I say this a lot, but it bears repeating. The best way to get good at creative work is to do it. To do your verbs. Write. Paint. Play. Sculpt. Sew. Design. Make. Shoot. Cook. Direct. Produce. To create, create, create. No matter how messy and imperfect it is, at first.
But we all need help on the creative journey. We need to know that our fears are normal. That our blocks are common. And we need practical advice on how to structure our days, find new ideas and inspiration, overcome distraction and procrastination..
These books act as roadmaps, guides. They’re the best books for creatives that I’ve read. They’ll tell you how to do this thing you want – need – to do.
Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
If you’re stuck, blocked, or otherwise avoiding making work, this is the best book I know for creative recovery. Some of the language – especially the references to God or a higher power – can be a little off-putting at first. But persist, and it starts to make sense, whatever your beliefs, faith (or lack of either).
I’ve repeated the exercises here over and over, and got something new out of them every time. Whether you write, make art, music or anything else: this book is packed with wisdom, compassion – and practical tools that work.
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
This beautifully written book by the renowned choreographer is a love letter to creative process, answering those thorniest of questions: how do we begin? And how do we build the resilience, the inspiration, the skills to begin again, day after day?
She talks about the power of habit, routine and ritual; the fears we need to face; how to build creative muscles. And she fleshes it all out with brilliant quotes and anecdotes, and with practical exercises that will benefit anyone wanting a more creative life.
Austin Kleon. Steal Like An Artist
Kleon’s lovely illustrated books on creative process are short, sweet, yet surprisingly sticky and useful. I often have what I think is an original thought about creativity and then, rereading one of his books, realise it came from him.
He’s a writer and artist, with a brilliant daily blog about his creative life. These three books collect together some of his best insights about how to get started (Steal Like An Artist), how to persist in your practice (Keep Going) – and sharing your work once it’s done (Show Your Work)
Corita Kent, Learning By Heart
A former nun who became an influential artist, graphic designer and educator, Kent inspired a generation of creatives and makers while teaching in Hollywood in the 1950s and 60s.
The exercises here will have you noticing the world around you like never before. I love how she teaches taking pride and joy in your process and enjoying the journey as much as the end result, repeating the Balinese maxim: “We have no art. We do everything as well as we can.”
There’s practical advice on doing everything from book-binding to puppet-making. But most of all, it will teach you how to pay attention.
Patti Smith, Just Kids
Smith’s inspiring, beautifully written memoir is about the thriving art, music and literary scenes in 1970s New York, about finding her way as a poet and performer, and her close, almost symbiotic relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe.
It offers a perfect example of Brian Eno’s concept of scenius – the idea that innovation comes not from a lone genius toiling in isolation, but from creative gatherings of interesting people all mentoring, competing, helping, arguing with each other.
Full of insight into creative process, finding your voice, your confidence, and your tribe, it’s also just a great story about a thrilling, then tragic period of creative history.
David DuChemin, Start Ugly
I love David DuChemin’s newsletters, especially The Audience Academy, which helps creatives rethink marketing and audience building. I’m also a big fan of his podcast, A Beautiful Anarchy. And his writing, which draws on his experience as a successful comedian, then photographer and later publisher to talk about creativity, and making a living from your work.
This collection of short, self-contained essays is about overcoming your fears and starting your messy, imperfect work.
Open it at random, and you’ll almost always find something useful, something inspiring, or something that makes you laugh.
Charlie Gilkey, Start Finishing
Most productivity books aren’t great for creatives. The systems feel too rigid, unable to cope with the unpredictability and challenges of creative work.
This one is different, and excellent if you’re juggling multiple projects or trying to do self-directed, speculative work alongside work that pays the bills.
I use his downloadable worksheets all the time: I love how they make me choose what to focus on each month, week and day.
Todd Henry, The Accidental Creative
Henry is a prolific podcaster, writer, speaker and consultant for creative teams. Subtitled How to be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice, this book is full of practical advice for people whose living depends on producing a steady supply of new creative ideas to order.
There’s lots about structuring your time so the work gets done but so you also create space to think, explore and draw in fresh inspiration to use later.
A lot of my weekly and monthly planning is built from the suggestions in this book, and I’m still finding them invaluable, years after first reading it.
Jessie Kwak, From Chaos To Creativity
Another useful book about productivity, this shows how to move forward on long-term creative projects. It covers scheduling and deadlines, organisation for creators, and dealing with procrastination and distractions.
An artist and writer herself, Kwak understands what it’s like to be working on a big project like a book, film or a new body of art, without being sure it will ever find an audience, let alone generate income.
She has systems to help with all of it, but it will also make you feel less alone in the struggle.
Jeff Goins, Real Artists Don’t Starve
Goins sets out here to demolish the archetype of the starving, suffering, lonely artist, toiling away in his attic unsupported and unappreciated.
It’s a stereotype that holds many of us back, thinking we have to choose between doing the work we love and earning money, or that success depends on natural talent rather than practice and skill that you can acquire.
Some of his examples are a little naïve, but this is still a great handbook if you fear you’ll have to choose between creativity and prosperity, fulfilment and food.
Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
If you’re a procrastinator who never seems to find the time or the mood for the work that’s important to you, this is the book you need. It’s a call to arms, urging you into the daily battle of creativity.
If you’ve ever felt The Fear, or the mighty force that Pressfield alls Resistance, you’ll find plenty to help here.
Some of Pressfield’s attitudes are a little dated, macho and martial, but his advice is sound. See him as a wise old uncle, pushing you to get on with the work you dream of doing, no matter what is in your way.
Sheryl Garratt, Making It
I talk a lot on this blog about marketing, sharing your work, and not being afraid to blow your own trumpet. So it would be remiss of me not to mention my own book, out next month.
It takes the ten biggest challenges my creative clients tend to have, when building their business – with strategies to overcome them.
From structuring your days and getting stuff done, to work-life balance and pricing your work, you’ll find lots in here to help.
With, of course, a whole chapter on marketing, and building an audience for your work!
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The links in these titles all take you to Amazon. If you buy there, I get a tiny payment to help with the running of this site. If you prefer to support your local bookshop, more power to you!