One of my weirdest scholarly tics is a tendency to bury the most interesting or original part of my argument. The clearest example of this is my relationship with psychoanalysis. On the one hand, I do love Lacan and Freud, and I’m pretty sure that I could talk you around to my way of reading them. On the other hand, I almost *never* talk about it. (A quick search of my main pre-ProfHacker blog returns a mere 2 posts on Lacan, which surprises even me.)
This is weird for several reasons: I end up a bit isolated from other people working on common projects; I end up dramatically downplaying the potential interest of my own work; and I sometimes look like a deranged person because I operate from a set of assumptions about how stories work, or don’t work, that aren’t immediately obvious. There’s a real irony here: I mostly have adopted this strategy for self-preservation (“what if people think I’m wrong?”), and the result is that . . . people, especially in early drafts, will sometimes miss the interesting point about the work, or will think I’m wrong. And worse, from a career point of view, it means people don’t think of me for projects and such.
Another irony is that someone who has been blogging for over a decade now, and who is reasonably present on Twitter, spends a surprising amount of effort on *not* being easily found for his work.
Austin Kleon’s new book, Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered, not only explains why this strategy of mine is wrong and self-destructive, but more usefully offers unusually practical advice about why writers, artists, and academics might want to be findable online, and how to make that possible. Kleon is an Austin-based “writer who draws,” who first gained prominence for his Newspaper Blackout Poems, and has more recently written Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. (He’s huge in our house: My 10yo has a print of Kleon’s “How to Be Cool” in his homework area.)
Show Your Work! is an accessible, brief primer for making your work accessible online for fun and profit. Kleon begins with the idea that what’s wanted is an “alternative, if you will, to self-promotion": “I’m going to try to teach you how to think about your work as a never-ending process, how to share your process in a way that attracts people who might be interested in what you do, and how to deal with the ups and downs of putting yourself and your work out in the world.” Drawing from Brian Eno’s concept of scenius (as well as writers such as Steven Johnson), Kleon explains that this is the real key to being online: “Blogs, social media sites, email groups, discussion boards, forums--they’re all the same thing: virtual scenes where people go to hang out and talk about the things they care about.”
Kleon is probably most interesting when he focuses on sharing work in progress--not shoddy, not-ready-for-prime-time work--but the actual progress of working. “Whatever the nature of your work,” he writes, “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.” Using the array of digital tools now available to document your workflow, Kleon suggests, will both help you find others with similar interests, and become seed for your own future work.
Some of his advice is more useful than other parts. For example, I got more from the chapter on building your name online than I did from his exhortation to read the obituaries for inspiration. That said, my only real quibble with Show Your Work! is that Kleon tends to offer technological advice in the form of, “Google [topic].” (For example: “These things [domain names] sound technical, but they’re really not--a few Google searches and some books from the library will show you the way.”) On the one hand, that strategy probably keeps his advice evergreen; on the other hand, sometimes it’s useful to see just how simple a particular process actually is.
For anyone who is looking either to find more exposure for their work, or who is just puzzled about how social media could be professionally useful, Show Your Work! is an interesting, helpful read.
Have you read Show Your Work!? Have an alternative title to suggest? Let us know in comments!