The world has changed since last I wrote about a week ago, something that feels more uncanny than it does anything else. Needless to say, we’re going through wild, uncertain times, and I can only hope that you are safe, doing your part in flattening the curve.
I have not left my house since Saturday. And Sunday, my office sent out a message saying we would be closed until the end of the month. This is, technically speaking, the first time off I’ve had in over a year, and I wanted to take advantage of it as best I could. I would read all of the books, for one. I would write. I would do this and that and also this.
But, like a lot of others right now, anxiety has gotten the best of me these last couple of days, completely shot my focus, and just making it difficult for me to enjoy the things I generally love.
Which is where Keep Going comes in.
Austin Kleon has made a name for himself writing motivational books about being a more creative person in the modern, digital age. His first book of this kind, Steal Like an Artist, was all about channeling your influences (my nicer way of saying “just straight up steal from your idols”) in order to create something that may not be entirely new and unique, but that is entirely and uniquely yours. Show Your Work! was more business-like in nature, expounding advice and industry knowledge on how to share your stuff with the world and making a space for yourself within it.
Keep Going feels like a natural progression from those themes, but its central message is perhaps less tangible in nature. It is a book about being creative, yes, and it is also full of useful, practical information — but it is also a book that is less interested with the external side of things than it is with the internal. Less concerned with the how than it is the why of making art. Where the first two books deal with the more physical, material aspects of creating art, Keep Going is about what it feels to create said art. Specifically how it feels to create art when things aren’t going that well.
If the past handful of years have shown us anything, it’s that we live in tumultuous times. One glance at any recent headline is enough to fill anyone with dread and dismay. With so many cheerless and complicated things going on in the world it can be easy to feel as if doing anything artful and creative is a trivial endeavor at best, or actively selfish at worst. How can you sit there, frivolously frolicking away while the world crumbles around us?
With Keep Going, however, Austin Kleon reminds us that art is not a gratuitous, self-indulgent thing. That it is important and necessary. And especially so during times of strife, where it acquires even greater significance. “To any creators who feel guilty making art when the house is on fire,” author V.E. Schwab wrote recently, “please remember: you make the doorways out.” And here’s Kleon quoting the late, great Toni Morrison:
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.
It should be noted, however, that at no point does this book imply that you have this obligation to be creative in spite of the difficulties around you. Everyone deals with hardship in their own way, after all.
Here’s writer Robin Sloan, in a recent edition of his newsletter:
In 1816, the gloomy “Year Without a Summer,” Mary Shelley stayed indoors at a lakeside hotel; not quarantine, but maybe quarantine-adjacent. There, bored and haunted, she conceived the story that would grow into her novel Frankenstein, the foundation stone of the genre we now call science fiction.
It’s moderately annoying when people invoke work like that, because it feels like the implication is, if you’re not writing Frankenstein what are you even DOING? That’s not what I mean. It’s just that the big, bright examples help us see it clearly: toil in the shadow of calamity will have its day.
Toil in the shadow of calamity WILL have its day.
A crack in everything; that’s how the art gets in.
Keep Going acts more like a permission slip. You can create art, it says, if you want to. If you are able. If you must.
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.
The world can only benefit from your contribution, ultimately, if you just keep going.