To be a teacher and remain a student

to be a teacher but remain a student

C.S. Lewis wrote a great introduction to his Reflections on the Psalms that I used in the “Be An Amateur” section of my last book:

I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself… It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can… The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten… I write as one amateur to another, talking about difficulties I have met, or lights I have gained…

This is the way I’ve always tried to approach writing, teaching, or speaking on stage: not as an expert, but as a fellow student. I’m trying to learn in the open. I’m letting others look over my shoulder while I figure things out.

And even when I do think I’ve figured some things out, I’m trying to find more things to figure out, because learning is the thing that keeps me alive, keeps me moving forward.

This, I think, is the great trick: To be a teacher and remain a student.

10 things I learned while writing my last book

working in the garage
My third book Show Your Work! came out a year ago. I kept a diary while writing the book, but it’s too painful and embarrassing to share in full. So here’s a list of lessons I learned while writing it, adapted from a series of tweets

1. Don’t try to write a book while taking care of a newborn baby.

I drastically underestimated how much physical, mental, and spiritual energy it requires. (Sarah Ruhl writes really well about the distractions of parenting.) Those first two months are just brutal — take them off if you can. Keep a pocket notebook and take little notes for later.

2. Write outside of the house.

Get an office, or go to the coffee shop, or ride the train around. At the very least, find a room in your house with a door that closes. Set up a bliss station.

I wrote Show at the top of the stairs in an open loft, wearing headphones to try to block out the cries of the baby. Let me tell you: Headphones are not a replacement for a shut door.

3. Stop researching, start writing.

“There’s an awful temptation to just keep on researching,” says David McCollough. “There comes a point where you just have to stop, and start writing. When I began, I thought that the way one should work was to do all the research and then write the book. In time I began to understand that it’s when you start writing that you really find out what you don’t know and need to know.”

4. Once you’re in the middle of writing the book, talk about the book as little as possible.

I’m an extreme extrovert, which is really great after I write a book and I have to go out into the world and talk to people about it, but not so great when I need to sequester myself long enough to actually get some real writing done.

I do most of my thinking “out loud,” which means that ideas don’t really come to me until I’ve expressed them. If I express them through speech, I’m less likely to turn around and say them in writing. (This chart might help.)

5. Stick to an outline until you’re between drafts.

This has screwed me so many times. Don’t try to change structure during a draft. Power through until the draft is done. (Get The Clockwork Muse, which covers this subject brilliantly.)

6. A book can be a pain-in-the-ass to write as long as it isn’t a pain-in-the-ass to read.

People are surprised when I tell them what a horrible time I had writing this book. Which means I did my job!

7. Your partner or spouse is so, so sick of you.

Seriously. Do something nice for him/her, or at the very least, don’t talk about your book. Schedule regular time together when you don’t talk about work.

8. Don’t use childbirth as a metaphor.

There is only one way that writing a book is like giving birth: After it enters the world, the pain is mostly over, but the work has only begun.

9. Don’t squander your momentum.

After you finish one book, start writing something else as soon as you can. Chain-smoke.

If you’re truly burnt out, quit for a while. Read. Travel. Talk to people. Go away so you can come back.

10. Know what you’re getting into.

Best case scenario: You write a good book that sells. Then everyone will want you to write another one. “What next?” is a never-ending question for the writer… so beware!

You can get a copy of Show Your Work! right here.

The So What? Test

The So What Test

The act of sharing is one of generosity—you’re putting something out there because you think it might be helpful or entertaining to someone on the other side of the screen.

I had a professor in college who returned our graded essays, walked up to the chalkboard, and wrote in huge letters: “SO WHAT?” She threw the piece of chalk down and said, “Ask yourself that every time you turn in a piece of writing.”

It’s a lesson I never forgot.

Always be sure to run everything you share with others through The “So What?” Test. Don’t overthink it; just go with your gut.

If you’re unsure about whether to share something, let it sit for 24 hours. Put it in a drawer and walk out the door. The next day, take it out and look at it with fresh eyes. Ask yourself, “Is this helpful? Is it entertaining? Is it something I’d be comfortable with my boss or my mother seeing?”

There’s nothing wrong with saving things for later. The SAVE AS DRAFT button is like a prophylactic—it might not feel as good in the moment, but you’ll be glad you used it in the morning.

This post is an excerpt from my book, Show Your Work!

The shape of days

i had a rough day

Kurt Vonnegut thought every story has a shape that can be graphed —  each has a beginning and an end (plotted on the x-axis) and every character goes through “good fortune” and “ill fortune” (plotted on the y-axis). I put a bunch of them together for this chart in Show Your Work!:

kurt vonnegut's story graphs

I think our days have shapes, too — each has a beginning and an end, and we go through good and ill fortune as it progresses. [Read more…]

Why my book isn’t just for “creatives”

One thing that keeps coming up over and over on this tour is that Show Your Work! is not just a book for “creatives.” (I hate that word as a noun, btw.) It’s a book for anybody doing any kind of work that they want to get noticed.

We’re not all artists or astronauts. A lot of us go about our work and feel like we have nothing to show for it at the end of the day. But whatever the nature of your work, there is an art to what you do, and there are people who would be interested in that art, if only you presented it to them in the right way. In fact, sharing your process might actually be most valuable if the products of your work aren’t easily shared, if you’re still in the apprentice stage of your work, if you can’t just slap up a portfolio and call it a day, or if your process doesn’t necessarily lead to tangible finished products.

[Read more…]

Show Your Work! is out in the world

Show Your Work! is out in paperback and ebook Thursday, March 6th at bookstores everywhere, including Amazon, B&NPowell’s, iBooks, eBooks.com, and your local indie bookstores.

If you want a signed copy, order one from BookPeople here in Austin, Texas. They ship everywhere. (Here’s video of me signing the last batch.)

I’ll be headed out on tour in late March. Dates here.

To get a feel for what the book is about, check out this excerpt on Medium: “10 Ways To Share Your Creativity.”

Here’s what people are saying on Twitter.

If you’ve already received your copy, please consider writing a review for AmazonGoodreads, or your personal blog! Everything helps.

Thanks so much! Follow me on Twitter for updates: @austinkleon

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