The creative process is a mysterious beast. To help make sense of it, I’ve picked up a bunch of books over the years. Here are a few of my personal favorites for your reading pleasure.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert is a name you may recognize because she’s the author of Eat Pray Love, which was a bestseller a few years ago. Big Magic however is a more recent work of nonfiction focused on the psychology of creativity. More specifically, the negative, self-defeating inner dialogue many creatives face when starting something from zero. The voices which tell you your work is a waste of time, someone more talented has already done it better than you, and there’s no point in trying. Big Magic offers practical advice on how to control and contextualize those thoughts to maintain focus on what matters. Gilbert is transparent about her own failures, books she spent months writing and never completed, and the insecurity, doubt, and fear which has been a constant presence in her life and work.
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
I bought a used copy of this book years ago, and since then I’ve read it multiple times. On Writing Well is mostly about creative writing, but in my opinion, editing is the real takeaway. Cutting the fat. Clarifying intent. Writing actively, not passively. Zinsser preaches an approach to writing which is all about simplifying your work by removing that which is unnecessary, distracting or vague. He doesn’t advocate for removing the soul of your work by making it more utilitarian, but rather ensuring your approach is clear and direct. This book cuts through b.s like nothing else, and it’s worth reading and re-reading to sharpen your communication and creative point of view.
Making Music – 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers by Dennis DeSantis
I’m not a musician, but I bought this book because it provides solutions for common problems faced by musicians when composing music. There are some chapters that go into technical specifics about rhythm, beats, and melody, but most of the book is about process and creative problem solving; a task applicable to any creative field. For me, it’s a fascinating book, because not only do you learn new things about digital music production, but you also come away with interesting insights which are directly applicable to any type of creative work. By the way, you can read eight chapters from Making Music online to check it out before buying.
The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
This book is influenced by the ancient philosophy of Stoicism, which was founded in Athens, Greece in the 3rd Century BC. If you’ve never heard of Stoicism, it’s a collection of teachings which guide practitioners towards happier, more creative and productive lives by contextualizing life events, recognizing what you can and cannot control, and taking responsibility for your own happiness and peace of mind. The “obstacle” in the title refers to whatever is blocking your path forward, and then using that obstacle, instead of avoiding it, to get ahead. For me, it’s a great primer on Stoicism and for getting out of your headspace to be more productive and creative.
Wabi Sabi – For Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers by Leonard Koren
This is a quiet, unassuming book, but it offers a profound viewpoint. The general premise of Wabi-Sabi (which is rooted in ancient Japanese culture) is that the true beauty and character of something, whether that be pottery, architecture, landscape design, or even life itself, lies in its imperfections and impermanence. It’s the crumbling, rough, imperfect texture of things that makes them beautiful and relatable as opposed to the strict geometry of architecture, which embodies beauty with its symmetry and geometry. An antidote for the modern digital age.
The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher
I bought this book almost twenty years ago, and I’m still thinking about it. It’s a large, admittedly odd book you don’t read per se, but rather absorb and find your own meaning in. At its heart, it’s a scrapbook of curious facts, images, quotations, illusions and memory fragments from the mind and drawer of collected ephemera of designer Alan Fletcher. It’s a book to stimulate your eye and mind, and help you see the world around you through a different lens. There’s no beginning or end to the book, you just dive-in wherever you want, and get momentarily lost in its content. I find it to be an unusual, yet fascinating book, and a helpful tool for recognizing and discovering something new in the everyday.
Landscape Painting by Mitchel Albala
This book was a total “why not?” purchase for me. I don’t have an interest in painting landscapes (photographing them is more my speed), but I thought this book might provide some unique insights I could use. Much to my surprise, this ended up being not only one of my favorite books from last year, but a better book on composition, light, color and framing than some photography books I’ve read. The medium may be different by using brushes, paint and canvases, but the core principles are the same. I’m especially intrigued and inspired by the idea of getting beyond realism and painting what you’re observing using the gestural, time-constrained Plen Air method instead of imitating what you’re seeing. Beautiful book.
Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
Shoe Dog is the origin story of Nike as written by its founder and CEO, Phil Knight. It’s an extraordinary memoir, because most of the book is about the earliest days of the brand when Knight had only a few dollars to his name and a passion for Japanese athletic shoes. (Shoes which, by the way, no-one in the United States wore or even knew about). He writes of his struggles borrowing money to import a few boxes of shoes, selling those shoes from the trunk of his car, and all the times his business almost went bankrupt. Even if you don’t have any interest in sports or even shoes for that matter, it’s an inspiring life story of someone who defied the odds, ignored the naysayers, and found success.
Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull
Similar to Shoe Dog is Creativity, Inc by Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull. Catmull shares the history of Pixar, the backstory of their earliest movies, but most importantly, principles for creative success which were used internally at Pixar to help their artists, animators, writers and directors create their best work. Having led creative teams at companies myself, and understanding all too well the daily struggle of being original and successful creatively. It’s an inspiring read on multiple levels.