“What are you reading?”
It’s the question I love to ask when I meet others who value great stories, good writing, and creative thinking. When the answer strikes a chord, I add the title to my Goodreads “want to read” list. And when a friend turns the question around on me, I’m happy to share my list of books-in-progress—along with my honest take on whether they’re works worth reading.
I’ve read some really good stuff lately. Moving memoirs like When Breath Becomes Air and Educated. Entertaining novels like Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows and The 100-Year-Old Man who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. Thought-provoking non-fiction like The Gifts of Imperfection and Rewire: Change Your Brain to Break Bad Habits, Overcome Addictions, and Conquer Self-Destructive Behavior.
But frankly, it’s been quite some time since I read a book that changed my life.
Can a book change your life?
Oh, yes! Particularly your creative life. I’ve found that creative people are mighty generous in sharing their tips, tricks, and tales of triumph. So, if you’re searching for inspiration, encouragement, or even practical how-to instructions on how to be more creative, here are four books I recommend. Each has had significant influence on my creative practices, my creative outlook, and my creative life.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
I bought this book the year it was published, way back in 1994, not long after I graduated from journalism school. A straight-A student who became a type-A corporate communicator, I was striving to be the top-notch writer every senior executive would trust to craft their stories. Mine was a severe case of I-know-what-I’m-doing perfectionism. I labored over my work, carefully choosing my words, dotting every i and crossing every t. I took great pride in writing “right.”
Imagine my indignation when I read Lamott’s claim that all good writers write Shitty First Drafts (that’s the title of the third chapter in Bird by Bird).
Gasp! Not me!
But I loved her writing style. Bird by Bird was so good. And so were Lamott’s novels, I discovered. Obviously, this writer knew what she was talking about.
So, I practiced what Lamott preached. I accepted her permission to write badly—at least for first drafts—so I could get words out of my head and onto the page where I could see and shape and use them. I followed her instructions to silence those critical, inner voices that told me that I was on the wrong track, that I was stupid, that I was making a mistake.
It worked! Not only did I generate better raw material to feed those second, third, fourth, and final drafts, I wrote faster. I wrote in a clearer, more natural voice. And I had fun!
Today, Jill and I recommend Bird by Bird at nearly all of our Story Mode workshops. Shitty First Drafts is writing gospel, and I’m an evangelist making disciples.
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Generally speaking, I am not a re-reader. But in the past 18 years, I have read The Artist’s Way clear through five times, and I’ve revisited certain pages many times over. Passages are highlighted pink, green, yellow, and blue, and the margins are full of hand-written scribbles in ink and pencil. In effort to compare my responses, I use a different writing instrument each time I read the book. I’m due to dive in again, and this next pass may have to be with purple crayon!
The cover of this book includes two phrases that speak volumes about this volume.
The first identifies the work as “a course in discovering and recovering your creative self.” This isn’t just a book; it’s a course. You don’t exactly read The Artist’s Way; you work it, you follow it, you do it. If you move at a deliberate pace, as Cameron suggests, you’ll complete the course in 12 weeks. You can do it alone, or recruit a partner or small group to work along with you. The content and exercises make for excellent discussions; plus, when the assignments rub you the wrong way (and some might), it’s good to have an accountability partner who will keep you from losing faith in the process.
The second phrase you’ll find on the cover is the subtitle: “A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity.” If you’re not into spirituality—especially if you’re looking to amp up your workplace creativity—you might be tempted to poo-poo the woo-woo of The Artist’s Way. Cameron anticipates this resistance and addresses it on page one. Whether you believe in a higher power or not, she says, you can find and use your own creative energy. Week by week, she’ll show you how.
And she does. Her instructive approach taught me a lot about discipline and discovery. By reading the weekly assignments, taking her recommended field trips, and noticing the inspiring quotes she sprinkles throughout the text, I gradually owned up to the notion that I am an artist. Practice helped me get there.
Speaking of practice, that’s the whole point of this book.
In 2012, I wrote a poem a day: 366 poems (it was a leap year). Maintaining that streak was challenging and rewarding. I was proud!
My husband saw what that experience did for my confidence and creativity, and he urged me to keep going—if not with poetry, then with some other form of expression. He bought me this book, which offers 365 prompts to inspire an entire year’s worth of creative invention.
I had worked from a list of prompts when writing my 366 poems, so I knew Scalin’s daily assignments would give me a reason to show up every day and make something. That kind of structure that keeps me from making the excuse, “I couldn’t think of anything today.”
What intrigued me was the possibility of trying a new medium. Sure, I had dabbled in all kinds of crappy crafts. But as an artist, words were my jam. Inspired by Scalin’s own 365 project (he made a skull a day), I resolved to experiment with more visual forms of expression. To ease out of my verbal comfort zone, I chose “words” as a theme for the year. But instead of making poems or paragraphs, I “illustrated” words. I fashioned “fat” from pats of butter and “wipe” from strips of toilet paper. Over time, I felt liberated to stray from the theme. Some of my creations had nothing to do with words (like these bar code earrings cut from soda cans). I was just having a blast, exploring what I could make!
Imagine working out at the gym every day for a year, without a miss. That kind of discipline pays off in creative exercise just as in physical exercise. Shortly after finishing Scalin’s book, I wrote, “Through daily practice, I strengthened my creative muscles. And those muscles have memory. Now I’m quicker to think of solutions to problems, new angles on writing projects, even suggestions for my children when they’re bored. I’m seldom ‘stuck’ or at a loss for ideas.”
The 365 adventure was not a one-time thing for me. This year I’m illustrating a quote a day, combining the visual and the verbal in an even more focused way. I’d love for you to follow my progress on Instagram!
Frederick by Leo Lionni
I have a hunch that all “creatives” occasionally regularly experience a crisis of confidence. When that happens to you, go get this book.
My first encounter with Frederick was probably at my public library when I was very young. Published in 1967, it’s even older than me. It’s a children’s book. A fable, simply told. Lionni was both a verbal and a visual artist. He authored and illustrated the story with torn and cut paper, fascinating textures, and earthy colors.
Today, I keep a copy of Frederick in my office, at arm’s length from my desk. This copy was a gift from my sister in 2002—the same year I first worked through The Artist’s Way. Coincidence? Probably not.
Frederick tells of field mice preparing for the cold. While the other mice toil and strain to put away food and make their winter home, Frederick seems to just sit, watching. Winter comes, and the mice are ready. Pleased that their hard work paid off, they celebrate. But in time, the food runs out, and so does everyone’s energy and optimism.
That’s when Frederick does his thing.
What does Frederick do? No spoilers. You have to read this book. But I’ll say this: when he shares his gifts—which happen to be visual and verbal—his family responds with enthusiasm and gratitude. By the time you reach the last page of this beautiful book, you realize that Frederick appreciates his talent, too. What he does … well, it matters.
Years ago, surrounded by people with big, important jobs, I was prone to describe myself as “just” a writer. Thanks to Frederick, I’ve abolished that “just.” Every time I glance at this book, it reminds me of my power. Read it!
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