If you walk into a library or bookstore, you’ll find hundreds of books on creativity, art, and producing work. Creativity is not something that can be quantified or explained away by science (though some writers may try). There aren’t right or wrong ways to go about making work. The rituals and routines that work for some don’t work at all for others. For this reason, it’s worthwhile to mix and match advice from various sources. Here are ten books on creativity that are worth the read, regardless of your skill level or preferred medium.
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
by Elizabeth Gilbert
If you need a pep talk about your right to create, Elizabeth Gilbert has got your back in Big Magic. Anyone who wants to live a more creative life will get something out of this book, regardless of the medium of your choosing. If you're new to the whole "artist" thing, or if you're totally uncomfortable calling yourself a creative person, Gilbert will show you that your work is permitted to take up space in the world. This quote from the book says it best: 'the work wants to be made and it wants to be made through you.'
I’ll admit I was a little skeptical of this because I’ve never read Eat Pray Love or anything else by Gilbert. But from the first page, she had me sold. She gets real in this book—she doesn’t paint a picture of being an artist as one where things are easy and fun all of the time. Making work can be drudgery. It’s a path for the brave. If you’ve never made anything before and don’t know where to start, this book is a good one to read. It’s like a supportive friend who will grab your hand and say, “Yes, you should totally pick up a pencil and get started, you absolutely should just go for it.”
2) The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life
by Twyla Tharp
Some people believe that creativity is something you’re born with, and that talent in art is innate. Tharp argues that creativity is something anyone can access if they want to and if they put in the time. Tharp is a dance choreographer, and her book covers all kinds of creativity.
One great line from the introduction is that “Creativity is not just for artists.” She goes on to say that creativity is important for business people, engineers, and parents. It’s something everyone should incorporate into his or her life, and it is possible for anyone to do so. Her book goes on to teach the reader how to build their skills, through anecdotes and practical exercises.
3) What It Is
by Lynda Barry
This book is a big, beautiful comic treasure. Flipping through its pages is inspirational enough, but the subject matter is all about Barry’s journey to becoming an artist and how you can do it, too. The leader of a writing group I’m in gave us all a photocopied page from this book. It’s a comic that starts by asking, “If a genie offered to free you from a dull, canned life, what would you say?” The character in the comic asks if this will make her rich, famous, or “really cute,” and the genie says no and asks if a “feeling of aliveness” would be reason enough to make creative work.
The character asks for time to think about it and in the frame where thirty years have gone by, finally decides “yes”, only to be, by then, dead. It’s done with humor and in Barry’s signature illustration style, but it’s serious stuff. If you wait too long to be “ready enough” to begin your work, you might find that you don’t have any time left to do it. This book is an excellent one to read when you need a push. It will remind you that it’s okay to be messy and imperfect and to do things your way—but that you need to do them.
4) Damn Good Advice (for people with talent!)
by George Lois
This book will make you feel a bit like someone is standing over you, barking commands at you while you work. If that's the kind of nudge you need (as opposed to gentle, welcoming words of encouragement), this is the book for you. It’s worth looking at for the design alone. There are snarky chapter titles in big, bold letters. The pages are riddled with sometimes-bizarre images from Lois’s work in the advertising field and from historical events. You'll find a lot of things here that you haven't seen in other books on creativity, which is precisely why you should check it out.
5) Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity
by Austin Kleon
This book focuses on what to do once you already know how to harness your creativity and you’re actively producing work. (It’s the follow up to Kleon’s first book, Steal Like an Artist.) This is a helpful instruction manual for putting yourself out there, particularly on the Internet. Kleon lays down some rules about how to tell the difference between sharing and spamming.
He advocates “selling out” by asking for money for your work and finding ways to fund it through other ideas like teaching and speaking engagements. Read this if you’re ready to take your work and creative career to the next step but aren’t sure how.
6) Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
by Anne Lamott
Lamott is a brilliant writer and so it’s no surprise that her book on craft is also brilliant. The lessons she shares are useful to any creative, not just writers. She talks about taking on large tasks by thinking of them in terms of smaller pieces and doing one thing at a time until you’re through. She stresses that it’s okay to share your stories and to write about other people because you own your experiences. This book is a beautiful blend of memoir and practical advice. It’s a classic book on writing, yes, but I once lent it to someone in a grueling academic program as a reminder that sometimes you have to do things bird by bird.
7) The Photographer’s Playbook: 307 Assignments and Ideas
Edited by Jason Fulford and Gregory Halpern
If you catch yourself taking your work too seriously or if you become bored of making the same kinds of images, “The Photographer’s Playbook” is a wonderful tool to get you thinking in a fresh way.
The title and the fun composition notebook-style design of the book reveal what matters here: play. Experiment, engage with the world differently, forget the limits you’ve placed on yourself over time. This book reminded me of the homework my high school photography teacher used to assign. They made me want to remember how it felt to be a kid fascinated by a camera.
The lessons in this book come from a wide range of accomplished photographers, and sometimes their advice conflicts with someone else’s in the book. This reminded me that it’s okay to take what it useful to you and forget the rest—everyone’s creative process is different, and that’s part of the reason reading about creative processes is so interesting.
8) Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age
by Cory Doctorow
Copyright Law might not thrill you, but you'd have a hard time saying you find it boring after reading Doctorow's book. The book outlines how copyright law has, historically, helped and harmed producers of creative works, and describes the changes brought about by the Internet. You'll learn how copyright affects you and your work and why you need to have at least a cursory familiarity with it as an artist in the 21st century. The book delves into issues involving censorship, human rights, piracy, and getting paid. The writing is clear and approachable—this is no dry legal tome.
9) Catching The Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity
by David Lynch
David Lynch is the brain behind some wonderfully weird cult classics like Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. In addition to his work in television and cinema, he's a writer and musician. In Catching The Big Fish, he shares a bit about what his thought process is like. There's an emphasis on meditation, which may or may not be your thing, but it's still interesting to read about how it helps Lynch create his work. The book is told in short vignettes that range from stories about his famous works to technical advice for new filmmakers. He touches on suffering, depression, and drugs, all of which he says have negative impacts on creativity. He doesn’t advocate for glamorizing the “tortured artist.” This is a quick and sometimes befuddling read, but if you’re at all intrigued by Lynch’s work, it’s a good one.
10) My Ideal Bookshelf
edited by Thessaly La Force and illustrated by Jane Mount
The first thing I do the first time I visit someone's home is explore the titles they have on their bookshelf. (And if they don't have one, I make a break for the exit immediately. Just kidding.) My Ideal Bookshelf is a collection of short essays from interesting people about the books that have had lasting impacts on their life, work, and personalities. Many of the people featured in the book are writers, but musicians, actors, athletes, and designers are included, too. It's inspiring to take a peek at what some of your creative idols are reading. It's a way to gain insight into what their thinking is like. This book is an excellent place to find more things to add to your to-read list.