Five Books to Boost Creativity

The following appeared in the October 2012 issue of Drash Pit. Thanks to editor, Neena Husid, for allowing me to reprint it here. Drash Pit is accepting submissions for its next issue. The theme is "Act." For more information, go to

In all the years I studied art history – as an undergraduate, as an M.A. student, and as a doctoral candidate; at U.C. Santa Barbara, at U.C. Berkeley, and at U.T. Austin – no one ever mentioned the creative process or that such a thing existed. We learned about different painting techniques, for example the thick impasto brushwork favored by Van Gogh, and memorized terms like chiaroscuro, the use of light and dark to create dimension. Occasionally my dissertation advisor, who began his career as a painter, would mention the odd accidents of the studio that could lead someone in a new direction. But to talk about the mystery of creation – the leaps of mind that are invisible in finished works – was just not done. As I learned from Sarah Thorton’s book, Seven Days in the Art World, in today’s hippest art schools, talking about “creativity” is cornball, associated with women of a certain age with big hair and glue guns.

 When I left university life and set out to become a writer, I had no clue how to get from the academic mindset that values critical thinking, to the open space of creating something out of nothing. A friend recommended The Artists Way, by Julia Cameron, a twelve-step program for blocked creatives, which I diligently followed while I was still writing my dissertation. It was the first of many books that helped me negotiate a different life as a writer. Even now, when I get stuck, I go back to these books—or find a new one. The following are a few of my favorites.

 1) The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron

Julia Cameron is a one-woman industry, filling book after book with her musings on the creative life and exercises to get blocked artists back on their creative path. The Artist’s Way is her first and probably best-known book, introducing the world to Morning Pages, three pages of long hand stream-of-consciousness writing first thing in the morning, and the Artist Date, which involves actually getting out of the house – visiting a museum, a fabric shop, or the zoo, for example – in order to stock the well. Doing something fun is good for your brain chemistry, but because fun doesn’t come easy to me, I tend to favor Cameron’s more mundane suggestions, like cleaning out your sock drawer and making soup to help clear the cobwebs in your brain.

 While many of Cameron’s books are twelve-week programs, I prefer The Sound of Paper because you can read one short chapter a day, which doesn’t disrupt my writing schedule. If the creativity books are getting in the way of creating, that is a problem. My favorite exercise in Sound of Paper is what Cameron calls the grid, an open approach to scheduling that I found useful in the days when my daughter was tiny and my days were fragmented. Not that it’s changed that much, but there is something called the school day, which is convenient for getting a few things done. The grid is a simple of list of five activities you commit to do on a daily basis and that can occur at any time of day in any order. My original list included meditation, writing practice, exercise, reading, and spending quality time with my family. It’s pretty much what I do now, although without the training wheels.

   2)    Ignore Everybody, And 39 Other Keys to Creativity, by Hugh Macleod

Hugh MacLeod moved to New York in his twenties, following his dream of becoming a syndicated cartoonist and taking a job as a copywriter while he pitched his wares to the big guns. Frustrated by failure, he took to sitting at a bar in the evenings and drawing on the back of his business cards—not to make anything out of them, but because it was fun and relaxing. Soon he began putting them on a blog along with some advice about the creative life and, lo and behold, he got a book contract. Each of the 39 chapters in Ignore Everybody doles out a gem of useful advice for creative success. More than any individual bit of wisdom, however, I liked his story, because he drew his way to where he was going, which has always worked for me, only through writing. I point myself in some direction – I want to me be a mother, a writer, a coach – and I write myself there. Best mode of transportation I know. But MacLeod reminds us it doesn’t just happen by magic. Remember Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours? MacLeod’s drawings succeeded because he put in the time. He drew on a lot of those little cards before he became successful.

 3) Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon

Being a fan of the list as literary form for the lazy, I’m dying to steal Austin Kleon’s idea and structure a book on one of my to-do lists. In the first chapter of Steal Like an Artist, Kleon encourages his readers to go out and grab what we like and mix it up in our creative stew. He doesn’t mention the oft-quoted maxim, attributed variously to Eliot or to Picasso, that good artists borrow but great artists steal. Nor the original thief, Prometheus, who stole the creative fire from under the noses of the gods. My favorite part of Kleon’s book is in fact something he stole from someone else. It’s a psychological map of the creative process in the shape of a “V.” You begin with the big idea and a lot of excitement and enthusiasm, which drops dramatically as soon as you realize how much work it will take to complete the thing and what kind of stamina you will need to endure the boring parts. The map does shoot back up again when you start laying track and getting the work done, although it never ascends to the level of the original excitement. Looking at the “V” on the days when I’m tired and thinking I can’t possibly finish the book I’m writing, I see that I am totally on track with the process and continue on my way, because at some point, I’ll be on the upward ascent.

 4) The Creative Habit, Learn It and Use It For Life, by Twyla Tharp

 When I first read about Twyla Tharp’s morning routine in her book, The Creative Habit, I became so tired thinking about everything she did while I was still sleeping, I was sure I was not cut out for a creative life. Tharp wakes up before dawn and catches a cab to go to her gym where she works out for two hours. Then she goes to her office and does all kinds of business type things – phone calls, e-mails, bills – before she goes in the studio, where she choreographs dances performed all over the world. She says that everything depends on how her day begins—which is not in the gym or at her desk, but the moment she steps off the curb to hail a cab. That’s what sends the message to her brain that her day as dancer, choreographer, and director of a dance company is beginning. I don’t have to hail a cab to get to my place of business as my studio is right next to my bedroom, but once I’m there I can find plenty of things to procrastinate. Lighting a stick of incense or an army of votive candles before I get distracted by e-mail and Facebook, sends me a message that my writing day is beginning. Creativity becomes a habit through ritual and repetition.

 5) Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg

For over thirty years, Natalie Goldberg has been exploring the relationship between her Zen practice and writing. I picked up Writing Down the Bones when I was in graduate school and struggling with my dissertation. When I got to the rules of writing practice, I set my kitchen timer for ten minutes and I haven’t stopped writing since. Writing practice teaches you how to keep your own company and stay honest with yourself on a daily basis.

 The first and most important tenet of this work is to keep your hand moving, thereby staying one step ahead of the inner editor, who wants to stop and correct, not to mention stifle you, at every turn. Even if writing is not your primary medium, there is something here for all creative efforts. I offer here the three most important lessons about writing that Goldberg learned from her Zen teacher, Dainen Katagiri Roshi:

· Continue under all circumstances.

· Don’t get tossed away.

· Make positive effort for the good.

For years I struggled with the last one, not knowing what to make of it. At a recent retreat, Natalie explained that when you are at your lowest, when you are depleted and can’t get out of bed, you make positive effort by walking to the bathroom and brushing your teeth. You pick up your pen – or your paintbrush or camera – and you write or paint or take a picture. You don’t have to write the great American novel. Maybe you write for five minutes, paint a single brushstroke on a blank canvas. But you move. You continue. You don’t get tossed away.


(C) 2011 Saundra Goldman