9 short books all creative people need on their shelf
This article was originally published in The Startup.
I don't like giving advice as I’m by no means qualified to give any sort of directives. So when people ask, I usually point them towards a list of books I think might help. It almost always works. When it comes to creativity and writing, I tend to recommend shorter books - ones you can put on your shelf and reach for when needed, find the right page, read the right line and get back to work. Here are 9 of those books.
Hegarty on Creativity: There Are No Rules - John Hegarty.
A fabulous, beautifully put together, wildly useful little book by advertising executive Sir John Hegarty. If you can truly internalize every word of this book, it’s all you need. Each page or couple of pages contains a straightforward, universal idea presented in a memorable way. Hegarty covers the essential ingredients for a successful creative career, the importance of considering your inputs, how to conquer the blank page, the best way to edit your work and why Hollywood produces so many bad films (it’s the weather. No one wants to get any work done in the sun.) But of course, there are no rules and Hegarty doesn’t try to give any, just guidelines and suggestions.
Damn Good Advice (For People With Talent) - George Lois.
Yes, you count as a person with talent and in this book, the iconic art director and designer George Lois offers advice for making the best of it in a cut-throat world. For the most part, it’s a book about overcoming fear, believing in your ideas and learning to sell yourself. All illustrated with original adverts Lois worked on and photographs from his long, bright career.
The Creative Habit: Learn It & Use It For Life - Twyla Tharp.
Contrary to popular belief, discipline is an integral part of creativity. If you only make art when you feel like it, you’ll never make anything. In this book, dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp runs through the habits and routines that have helped her design dozens of award-winning shows over a 50 odd year career. It’s practical, it’s useful, but it doesn’t throw away the romance and enjoyment. Creativity is a habit and through rigid, regimented routine you can learn to consistently make good work. And when you’re stuck, this book contains exercises and suggestions for breaking through.
Love Yourself (Like Your Life Depends On It) - Kamal Ravikant.
Self-loathing and creativity tend to go hand in hand. Now, I’m the first to disagree with anyone who claims that depression or plain old sadness make you more creative. That’s total rubbish. And that’s why I’m including this book as an essential read. It’s a short, concise, smart book that teaches you how to love yourself. Not with wishy-washy platitudes and vague statements, but with practical, direct ideas that guide you through the process. If you learn to love yourself, your work will be a hundred times better. Self-hatred and self-criticism are the biggest hurdles most creative people face - not public opinion, or the criticism of others, or even the reluctance of gatekeepers. Your worst enemy is always yourself. Let Kamal Ravikant help you change that.
Anything You Want - Derek Sivers.
So you’re making this thing. What to do want it to be? Will it be warped and changed by other people’s expectations, by societal norms, by your own fears? Or will it be anything you want, what YOU want? That’s what this book is about, told through the example of Derek Sivers’ experience building and selling CD Baby. It’s on this list because sometimes, as creatives, we need a reminder that you’re allowed to opt-out of the bullshit. You’re allowed to stay small, to keep your integrity, to go slow, to do it your way. If not, what are you doing this for?
The Epic of Gilgamesh - translated by NK Sanders.
This is an odd choice for this list. The Epic of Gilgamesh is humanity’s oldest surviving story, an epic tale first written down over 4000 years ago but possibly passed on through oral history before then. It tells the same core story as just about every piece of art created since: a quest for understanding, for discovery, for the meaning of life. Gilgamesh, a half god king most likely based on a real person, supposedly ruled Uruk for 126 years, beginning in 2600 BCE. Along with his best-friend (and possibly lover) Enkidu, Gilgamesh sets off on an epic quest to kill a giant and discover the secret of eternal life.
Why is The Epic of Gilgamesh on this list? Because it teaches something crucial about human nature. It shows that some ideas, some stories have extraordinary staying power. Even today, I promise that when you read this book you’ll feel something. You’ll feel the emotion of their journey, the sadness of their parting, the impact of the final quest. That’s why it’s on this list: it shows that there is more to art than trends or times.
The Writing Life - Annie Dillard.
When you make stuff for a living, it’s often hard to convey to people what your day to day life is like. The reality is that it’s rarely glamorous and much of the time it’s a slow, unrewarding, ego killing grind. The pay-the-bills stuff is more straightforward, has a deadline and a clear roadmap so although there’s less room for creativity, it’s usually easier to do. It’s the stuff you do for love which can be the most merciless- you know that the world isn’t waiting for it, there’s no deadline unless you set one and no one will really care or perhaps even notice if you don’t do it. Much of the time I live in a twilight world, in my office before it’s light and home after dark, hoodie pulled up to block out my vision, white noise playing loud to block out sounds, spending every waking hour writing and reading. It all blends together.
This book is about that grind, that strange world you inhabit as you try to tease enough content out of your brain to meet deadlines, pay the bills and satisfy your own drives. Very compelling and a stunning book.
On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft - Stephen King.
A classic for writers, but worth reading for anyone who tells stories in their work - which is essentially all artists. It’s also not strictly that short, so I’m just counting the section giving writing advice and not the entire book. Stephen King is, whatever, anyone says, a brilliant writer. He knows how to get attention. And he knows how to hold it. Which is not an easy feat- it’s hard enough to get people to finish a 500-word article, let alone a 1200-page book. In On Writing, King serves up solid advice for the wannabe writer, explains his own daily writing routine (spoiler alert: it’s disciplined as heck) and discusses his path from disobedient schoolboy to one of the bestselling authors ever. The core principles are transferable to almost any art.
Exercises in Style - Raymond Queneau.
A mildly infuriating read which nonetheless proves that nonetheless makes a good point: it’s always possible to find a new to present an idea. In this book, Queneau tells the same simple story about an encounter on the bus in 99 different styles. The styles range from metaphor and cockney, to cross-examination and dog latin, and from haiku to blurb.