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Don't be Human Spam or a Vampire: Austin Kleon's Advice for SXSW

Austin Kleon

One of the largest gatherings of creative minds is happening right now in Austin, but how can you become a valuable part of that community without sucking the life out of it or annoying other people with your relentless self-promotion?

Don't be "human spam" or a "vampire." That's the advice of Austin Kleon, a local artist and writer whose book "Steal Like an Artist" spent six months on the New York Times best-seller list.

"There's basically the people who want to take all the inspiration, and then there's people who want to flood you with their own thing that they're shilling," he says.

"Sharing is an act of generosity. You're putting something out there because you think it might be helpful or useful to other people," says Kleon. "You're not just sharing it because it furthers your own agenda or it self promotes."

That was just one of the topics we covered in our interview with Kleon, who is the first keynote speaker at this year's SXSW Interactive conference. You can listen to our interview or read it below.

KUT News: You've said that you lead a pretty boring life, but yet you get a lot done.

Austin Kleon: Yes. One of my favorite quotes about creative comes from Gustave Flaubert. He says to be normal and ordinary in your every day life so that you can be violent and original in your work.

And that's always worked for me. I think it takes a lot of energy to make really good work, and you don't have that energy if you're wasting it on vices or staying out all night and partying. I always tell people, "Be boring in your life so that you can be not boring in your work."

KUT News: Which in some ways is counterintuitive, because people think to be creative they have to lead these extraordinary lives.

Kleon: I think that people think to be creative they have to be traveling in Paris or hitching a ride on the rails to have these life experiences that they can turn into their art or whatever.

But there's another side to that, which is you have to actually spend the time making the work. And you can't spend time making the work if you're trying to have a wild life and be inspired all the time.

Chuck Close says inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just sit down and get to work.

KUT News: So that's why you place a great emphasis on process?

Kleon: Process has become more and more important to me the older I get and the more seasoned of an artist I become. I think that having a good routine is actually more important than having a lot of time to work.

A lot of people I talk to have day jobs. Everybody's trying to make a living but they also have their passion that they want to do on the side. The thing I always encourage people is to just make a little bit of daily time to do that thing that you love. Build it into your routine.

The thing about the repetitive everyday process of going to work, you'll get way more farther quicker than if you just set aside weekends or huge bursts of time in which to work. It's the repetitive everyday nature of creativity that makes it happen.

KUT News: The next step, of course, is to show your work. And that brings us to the title of your new book, which is "Show Your Work." Why is sharing such an important part of creativity?

Kleon: Sharing is how creativity works. I think we have this idea that, artists and creative folks, it's from the individual that a lot of creativity happens.

But if you believe that you're the product of your influences, then you have to believe that a lot of what happens – the magic of creativity – is about being connected to ideas and being in contact with lots of different inspiration.

It follows that if you are inspired by work that you have to put work back out into the world so that you can inspire other people.

I think of these books as the Robin Hood box set. First you steal, and then you share.

KUT News: But what if your work isn't ready? What if you don't want to make a bad first impression?

Kleon: One of the things I always like to say is that a good way to get started sharing your own work is by sharing your passion for the work of others.

Say you're an aspiring musician. A lot of the things that I recommend to young musicians starting out is, are you writing about your favorite musicians? Are you sharing your favorite albums? Do you have a radio show?

Think of a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino. It's obvious that his love of movies feeds right into his making of movies. And he's always been an outspoken fan as much as a creator.

It's like doing that dance between being a fan and someone who has fans. You have to be a fan first if you want fans.

KUT News: You have the honor of giving the first keynote speech at South by Southwest Interactive this year, a hotbed of ideas and creativity. What are you going to talk about?

Kleon: I was just interviewed by the New York Times. I finally got into the Times. And the question they asked me is, "Is the conference that I'm keynoting over? Has it jumped the shark? Has it gotten too big? Is there a spot for your average person to come in and find inspiration and find a place for themselves."

A lot of what I want to talk about is how to see South by Southwest as a creative community and how to operate in a way that actually contributes to the community and doesn't drain it.

Because I think a lot of what's happening with South by Southwest right now, is there's a lot of what I call vampires and human spam. There's basically the people who want to take all the inspiration, and then there's people who want to flood you with their own thing that they're shilling.

I want my talk to be about people can be a contributor to a community and not drain it or drown it.

KUT News: How do we do that? How do we make sure that we're not "human spam" or a "vampire"?

Kleon: I think one of the first things to do is to think about sharing and to think about what sharing actually is.

Sharing is an act of generosity. You're putting something out there because you think it might be helpful or useful to other people. You're not just sharing it because it furthers your own agenda or it self promotes. Start thinking about creativity as something that you genuinely share with other people.

Genuinely sharing creativity means, like we talked about before, being a fan before you can have fans, noticing before you get noticed, sharing the work of others just as much as you share your own.

Austin Kleon's SXSW Interactive keynote is Friday, March 7 at 2 p.m.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion-dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on X @KUTnathan.
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