Teach What You Know - Show Your Work! Poster by austinkleon.
I’ve been sort of obsessed with this for the last couple of weeks. I talk about comics frequently , but I always respond to the question “Do you draw?” with a quick and resounding “NO!”—I couldn’t draw to save my life. I’ve made a resolution to start drawing more. Simple things: words with pictures, visual note-taking, so I’m copying Kleon to build my confidence. I’ll move on, and look at Lynda Barry, David Aja, and others, just to get out of my text-filled headspace.
I’ve studied the form of comics for years—I believe that the medium builds better retention and memory, but I do not engage in the drawing aspect of it. Because I believe that I should not draw. Resulting in narrow approach to understanding comics, because I approach it from a writer’s perspective. That is only doing half the job. The way I started writing, by reverse-engineering a Mark Waid Flash comic into prose, makes my base on writing a visual enterprise. I have no aspirations to be a comic artist, that’s not my wheelhouse, but doing it for fun, to get better, is something I think I should do. Why not?
I had Show Your Work pre-ordered forever ago, because I see quite a bit of myself in the work Kleon does. Championing books, combining words with pictures, and talking about process is some of my mine—and his—favorite things. I’m more comfortable with taking pictures and combining them with words than drawing. I see his simple and elegant drawings as something that is not much of a stretch for me artistically.
“ ‘If you look back closely at history, many of the people who we think of as lone geniuses were actually part of “a whole scene of people who were supporting each other, looking at each other’s work, copying from each other, stealing ideas and contributing ideas.’ Scenius doesn’t take away from the achievements of those great individuals; it just acknowledges that good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and that creativity is always, in some sense, a collaboration, the result of a mind connected to other minds.” (11)
This is why I’m not that afraid to admit that I’m copying him and gearing my online presence to be about showing my work, because this is what I’ve been doing all along. I want to try experimenting in my plethora of notebooks, doing more visual things. Like collages.
I feel like I fail all the time—in fact I call myself an amateur at most things. “Amateurs might lack formal training, but they’re all lifelong learners, and they make a point of learning in the open, so that others can learn from their failures and successes.” (16) I’m an enthusiast, I enjoy things and I enjoy getting better as a person and writer, and that means screwing up all the time.
“If you want people to know what you do and the things you care about, you have to share.” (43). Taking photos of my work is what I use Instagram for, it’s filled with things I’m reading, including my writing drafts, followed by a diversion into scenery, because I love where I live and it’s often inspiring and breathtaking.
Kleon’s advice on the internet is also helpful, setting a timer for how much time you spend on it is useful. It’s something I’ve been working very hard on since the end of last semester to make the most of my time and not fall down a rabbit hole. This is why I’ve left my Feedly un-monitored. I’ve been setting a timer for how long I work on something before my mind wanders.
Lauren Cerand’s quote is also great: “Post as though everyone who can read it has the power to fire you.” Professor Viscusi once told me that you should behave in a way that when the New York Times does a profile on you there’s nothing in it that makes you squirm. The best way to execute this is maintaining your own space.
“Your domain name is your domain. You don’t have to make compromises. Build a good domain name, keep it clean, and eventually it will be its own currency.” (69) He’s echoing William Burroughs’s advice to Patti Smith. Though I find Smith to be insufferable, it’s the reason why I registered my blog as davidpress.net. I’m going to take this year to learn some web design and coding to make this place my online home. Frank Chimero is doing this, another person Kleon linked to.
This place is about things I enjoy, that fuel my work, and talk about things like this book. My personal life isn’t a thing I care to talk about here. I’d rather that bleed into my stories, my life is my work, and the personal side of things doesn’t matter. I’m too old for navel-gazing lifeblogging. It’s time to grow up. (He says though a few posts down one will find a panel from a comic book.)
Jonathan Lethem: “ ‘I’m basically a curator…Making books has always felt very connected to my bookselling experience, that of wanting to draw people’s attention to things that I liked, to shape things that I liked into new shapes.’ Lethem is someone I’m studying for my long-gestating analysis on how comic books have affected modern literature. A section of this project will revolve around Lethem, his book The Fortress of Solitude, and his reboot of Omega the Unknown.
The bit about credit is always due (85) is a thing I’m going to talk about this week in English. Teaching what I know has been my daily life for the last two years. I’m going to use the heck out of this in my classes. In fact I’m thinking about teaching this book next semester in first year seminar.
“Every client presentation, every personal essay, every cover letter, every fund-raising request—they’re all pitches. They’re stories with the endings chopped off. A good pitch is set up in three acts: The first act is the past, the second act is the present, and the third act is the future. The first act is where you’ve been—what you want, how you came to want it, and what you’ve done so far to get it. The second act is where you are now in your work and how you’ve worked hard and used up most of your resources. The third act is where you’re going, and how exactly the person you’re pitching can help you get there. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, this story shape effectively turns your listener into the hero who gets to decide how it ends.” (101)
This is the best advice yet, and something I didn’t wrap my brain around until yesterday.
Gustav Freytag’s pyramid of a five-act structure is also something that I’m using in my film class.
Though perhaps the biggest thing, the greatest lesson that I took from in this book is the concept of human spam. Kleon quotes Dan Chaon, someone to whom I’ve been meaning to read:
“The writing community is full of lame-o people who want to be published in journals even though they don’t read the magazines that they want to be published in. These people deserve the rejections that they will undoubtedly receive, and no one should feel sorry for them when they cry about how they can’t get anyone to accept their stories.
“I call these people human spam. They’re everywhere, and they exist in every profession. They don’t want to pay their dues, they want their piece right here, right now. They don’t want to listen to your ideas; they want to tell you theirs. They don’t want to go to shows, but they thrust flyers at you on the sidewalk and scream at you to come to theirs. You should feel pity for these people and their delusions. At some point, they don’t get the memo that the world owes none of us anything.”
I love this. In academia I see these sorts of people all the time and I spend most of my time trying to not come off like them. This is why this blog is about other people’s work rather than my own, other people’s creative efforts enrich me. As a teacher, I think the people who come to me for help are co-conspirators I’m helping them out and they’re helping me get better at my job, because teaching what I know is rewarding and helps me get outside of my head-shaped box.
Finally, the concept of chain smoking is something I’m doing now.
“You avoid stalling out in your career by never losing momentum. Here’s how you do it: instead of taking a break in between projects, waiting for feedback, and worrying about what’s next, use the end of one project to light up the next one. Just do the work that’s in front of you, and when it’s finished, ask yourself what you missed, what you could’ve done better, or what you couldn’t get to, and jump right into the next project.” (189)
I’ve been doing that with my fiction writing lately. If I feel myself stalling out on the next segment of the story, I switch to another story I’m working on—like a piece for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. I’ll return to the piece of fiction I come at it with a new editorial perspective, because I have some distance from it. This is why I have many projects going at the same time—will I finish any of them? Staggering these projects, chain smoking off of them provides distance for re-writing.
Exercising, reading, making time away from the desk refuels me. Going away so you can come back, helps you come back to the work with a fresh head. This is why I cut off work in the evening, I use that time to make sure I get my daily word count in on my manuscript, and then I watch a show and start reading. That refuels me to begin again the next day.
tl;dr: I highly recommend this book. Kleon’s work is probably the only self-help books I’ll read and re-read, because they help me focus on what is important. Doing good work helps me have a healthy more meaningful life, and my personal life is the best it’s ever been as a result.