According to Greek mythology, the muses were divine goddesses responsible for literature, art and the sciences. Daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, the nine muses- Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Erato, Terpsichore, Thalia, Melpomene, Polyhymnia and Urania-were thought to bestow inspiration on deserving poets in a flash of revelatory insight.
This image of the artist as beneficiary of a generous muse persists to this day. Aspiring writers put off their novel until they’re “inspired”; poets procrastinate haplessly for years, hoping to catch sight of the mythical “a-ha” moment; painters refuse to lift their paintbrushes until they feel possessed by the rapturous urge to create, until they glimpse that magical state of being an instrument, of being a vessel. How many stories go unwritten, how many songs go unsung, how many movies go unfilmed simply because we’re waiting for the unreliable muse to show up?
It’s no secret: writing is tough. The sooner we accept that creation is not the product of providence or an accident of luck but the result of tireless stamina and hard work, the sooner we can tap our hidden potential. Though there are many extraordinary books on writing and creativity, below are three I hold dear. As you sift through their pages, remember the no-nonsense advice of novelist and frontiersman Jack London: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
1. Creativity: Flow & the Psychology of Discovery & Invention
Called a man obsessed by happiness, Hungarian psychologist Csikszentmihalyi spent years interviewing the century’s greatest minds in search of what makes creative people tick. The result was Creativity: Flow & the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. Over the course of this landmark study, Csikszentmihalyi examines the many dimensions of the creative personality, outlines the phases of the creative process and even offers insight into the lives of inventive individuals. Those interviewed range from those we traditionally consider creative like sculptors and poets to scientists and business moguls. Some of his most impressive participants include Madeline L’ Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, Jonas Salk, creator of the first successful polio vaccine and John Reed, former chairman and CEO of Citicorp.
What Csikszentmihalyi found was that one thing all creative personalities share is their complexity. Creative people tend to alternate between a dichotomy of opposing traits, for example introversion and extraversion, playfulness and responsibility. Though the common man usually inhabits one side of the spectrum, those who are exceptionally creative seem to possess more well-rounded, fully developed personalities. For example, women in Csikszentmihalyi’s sample were shown to exhibit more stereotypically “masculine” traits like competitiveness and aggression while men were demonstrated to display more conventionally “feminine” qualities like sensitivity and cooperation.
Though Creativity is a work of scholarship grounded in science and supported by intensive lab work, it remains a fascinating study for the everyday reader. In “Chapter 14: Enhancing Personal Creativity,” Csikszentmihalyi uses his years of research to offer practical advice. “Another goal of this book,” he explains, “was to learn, from the lives of such men and women, how everyone’s life could be more creative. How can our days, too, be filled with wonder and excitement?” It is at this juncture of the book that Creativity moves from academia to self-help, from scientific inquiry to practical application. Csikszentmihalyi suggests several ways to seduce the muse and unlock our creativity, including:
1) find one thing to look forward to each day
2) name one thing, at the end of each day, that surprised you
3) name one way you surprised yourself
Novelty depends on spontaneity and dies in the monotony of routine. As Creativity points out, committing ourselves to little changes each day can enlarge our thinking and challenge us to find unexpected solutions to once impossible problems. So take a different route to work, find a new cafe to sit down for breakfast, say yes to an invitation out. Bottom line: do something different.
2. The Artist’s Way
I dreaded writing this book review. “How,” I wondered desperately, “could I possibly do justice to a book that has so completely transformed my life?” I felt like a super fan of the Fab Four trying to commemorate the Beatles.
So what can I possibly say about Julia Cameron’s smash hit The Artist’s Way? For starters, this beloved volume has illuminated my path to artistic recovery and helped countless others. A 12-week course based on creativity workshops Cameron led in 1990s New York, The Artist’s Way will teach you how to:
1. unblock your creativity so you can be an active-rather than aspiring-artist
2. cherish your inner artist and ignore that perfectionistic, mercilessly mean, critical voice she calls the “Censor”
3. reform unhealthy beliefs you harbor about creativity and adopt more realistic attitudes about the artist’s life
4. cultivate a loving, nurturing attitude toward your art and, more importantly, yourself
Each of the 12 weeks is organized around a certain theme and is accompanied by a series of checkpoints, essays, and exercises. In addition to working through each week’s material, Cameron asks that you 1) commit to a daily practice of morning pages and 2) take yourself on an artist’s date every week. These are what she calls “tools of the trade.”
Morning pages form the basis of Cameron’s recovery program and are absolutely essential to The Artist’s Way. So what is this mysterious morning ritual? Morning pages are three pages of meandering, stream-of-consciousness style writing to be hand written everyday first thing in the morning. “Wait, hold on one second…” you’re probably wondering, “you want me to write three pages first thing in the morning…every single day?” When I was introduced to the practice three years ago, I reacted the same way. Is it a big commitment? Absolutely. But nothing will transform your life more radically.
One part diary, two parts brain drain, the morning pages are your confidante, your trusted ally, a place where you can play on paper. More importantly, they offer refuge from your inner critic, the Censor. Writing morning pages everyday will teach you two vital lessons: if you are to write (or film or design or paint or sculpt pottery), you must 1) write in self-trust and liberate yourself from the tyrannous rule of the Censor and 2) write no matter what. In the end, The Artist’s Way is a masterclass in persistence and un-selfconcious play- the two most crucial qualities of a writer.
