Every idea has an antecedent.  Last February, when Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like An Artist was published it offered readers a close up view of the people and things that shape his work. Kleon’s first book, Newspaper Blackout, was a nominee for the 2010 Goodreads Choice Award in the Poetry category, and became a Poetry Foundation 2010 Best Seller. Recently, I asked the author to participate in a brief Q&A, to highlight a few concepts mentioned in Steal Like An Artist.

You speak about keeping a ‘swipe file’ and the importance of collecting good ideas.  What are some of the more unlikely or memorable source materials that have made it into your file through the years?

AK: Oh, most of what I collect is pretty mundane: newspaper clippings, pages from old books, magazine photos, etc.  

You indicate that you have gained inspiration from the poems that  others share on your Newspaper Blackout website.  How would you describe the creative community that has grown from this reciprocal exchange of ideas?

AK: It’s a funny community, because I don’t know any of the members personally or any of their biographical details, really — we’re all just working in solitude but then sharing that work publicly. The exchange of ideas just comes naturally out of the sharing, not necessarily any back and forth dialogue. 

Keeping a calendar and logbook ensures that structure is built directly into your process. What are some of the measures you have built into your process to ensure sufficient experimentation and exploration? 

AK: For experimentation, I try to structure my work time so that there are no expectations about the results of the work — it’s more like play, like a kid with building blocks or something. As Bob Ross used to say, there are no mistakes, only happy accidents.

For exploration, I find that sticking to a day-to-day routine means that when you break that routine, the strangeness of the upset and the unfamiliar things you experience work on you even more. It makes the travel and the moments of serendipity in the stacks that much more effective.

You have a number of ‘Deleted Scenes’ near the end of the book. Please select one and elaborate. 

AK: Let’s just take “mutations” — sometimes the process of transforming your influences into something new is a matter of the imperfections in your copying. For instance, human memory is a very imperfect device — sometimes our faulty memories of a thing means when we try to replicate it was come up with something new. The voice actor Billy West put it this way: “A bad impression of somebody is a voice no one’s ever heard before!”

Steal Like an Artist will be the focus of the next #creativereads Twitter chat on Tuesday, January 22nd at 8pm ET.  Join us!


Austin Kleon is a writer who draws. He’s the author of two best-selling books: Steal Like An Artist (2012) is an illustrated manifesto for creativity in the digital age, and Newspaper Blackout (2010) is a collection of poetry made by redacting words from newspaper articles with a permanent marker.

His work has been featured on 20×200.com, NPR’s Morning Edition, PBSNewshour, and in The New York Times and The Wall Street JournalNew York Magazine called his work “brilliant,” The Atlantic called him “positively one of the most interesting people on the Internet,” and The New Yorker said his poems “resurrect the newspaper when everybody else is declaring it dead.”

He grew up in the cornfields of Ohio, but now he lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Meghan, his son, Owen, and his dog, Milo.

© 2013