Must Read Books For the Creatively Desperate

Image Credit: Júnior Ferreira on Unsplash


Sometimes as a creative person, you need to know how other creators create, and reading books they've written on the topic is priceless.

Being a creative person is a wonderful, beautiful thing. (And each of us, in our own way, is a creative person.)

But being a creative person can also be lonely, confusing, and uncertain because there are no rules.

Although we feel a calling in our hearts, the noise of the outside world has peppered doubt all over what was once a natural process. (Back when we were kids and just made what we made because.)

Therefore, it can be helpful at times to refer to other creative people and their processes. 

I've collected below a list of my "Creativity Bibles" - the books I refer to when I know I've let in far too many opinions, and it's time once again to clean the slate and get back to the root of it all: CREATING.

(I always know I'm at that point when I start asking 'how' about any part of the process I'm not in control of  - aka hustle culture questions that boil down to: "How can I get more clicks / likes / shares?" Answer: if that's your starting point, your creation is fucked because you're not creating for the sake of creating, you're working for the applause, applause, applause... and let's be honest, nothing awesome was ever created through pandering.)

There are certain key topics that come up again and again in the books below, that I think we creatives all struggle with:
  • Getting real about the process
  • Permission (of all kinds)
  • What we can and cannot control
  • Understanding the role of inspiration and motivation
  • What part discipline plays in the creative process
I've quoted heavily from the books listed below in order to whet your appetite to read them in their entirety - call it an amuse-bouche for your brain.

There have been so many times in my creative life where I've been struggling with something, only to have the answer show up by way of the words from one of my fellow creators. And often, it's through recommendations or specific quotes, that I'm inspired to pick up their books and find those answers.

This is a long post and I realize that I'm going to lose everyone except the CREATIVELY DESPERATE; this is fine.

As one creator to another, I only wish for you to find your answers.

Elizabeth Gilbert

Image Credit: See Ken

COMMENTS: This book is my holy grail for PERMISSION. Elizabeth Gilbert gives out permission slips to the entire creative process, and shows us how to do the same. She also outlines how to re-frame the process to make it into the fun experience it's supposed to be, instead of the painful drudgery that some artists turn it into.

"You do not need anybody’s permission to live a creative life. The guardians of high culture will try to convince you that the arts belong only to a chosen few, but they are wrong and they are also annoying."

"My creative expression must be the most important thing in the world to me (if I am to live artistically) and it also must not matter at all (if I am to live sanely)..."

"I think perfectionism is just a high-end haute couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, “I am not good enough and I will never be good enough."

"Create whatever you want to create – and let it be stupendously imperfect, because it’s exceedingly likely that nobody will even notice. And that’s awesome."

"You might earn a living with your pursuit or you might not, but you can recognize that this not really the point. And at the end of your days, you can thank creativity for having blessed you with a charmed, interesting, and passionate existence."

"There’s no dishonor in having a job. What’s dishonorable is scaring away your creativity by demanding that it pay for your entire existence. That’s why when anyone tells me that they’re quitting their day job in order to write a novel, my palms get a little sweaty."

"Anyhow, the golden rule in my family is this: If you’re supporting yourself financially and you’re not bothering anyone else, then you’re free to do whatever you want with your life."

"Most of my writing life consists of nothing more than unglamorous disciplined labor. I sit at my desk and I work like a farmer, and that’s how it gets done. Most of it is not fairy dust in the least."

"Fear Is Boring...I also realized that my fear was boring because it was identical to everyone else’s fear. I figured out that everyone’s song of fear has exactly that same tedious lyric: “STOP, STOP, STOP, STOP!”"

"You don’t get any special credit, is what I’m saying, for knowing how to be afraid of the unknown."

"...such thinking assumes that if you cannot win, then you must not continue to play... But what does any of that have to do with the quiet glory of merely making things, and then sharing those things with an open heart and no expectations?"

"The fact that I am here at all is evidence that I have the right to be here. I have a right to my own voice and a right to my own vision."

"...the older I get, the less impressed I become with originality. These days, I’m far more moved by authenticity. Attempts at originality can often feel forced and precious, but authenticity has quiet resonance that never fails to stir me."

"Just say what you want to say, then, and say it with all your heart. Share whatever you are driven to share. If it’s authentic enough, believe me—it will feel original."

"Whenever anybody tells me they want to write a book in order to help people, I always think, Oh, please don't. I mean, it is very kind of you to want to help people, but please don’t make it your sole creative motive, because we will feel the weight of your heavy intention, and it will put a strain upon our souls."

"It’s okay if your work is fun for you, is what I’m saying. It’s also okay if your work is healing for you, or fascinating for you, or redemptive for you, or if it’s maybe just a hobby that keeps you from going crazy. It’s even okay if your work is totally frivolous. That’s allowed. It’s all allowed. Your own reasons to create are reason enough. Merely by pursuing what you love, you may inadvertently end up helping us plenty..."

Do whatever brings you to life, then. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart. The rest of it will take care of itself."

