Highlights from Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad by Austin Kleon

Cover of Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad

Highlights from this book

  • Every day is ground hog 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • “Any man can fight the battles of just one day,” begins a passage collected in Richmond Walker’s book of meditations for recovering alcoholics, Twenty-Four Hours a Day. “It is only when you and I add the burden of those two awful eternities, yesterday and tomorrow, that we break down. It is not the experience of today that drives men mad. It is remorse or bitterness for something which happened yesterday or the dread of what tomorrow may bring. Let us therefore do our best to live but one day at a time.”

  • “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” —Annie Dillard

  • 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. When you don’t have much time, a routine helps you make the little time you have count. When you have all the time in the world, a routine helps you make sure you don’t waste it.

  • 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.

  • Some of my favorite artists make “to-draw” lists. David Shrigley will make a huge list of fifty things to draw a week in advance. Having the list means he doesn’t have to waste studio time worrying about what to make. “The simple thing I’ve learned over the years is just to have a starting point and once you have a starting point the work seems to make itself,” he says.

  • Writer Steven Johnson does this in a single document he calls a “spark file”—every time he has an idea, he adds it to the file, and then he revisits the list every couple of months.

  • 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.

  • “Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it well and serenely, and with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • The important thing is to make it to the end of the day, no matter what. No matter how bad it gets, see it through to the end so you can get to tomorrow. After spending the day with his five-year-old son, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his diary, “We got rid of the day as well as we could.” Some days you just have to get rid of as best as you can.

  • When the video-game artist Peter Chan was young, he loved to draw, but he would crumple up his “bad” drawings in fits of frustration. His father convinced him that if he laid the “bad” drawings flat instead of crumpling them up, he could fit more of them in the wastebasket. After his father died, Chan found a folder labeled “Peter” in his father’s possessions. When he looked inside, it was full of his old, discarded drawings. His father had snuck into his room and plucked the drawings he thought were worth saving from the wastebasket.

  • Build a bliss station.

  • 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 phone gives us a lot but it takes away three key elements of discovery: loneliness, uncertainty, and boredom. Those have always been where creative ideas come from.” —Lynda Barry

  • “I must decline, for secret reasons.” —E. B. White

  • Forget the noun, do the verb.

  • Let go of the thing that you’re trying to be (the noun), and focus on the actual work you need to be doing (the verb). Doing the verb will take you someplace further and far more interesting.

  • Job titles can mess you up. Job titles, if they’re taken too seriously, will make you feel like you need to work in a way that befits the title, not the way that fits the actual work. Job titles can also restrict the kinds of work that you feel like you can do.

  • Job titles aren’t really for you, they’re for others. Let other people worry about them.

  • Your real work is play.

  • Art and the artist both suffer most when the artist gets too heavy, too focused on results.

  • 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.”

  • Make gifts.

  • One of the easiest ways to hate something you love is to turn it into your job: taking the thing that keeps you alive spiritually and turning it into the thing that keeps you alive literally.

  • When you start making a living from your work, resist the urge to monetize every single bit of your creative practice. Be sure there’s at least a tiny part of you that’s off-limits to the marketplace. Some little piece that you keep for yourself.

  • “Don’t make stuff because you want to make money—it will never make you enough money. And don’t make stuff because you want to get famous—because you will never feel famous enough. Make gifts for people—and work hard on making those gifts in the hope that those people will notice and like the gifts.” —John Green

  • “Suckcess,” on the other hand, is success on somebody else’s terms.

  • “Suckcess” is what poet Jean Cocteau was referring to when he said, “There is a kind of success worse than failure.”

  • In his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde argues that art exists in both gift and market economies, but “where there is no gift, there is no art.”

  • Try it: If you’re bummed out and hating your work, pick somebody special in your life and make something for them. If you have a big audience, make them something special and give it away. Or maybe even better: Volunteer your time and teach someone else how to make what you make and do what you do. See how it feels. See whether it puts you in a better place.

  • You never know when a gift made for a single person will turn into a gift for the whole world. Consider how many bestselling stories began their life as bedtime stories for specific children. A. A. Milne made up Winnie-the-Pooh for his son, Christopher Robin Milne. Astrid Lindgren’s bedridden daughter Karin asked her to tell a story about some girl named Pippi Longstocking. C. S. Lewis convinced J. R. R. Tolkien to turn the fantastical stories he told his children into The Hobbit. The list goes on and on.

