Books on creativity


I've had the "writer's block" bug toward working on music for a while.  In my case, I think that most of the problem is simply angst about learning new software, but while I'm gearing up to enter a new phase of musical productivity, I've been revisiting some books about creativity and finding/maintaining inspiration.  Here are some mini-reviews of creativity-oriented books I've found useful at different times, loosely divided by angle of attack (art versus philosophy versus "pop"/business):

From the perspective of art

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.
Probably like many folks, I was required to read this book for a college class, but it's one of the best required books I've ever read.  Goldberg's advice is generally directed at stimulating creative writing, but I've found that the basic ideas apply to all kinds of creative pursuits.  As a young ruffian, I found her advice at writing in restaurants really useful for developing relationships with places that will let you linger a while: treat your time there tip-wise like a "booth rental" instead of leaving a tiny tip on a cup of coffee, for example.  And I was pleased to discover the work of Russell Edson in her chapter on his brand of strange literary transformations.

The only negative aspect of this book is that I think the ideas generally apply better to short forms of creativity: poems, short stories, song lyrics, etc.  And it's good for ideas to generate new creative material.  However, it doesn't spend much time addressing the different skill sets needed to organize these creative impressions into larger kinds of formats like novels.  To be fair, that really applies to most of the books in this post, though--it seems that books on creativity are largely designed to get you "in the zone," and you can consult more formal resources if you need helping making sense of these ideas in a more ambitious format.

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

Nebraska's own painter, thinker, and leader of the Ashcan School of painting, Henri's book focuses mostly on the act of painting.  A good portion of the text gets somewhat technical in terms of visual art.  However, quite a bit applies to creativity in general.  The reader can pull what amount to aphorisms out of many sections of the work:

"Cherish your own emotions and never undervalue them."

"We are not here to do what has already been done."

"The study of art is the study of the relative value of things."

"No vacillating or uncertain interest can produce a unity."

Good stuff.  It's great to have such a heritage from nearby.

A Book of Surrealist Games, by Alastair Brotchie and Mel Gooding

The concepts in this book are absolutely essential for all artists to explore, in my opinion.  The surrealist games highlight various different modes of finding associations between seemingly disparate items in art, and in the world.  New relationships are discovered both between items in-the-world, and between different artists/people who might collaborate on the games.
I have played surrealist games since college in a variety of formats, and with people from many walks of life, and the results never fail to amaze me in the specific, or inspire me more generally.  I have played most of the games in this book, and also designed some games using music (recorded and performed) that are analogous to the original literary and visual art-based games.  I'll get into these in detail, including some resources to run your own surrealist game-based parties, in a later post.

From the perspective of psychology/spirituality

Quantum Psychology by Robert Anton Wilson

Wilson's book generally explores various ways that our minds work, as well as the limits to relatively traditional interpretations of logic.  I could see this book as a valuable resource for the general public as well as those creatively inclined, as its contents help to put various kinds of "normal" suppositions into a larger context.  For creative folks, though, the "exercizes" following each chapter help make the concepts introduced throughout the book into concrete, useful experiences.  In particular, speaking in Korzybski's "E-prime" for a couple of weeks can truly transform your feeling of place in the world (though some of the language shortcuts you'll be compelled to use also have a habit of turning opinions into facts).

books by James Hollis: The Archetypal Imagination, Tracking the Gods, and Creating a Life: Finding Your Own Individual Path

I've only been reading Hollis for a few years, but I've been helped tremendously by his work, especially his "Tracking the Gods" book.  Hollis is a Jungian psychologist and instructor, and his books help to contextualize the power of myth in everyday life toward the formation and nurture of a "personal mythology."  Once you have a grip on some of the things most important to you every day, you have a powerful understanding of your creative priorities.  The books can be a little dry in places, but they're short, potent reads around 150 ass-kicking pages each.  Highly recommended not only for creative motivation, but for balance and context within everyday life.

The Principia Discordia

This book is essentially a religious document for a made up (?) religion, but like the Robert Anton Wilson book (who himself has ties to the Discordian movement), this text help to turn your preconceived notions on their many heads.  Banishing the Curse of Greyface from your life can't hurt in the quest for creativity and fun.  We Discordians, though, must stick apart.

Zen Without Zen Masters by Camden Benares

Benares is another member of the Discordian movement, and his book is formatted as a set of "Western-Zen" aphorisms/koans that help to cut through some of the artificial elements of modern consumer-culture life.  It's a great supplement to the Principia and the RAW book.

From the perspective of "pop" and business literature

Astonish Yourself!  101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life by Roger-Pol Droit

This book disposes of the chapter-contents in Wilson's book and goes straight to "excercizes."  Each of it's "experiments" gives a setup describing the anticipated time, props, and effects related to the experiment, followed by instructions and general observations.  Many of the experiments take very little time and energy to attempt while providing some unique insights into our everyday behaviors and expectations for "reality."  These might be fun to incorporate into a surrealist game party...

A Whole New Mind by Daniel H. Pink

This is another book I had to read for a class, but I honestly didn't find it very good.  While it's an interesting survey of how creative (Pink calls it "r-directed") thinking can be incorporated into everyday life and business endeavors, it's only skims the surface compared to many of the books listed below.  However, it does have some good ideas, and it's very easy to read, so if you find some of these other materials headache-inducing, this might be a useful book for you.  I did especially like the last section, dedicated to the notion of "meaning," which largely focuses on incorporating joy and happiness into your life.  In many cases, folks look at "serious" art as generally having a somewhat sad/morbid/depressed disposition, but it's important to remember that being happy doesn't have to equate to being shallow.

The Brain Workout Book by Snowdon Parlette

This book splits the difference between Daniel Pink's book and Roger-Pol Droit's book, containing some general information on modes of thinking and acting interspersed with exercises to try yourself.  Like the Pink book, it's a little on the light side for my tastes, but the contents are nutritious.  I like that it seems to have more of a pop psychology angle compared to Pink's book, which is clearly marketed more to business folks.

A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech

This book is probably the most well-known "classic" of the pop-creativity genre, but it's a good one.  Like Pink's book, it seems to be marketed toward business folks who want more creativity in their work and lives, but it does have some interesting observations.  I like the ways in which it takes seemingly "weird" ideas and puts them into contexts that might actually be useful to more straight-forward folks, and some of those basic ideas do apply to purely creative endeavors, too.  In particular, I think many artists could benefit on the "Avoid Ambiguity" section, which also might help toward the creation of a clear voice and discipline for longer forms of art.

Read on, and Create on!  If you have any more recommendations, I'd love to hear them in the comments...I left out some music-centric books I was thinking of, too, so maybe another creativity book post should happen in the future...

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