A few weeks ago I asked writers to recommend their favorite books about writing. I knew the standard books that everyone suggests, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and On Writing by Stephen King. But I wanted unusual recommendations, books that were popular but not on the top tier list.
I received many interesting and surprising recommendations. Today I want to share my opinions on two books.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
This bestselling compact book has been a longtime favorite of creative people and I had heard about it over and over, for over a decade at least. Finally I borrowed it from the Singapore Public Library system.
The book is divided into three parts:
- Resistance – Defining the enemy
- Combating resistance – Turning pro
- Beyond resistance – The higher realm
Most of the pages in the book have lots of blank space. Some have only a paragraph or two. Yet, as you can probably tell, the book goes on and on about ‘resistance” – the reason why so many creative people don’t get started or worse, start but do not complete the artistic endeavor that they want to embark on.
I must admit I was disappointed. Like many other writers, my writing journey, although long, has been uneven at best. There have been times when I was focused and possessed by the urge to write, publish, and share widely. Those heady times were super productive and super satisfying. However, life has a way of throwing obstacles that are not easy to overcome.
From health issues to marital troubles, moving interruptions to changing family priorities, I have had every possible obstacle get in the way of my writing time. Yet, I have gone with the flow – tried to write when I could and allowed myself to experience life when I couldn’t.
Was it resistance? I don’t know. Yet, I know that it was all good. As long as you are aware, observant and forgiving – to yourself and your art, all of life can add value to your art.
Just when I wondered whether I should abandon Pressfield’s book (after getting through 80% of it very slowly), he made some great points that stopped me in my tracks.
“We come into this world with a specific, personal destiny. We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. We are who we are from the cradle, and we’re stuck with it. Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.
“The artist and the mother are vehicles, not originators. They don’t create the new life, they only bear it. This is why birth is such a humbling experience.”
The point that Pressfiled ultimately makes, through a long circuitous route, is that we may have enough excuses to not do our life’s work, but that is what we have come here for. By recognising, combating and finally overcoming resistance, we can win the war and create the art that we were meant to create.
Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon
Let me state it upfront, Austin Kleon’s books are so much fun. I like their non-standard print configurations – hardbound, with large text, cute diagrams, and easy to grasp takeaways that are also easy to implement.
Kleon discusses ten ways to unlock your creativity and they are neatly summarized on the back cover. So if you don’t want to open the book, you don’t have to. But that is precisely what you end up doing because, as I mentioned earlier, his books are fun!
“All advice is autobiographical,” Kleon states. “When people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.” And then goes on to describe how we can have a satisfying creative life while following his non-standard advice.
- Steal like an artist – He supports his claim ‘nothing is original’ by saying that just as our physical self originates from the genetic material of our parents, all art originates somewhere and for that we need to pay attention, take notes and then set about creating our own version of it.
- Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started – Instead of succumbing to ‘imposter syndrome’, Kleon encourages us to adopt a ‘fake it till you make it’ mindset and steal our ideas from many sources but to also study them and credit them while transforming/remixing the material to make it your own.
- Write the book you want to read – This is exactly why I wrote my own memoir, Rewriting My Happily Ever After and I am so glad when readers tell me that the book came into their lives exactly at the right time. If I hadn’t written it, the gap would have still existed.
- Use your hands – Kleon emphasizes the need to walk away from the screen and actually ‘do’ things with your hands.
- Side projects and hobbies are important – Procrastination seems like the enemy of creation but it may be exactly the environment necessary to nurture a dormant idea, even if it seems unrelated.
- Do good work and share it with people – The best part of being a nobody is the freedom to create exactly what you want to. Trying, tweaking, testing are all good ways to get your work in front of people even as you are improving your craft.
- Geography is no longer our master – The benefits of travel and the role of distance and difference in stimulating creativity can’t be overstated.
- Be nice – The best piece of advice in the book – “If you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.”
- Be boring – The value of a day job and establishing and keeping a routine is more important than finding more time for your art.
- Creativity is subtraction – Having constraints and limitations (on time, money, resources) may actually spur you towards greater creativity.
This book is a gem for anyone who is struggling to take up a creative endeavor, looking for ways to set up a practice that works for their life, and finally, looking for permission to be creative.
If I have to pick one book to jump start my creative life and stay on the course, I would pick Austin Kleon any day.