the quality of people who follow you. […] If you want followers, be someone worth following” (p. 129).

I think that sentiment is fairly self-explanatory!

Overall, I really did enjoy this book. I’ve already read it twice, and I’m certain I’ll read it again. (Actually, reading this book makes me want to go back and read Kleon’s previous book, as well!) If you are an aspiring writer or painter or film-maker or poet or musician or creative type of any stripe, there are a LOT of solid suggestions in this book, both to help you get better at what you do AND which might help you feel good about being WHO YOU ARE! (You are what you eat, after all!) It’s a quick read, funny, has a ton of quotes and quips in it, and DOES make me want to get out there and DO THINGS (even more than I ALREADY want to go do things.) I would argue, for that last bit alone, the book is worth reading for just about anyone. A solid work, certainly worth the sticker price!

—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)

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About richardfyates

Compulsive creator of the bizarre and absurd. (Artist, writer, poet, provocateur...)
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