3. Becoming a Writer
Becoming a Writer stands assuredly as the seminal book on writing and creativity. The original Julia Cameron, author Dorothea Brande actually suggested morning pages 70 years before she did! From the moment I opened its covers, I adored this book— in fact, when it first arrived at my doorstep, I actually had to pace myself so I wouldn’t finish the whole thing in one sitting. Elegant but charmingly accessible, each chapter (much like Cameron’s) is accompanied by a series of practical exercises.
Along with following a morning writing routine, Brande advises us to dedicate 15 minutes a day simply to writing. Why just a mere 15 minutes, you ask? Well, 15 minutes is a brief enough window for the task to seem doable, less intimidating. Plus, even the busiest person can spare a mere 15 minutes!
But what’s the difference between this exercise and the morning pages? Why must we do both? The morning pages are a ritual we observe— the same time every day— and they are ugly, messy, disjointed stream-of-consciousness. However, the 15 minute rule is more structured and meant to be completed at varying times of day. Those 15 minutes need not be spent writing frantically to fill 3 pages (as often is the case with morning pages); they can be used to write about anything that comes to mind: a record/reflection of the day’s events, in the tradition of a formal journal, a brainstorm for an article, a profile of a character, a description of someone. You can write about anything that strikes your fancy. And because your mind isn’t dull from sleep, you can harness both sides of the mind— the conscious and unconscious, the critical faculty and the creative— to compose something more formal.
What’s really genius about this exercise is that it tricks you into thinking it’s just another casual, 15 minute task when 15 minutes is just enough to get you hooked; once you begin, you’ll usually write for hours! It’s this initial “getting started” that frightens most writers, paralyzing them until they can’t work at all. But when you disguise the daunting task of articulating your thoughts, you can overcome that little devil procrastination and actually put pen to paper.
The cornerstone of Brande’s philosophy is this: writing is an occasion— we must have the discipline and resolve to follow through. “Work according to program, and not according to mood!” ordered Henry Miller. No words capture Brande’s message more. Writing can be such a wearisome task: it invites our worst fears and insecurities to paper. But forcing ourselves to write everyday, regardless of mood, helps to dispel the prevailing (and dangerous) myth of the mercurial muse. Many writers imagine composition as an ecstatic, almost mystical revelation, a metaphorical conspiring with the muses. But when we view writing in this way, we absolve ourselves of the responsibility of actually doing the work. “Oh, I can’t write today!” we moan, “I’m not in the mood!” Time and time again, we use the myth of the muse to rationalize our own lack of follow through. But Brande calls bullshit. Real writers, those who cherish words and respect writing as a profession, recognize writing— like anything else— is a craft that rewards hard work. Just as a mechanic must understand the tools of his trade, writers must master words and gain experience in their field. Putting pen to page, fingers to keys is the only way we can get such experience. If we want to be writers, we must write.
Another tenet of Brande’s common sense philosophy is the study of other authors’ work. “Anyone who is at all interested in authorship has some sense of every book as a specimen and not merely a means of amusement,” Brande writes, “but to read effectively it is necessary to learn to consider a book in the light of what it can teach you about the improvement of your own work.” No matter how often I preach the importance of annotating to my students, I find myself reluctant to pick up a pen and highlighter when I’m cuddled up with a good book. Why? I suppose something about annotating makes reading feel like work. But as Brande explains, reading critically doesn’t necessarily mean not reading for pleasure. Nothing is more vital to the understanding (and enjoyment) of a book than reading actively with a pen handy. Marking up critical passages and noticing patterns and themes forces us to slow down and digest what we read. Something about going over a passage in bright pink highlighter inspires us to reflect: who are the characters? what are they like? what makes them tick? what themes are emerging as important to the author? Reading actively promotes higher-order thinking skills and gets us asking questions, which will enrich our experience of any book.
More importantly, studying literature in this way will help us refine our own craft as writers. I always tell my students the best way to become a better writer is to become a better reader. By critically reading renowned texts, we’ll be able to dissect how great authors work. How many sentences of description do they include to set a scene? Do they reveal character directly through commentary or indirectly through words and actions? As Brande notes, to be good writers, we must treat each book as a specimen to be studied. Our bed or quiet corner of a cafe is our laboratory; a pen and highlighter, our microscopes, our tools. If we approach each book like a curious scientist with an analytical eye, we can access knowledge that can’t be taught otherwise, how to set a mood, for instance, or how to make a sentence “flow.” Reading Fitzgerald may teach us to describe our experiences non-literally while reading the classic philosophers may show us how to say precisely what we mean in very few words. Novelists, journalists, poets, essayists— all can be our teachers. Just as a student must listen attentively and take exhaustive notes if he’s to excel in a course, so do we have to tirelessly participate in our reading if we are to one day walk among the writers we so admire.
We must approach every book this way— with the inquisitiveness of scientists and the diligence of scholars. How much of a book is lost on the reader who’s lackadaisical! As authors Adler and Doren once said, a book has much to teach us but only in proportion to how much we are willing to work. A quick skim of Joyce will yield close to nothing in the way of knowledge. But a careful, thorough analysis of particular passages might reveal his talent and help us rise to similar literary eminence.