Steven Pressfield

Image Credit: The Inkline

COMMENT: When it comes to the actual "sit down and do the work" instructions, Steven Pressfield is the guru, the voice of truth, the authority. If you're a creative or a wannabe creative, you MUST read this book because you MUST understand RESISTANCE. Only when you understand it can you defeat it.

"There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance."

"Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance."

"Look in your own heart. Unless I’m crazy, right now a still, small voice is piping up, telling you as it has ten thousand times before, the calling that is yours and yours alone. You know it. No one has to tell you. And unless I’m crazy, you’re no closer to taking action on it than you were yesterday or will be tomorrow. You think Resistance isn’t real? Resistance will bury you."

"Like a magnetized needle floating on a surface of oil, Resistance will unfailingly point to true North—meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing. We can use this. We can use it as a compass. We can navigate by Resistance, letting it guide us to that calling or action that we must follow before all others. Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it."

"Resistance by definition is self-sabotage. But there’s a parallel peril that must also be guarded against: sabotage by others...The highest treason a crab can commit is to make a leap for the rim of the bucket... The awakening artist must be ruthless, not only with herself but with others..."

"Depression and anxiety may be real. But they can also be Resistance. When we drug ourselves to blot out our soul’s call, we are being good Americans and exemplary consumers. We’re doing exactly what TV commercials and pop materialist culture have been brainwashing us to do from birth. Instead of applying self-knowledge, self-discipline, delayed gratification and hard work, we simply consume a product."

"Never forget: This very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny. This second, we can turn the tables on Resistance. This second, we can sit down and do our work."

Steven Pressfield

Image Credit: Sergey Faldin

COMMENT: I'm a hardcore Steven Pressfield fangirl; I've read all of his non-fiction books at least once because, as mentioned above, in my eyes he's the authority on sitting down and doing the work. (I actually debated calling this post "Ode to Steven Pressfield.") My recommendation: start with The War of Art and then this book Turning Pro. After that, if you're still as intellectually infatuated with Steven Pressfield as I am, read everything else he's written.

"What ails us is that we are living our lives as amateurs. The solution, this book suggests, is that we turn pro. Turning pro is free, but it’s not easy."

"What we get when we turn pro is, we find our power. We find our will and our voice and we find our self-respect. We become who we always were but had, until then, been afraid to embrace and to live out."

"To feel ambition and to act upon it is to embrace the unique calling of our souls. Not to act upon that ambition is to turn our backs on ourselves and on the reason for our existence."

"The amateur life is our youth... No one is born a pro... Becoming a pro, in the end, is nothing grander than growing up."

"In the shadow life, we live in denial and we act by addiction. We pursue callings that take us nowhere and permit ourselves to be controlled by compulsions that we cannot understand (or are not aware of) and whose outcomes serve only to keep us caged, unconscious and going nowhere. The shadow life is the life of the amateur. In the shadow life we pursue false objects and act upon inverted ambitions. The shadow life, the life of the amateur and the addict, is not benign. The longer we cleave to this life, the farther we drift from our true purpose, and the harder it becomes for us to rally the courage to get back."

"What, then, is the connection between addiction and Resistance? ...Addiction replaces aspiration. The quick fix wins out over the long, slow haul."

"The addict is the amateur; the artist is the professional. Both addict and artist are dealing with the same material, which is the pain of being human and the struggle against self-sabotage. But the addict/amateur and the artist/professional deal with these elements in fundamentally different ways."

"(When I say “addiction,” by the way, I’m not referring only to the serious, clinical maladies of alcoholism, drug dependence, domestic abuse and so forth. Web-surfing counts too. So do compulsive texting, sexting, twittering and Facebooking.)
Displacement activities.
When we’re living as amateurs, we’re running away from our calling—meaning our work, our destiny, the obligation to become our truest and highest selves.
Addiction becomes a surrogate for our calling. We enact the addiction instead of embracing the calling. Why? Because to follow a calling requires work. It’s hard. It hurts. It demands entering the pain-zone of effort, risk, and exposure.
So we take the amateur route instead. Instead of composing our symphony, we create a “shadow symphony,” of which we ourselves are the orchestra, the conductor, the composer, and the audience. Our life becomes a shadow drama, a shadow start-up company, a shadow philanthropic venture."

"When we turn pro, the energy that once went into the Shadow Novel goes into the real novel. What we once thought was real—“the world,” including its epicenter, ourselves—turns out to be only a shadow. And what had seemed to be only a dream becomes, now, the reality of our lives."


Stephen King

Image Credit: Miranda Burski

COMMENT: This book is here as an honourable mention because it's less about the "How do I sit down to write, and how do I make the process itself easier?" and more about developing nitty-gritty writing skills. But it's the most entertaining and honest book I've ever read about the practical logistics of putting words to paper, so I feel I would have been remiss not to include it.

"One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this premeditated act of cuteness should be even more embarrassed."

"Writing is refined thinking. If you master’s thesis is no more organized than a high school essay titled “Why Shania Twain turns me on,” you’re in big trouble."

"Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening, (or reading or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic. That goes for reading and writing as well as for playing a musical instrument, hitting a baseball, or running the four-forty. The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate – four to six hours a day – will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy them and really have an aptitude for them…"

"If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it?"