  • The ordinary + extra attention = the extraordinary

  • You have everything you need.

  • Kent said she made common things “uncommon.” (She thought “uncommon” was a better term than “art.”) “I don’t think of it as art,” she said, “I just make things I like bigger.”

  • 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.

  • “Drawing is simply another way of seeing, which we don’t really do as adults,” says cartoonist Chris Ware. We’re all going around in a “cloud of remembrance and anxiety,” he says, and the act of drawing helps us live in the moment and concentrate on what’s really in front of us. Because drawing is really an exercise in seeing, you can suck at drawing and still get a ton out of it. In a blog post about picking up the habit of sketching later in his life, film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “By sitting somewhere and sketching something, I was forced to really look at it.” He said his drawings were “a means of experiencing a place or a moment more deeply.”

  • 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.

  • “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” —Mary Oliver

  • 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.”

  • “Attention is the most basic form of love,” wrote John Tarrant. When you pay attention to your life, it not only provides you with the material for your art, it also helps you fall in love with your life.

  • Art is for life (not the other way around).

  • It can be hard and downright painful to grapple with the idea that people we find reprehensible in their personal lives might also be capable of producing work that is beautiful, moving, or useful to us.

  • We’re all complicated. We all have personal shortcomings. We’re all a little creepy, to a certain degree. If we didn’t believe that we could be a little better in our art than we are in our lives, then what, really, would be the point of art?

  • “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.”

  • You are allowed to change your mind.

  • We’re afraid of changing our minds because we’re afraid of the consequences of changing our minds. What will people think?

  • But to be on brand is to be 100 percent certain of who you are and what you do, and certainty, in art and in life, is not only completely overrated, it is also a roadblock to discovery.

  • Uncertainty is the very thing that art thrives on. The writer Donald Barthelme said that the artist’s natural state is one of not-knowing.

  • The internet, unfortunately, is no longer a safe place to do any kind of experimental thinking, particularly for somebody with an audience or any kind of “brand.”

  • Your bliss station, your studio, a paper journal, a private chat room, a living room full of trusted loved ones: These are the places to really think.

  • Interacting with people who don’t share our perspective forces us to rethink our ideas, strengthen our ideas, or trade our ideas for better ones. When you’re only interacting with like-minded people all the time, there’s less and less opportunity to be changed.

  • Jacobs recommends that if you really want to explore ideas, you should consider hanging out with people who aren’t so much like-minded as like-hearted. These are people who are “temperamentally disposed to openness and have habits of listening.” People who are generous, kind, caring, and thoughtful. People who, when you say something, “think about it, rather than just simply react.” People you feel good around.

  • 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?”

  • 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.

  • Demons hate fresh air.

  • Our morning walk is where ideas are born and books are edited. It’s so crucial that we go for our walk that we’ve adopted the unofficial United States Postal Service motto as our own: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom. . . stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

  • “No matter what time you get out of bed, go for a walk,” said director Ingmar Berman to his daughter, Linn Ullmann. “The demons hate it when you get out of bed. Demons hate fresh air.”

  • When we’re glued to our screens, the world looks unreal. Terrible. Not worth saving or even spending time with. Everyone on earth seems like a troll or a maniac or worse. But you get outside and you start walking and you come to your senses. Yeah, there are a few maniacs and some ugliness, but there are also people smiling, birds chirping, clouds flying overhead…all that stuff. There’s possibility. Walking is a way to find possibility in your life when there doesn’t seem to be any left.

  • 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.”

  • The comedian George Carlin lamented how obsessed we all are with the notion of forward, visible progress. “It’s the American view that everything has to keep climbing: productivity, profits, even comedy.” He felt we made no time for reflection. “No time to contract before another expansion. No time to grow up,” he said. “No time to learn from your mistakes. But that notion goes against nature, which is cyclical.”

  • One way to get in touch with your own seasons is to follow Kent and Thoreau’s leads and observe the seasons in nature. Draw the same tree every week for a year. Take up casual astronomy. Watch the sun rise and set for a week. Observe the moon every night for a few cycles. Try to get a feel for nonmechanical time, and see if it recalibrates you and changes how you feel about your progress.

  • “Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long.” —May Sarton

  • “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.” —Toni Morrison

  • 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. Keep going.

  • Switch your phone to airplane mode. Draw up some lists. Hire a child to teach you to play. Make a gift for someone. Tidy up. Lie down for a nap. Take a long walk.