Show Your Work or No Artist Exists In a Vacuum

Yesterday I read a book called Show Your Work, a wonderful piece of non-fiction that discusses the transparency of project work.  In its digital pages (I bought the Kindle version), Austin Kleon explores the importance of (what else?) showing your work.  This is quantified in the following terms:

  • Put the process first, not the product
  • Tell good stories
  • Teach what you know
  • Don't turn into human spam

There are other topics discussed, but for the sake of brevity (and density of the contents within), I'll keep it to these for now.  

Process First, Not Product

I find this to be the most compelling part of the book.  In it, Kleon asserts that people enjoying watching the process of an artist, to the extent that a potential audience follows creatives who show 'how the sausage is made'.  Sharing stirring sentences within a book, for example, stimulates discourse and draws in a potential audience with the promise of intrigue.  No two artists work the same, after all, and revealing how an artist works breeds familiarity and compassion for the person behind the pen.  

Regular updates on social media illustrating the current draft's status:

1. Documents the work's progression, keeping a potential audience informed about a new release.

2. Breeds a sense of familiarity with the creator, showcasing the human aspect involved in the project. 

3. Generates intrigue in the final result, making people more likely to 'tune in' to the finished result.  

The book describes this as being your own documentarian, an argument I find quite compelling.  Being an author is a solitary occupation and sharing the journey is a way to make the road much less lonely.  At the very least, it demonstrates how far you've come.  

  Tell Good Stories

This section of the book is the one I find to be the most well-written.  Through the narrative of an art collector transfixed by a painting, the book illustrates that the actual value we ascribe to things may be disproportional to its origin.  At the end of the example, the object of obsession is revealed to be a forgery of a 'greater' piece of art.

Now, I'm summarizing a lot of Kleon's deceptively dense prose, but the takeaway is that prior to the revelation, people value the story of an object more than the object itself.  A painting that took five dollars and thirty minutes could be worth thousands of dollars, if it has a good story attached to it.  Though this means that narratives can be woven for nefarious and deceptive purposes, the book concludes that reality is mutable, dependent on the capricious whims of our world's storytellers.  There's an NFT joke in here somewhere, but I'll leave that to you to provide yourself.  

Teach What You Know

You'd think this would be the most transparent section of the book, but Show Your Work always finds ways to subvert expectations.  This chapter discusses how none of us really know anything (thanks Aristotle!) and that we should always strive to be amateurs in everything that we do.  Teaching what we know, in this sense, is to demonstrate what we've learned, sharing kernels of knowledge, bumps in the road, and other otherwise difficult lessons we hash out along the way.     

What this brings is a paradox; how can we call ourselves masters of anything if we're perpetually in a state of learning?  Ah, says the book as it leans back in its leather-bound chair and lights its pipe, that's the beauty of education.  Revealing what you've learned opens a dimension of knowledge for both the author and the audience.  In sharing what information you've gathered, you keep yourself in the mindset of a beginner, always ready for a world of new possibilities as well as facilitating a culture of collaborative collaboration.  

The word amateur means 'one who loves' in French, meaning that one should pursue their interests with the fervor of a passionate lover, giving themselves deeply and completely to the endeavor.  This practical application of love is one that ensures that the creator is always looking upon their crafts with fresh eyes, along with exercising perpetual gratitude from the mentors and students they gather along the way.  

Don't Turn Into Human Spam

I'll end with this topic, as I find this to be the most prevalent on the internet.  Kleon defines human spam as a person who doesn't listen to the world around them, locking themselves in an endless cycle of tone-deaf self-promotion.  Human spam don't care about what other people are doing within their niche, nor take the time to form bonds with people that share their interests, instead screaming about how great they are from a soapbox constructed of their own hubris.  Being human spam means that you've become white noise against the backdrop of your own existence.  If you don't take the time to listen, Kleon argues, why should anyone care about what you bring to the conversation?  

Instead, focus on the discussion that's happening within your niche, and digest what other people have to say.  Only when you've taken the time to understand what people are talking about can you insert your own perspective on the topic at hand, making your contribution to the discourse topical and interesting.

Final Thoughts 

I think Show Your Work is a must-read for creatives, one that should be bought, read, internalized, and kept on the shelf next to one's copy of On Writing by Stephen King.  Austin Kleon's insights are straightforward, intuitive, yet profound.  The amount of practical and motivational advice compressed within each chapter's pages is astounding.  There is far more wisdom outlined within its 131 pages, wisdom that is worth far more than the twelve dollar price of admission set for this masterful paperback.  I can say, without hyperbole, that this book has changed my life's perspective.  So, what's changing your life worth to you?    


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