"I believe the first draft of a book should take no more than three months, the length of a season. Any longer and – for me, at least – the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel, like a dispatch from the Romanian Army of Public Affairs, or something broadcast on high-band shortwave during a period of severe sunspot activity."

"Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like The Lord of the Rings, the work is always accomplished one word at a time."

"Don’t wait for the muse. As I’ve said, he’s a hardheaded guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re gong to be everyday from nine till noon or seven ‘til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later, he’ll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic."

"You must tell the truth if your dialogue is to have resonance and realism… If you substitute “Oh sugar!” for “Oh shit!” because you’re thinking about the Legion of Decency, you are breaking the unspoken contract that exists between writer and reader – your promise to express the truth of how people act and talk through the medium of a made-up story. On the other hand, one of your characters (the protagonist’s old maid aunt, for instance) really might say “Oh sugar!” instead of “Oh shit!” after pounding her thumb with a hammer. You’ll know which to use if you know your character, and we’ll learn something about the speaker that will make him or her more vivid and interesting. The point is to let each character speak freely, without regard to what the Legion of Decency or the Christian Ladies Reading Circle may approve of. To do otherwise would be cowardly as well as dishonest, and believe me, writing fiction in America as we enter the twenty-first century is no job for intellectual cowards."

"If there is one thing I love about writing more than the rest, it’s that sudden flash of insight when you see how everything connects."

"Yes, I’ve made a great deal of dough from my fiction, but I never set a single word down on paper with the thought of being paid for it. I have written because it fulfilled me."

"Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting happy, okay? Getting happy."


Seth Godin
Image Credit: Valchanova

COMMENT: This book is here as an honourable mention because although there are many valuable tips on producing the work which truly do make it worth the read, there are a few sections that are far too focused on creating from the perspective of trying to please an audience. I also don't appreciate the thoughts on how, if you don't identify and write to an audience, then your writing is just a hobby. Both Elizabeth Gilbert and Stephen King emphasize that your work ought to be fun for you, and I need to remind myself of this in order to create. However like I said, there are still a lot of delicious brain nuggets in this book that make it well worth the read.

"The magic of the creative process is that there is no magic."

"Creativity Is an Action, Not a Feeling ...we can’t always do much about how we feel, particularly when it’s about something important. But we can always control our actions. Your work is too important to be left to how you feel today. On the other hand, committing to an action can change how we feel. If we act as though we trust the process and do the work, then the feelings will follow. Waiting for a feeling is a luxury we don’t have time for."

"Finding Your Passion ...Once you decide to trust your self, you will have found your passion. You’re not born with it, and you don’t have just one passion. It’s not domain-specific: it’s a choice. Our passion is simply the work we’ve trusted ourselves to do. This is worth deconstructing, because the strategy of “seeking your calling” gives you a marvelous place to hide. After all, who wants to do difficult work that doesn’t fulfill us? Who wants to commit to a journey before we know it’s what we were meant to do? The trap is this: only after we do the difficult work does it become our calling. Only after we trust the process does it become our passion. “Do what you love” is for amateurs. “Love what you do” is the mantra for professionals."

"The Process and the Outcome ...We live in an outcome-focused culture ...A short-term focus on outcomes means that we decide if a book is good by its bestseller rank, if a singer is good based on winning a TV talent show, and if a child athlete is good based on whether or not she won a trophy. Lost in this obsession with outcome is the truth that outcomes are the results of process. Good processes, repeated over time, lead to good outcomes more often than lazy processes do. Focusing solely on outcomes forces us to make choices that are banal, short-term, or selfish. It takes our focus away from the journey and encourages us to give up too early. The practice of choosing creativity persists. It’s a commitment to a process, not simply the next outcome on the list. We do this work for a reason, but if we triangulate the work we do and focus only on the immediate outcome, our practice will fall apart. Our commitment to the process is the only alternative to the lottery-mindset of hoping for the good luck of getting picked by the universe. Forgive the repetition, but it’s here for a reason."

"A lifetime of brainwashing has taught us that work is about measurable results, that failure is fatal, and that we should be sure that the recipe is proven before we begin. And so we bury our dreams. We allow others to live in our head, reminding us that we are impostors with no hope of making an original contribution. Our practice begins with the imperative that we embrace a different pattern, a pattern that offers no guarantees, requiring us to find a process and to trust ourselves. As Susan Kare, designer of the original Mac interface, said, “You can’t really decide to paint a masterpiece. You just have to think hard, work hard, and try to make a painting that you care about. Then, if you’re lucky, your work will find an audience for whom it’s meaningful.” It might not be what we want to hear, but it’s true."

"If you are using outcomes that are out of your control as fuel for your work, it’s inevitable that you will burn out. Because it’s not fuel you can replenish, and it’s not fuel that burns without a residue."

"Trust is about trusting yourself to show up and do the work."

"Engaging in the practice is better than hiding from it."

"If You Knew You Were Sure to Fail, Then What Would You Do? There’s no need to know the details of the practice before we begin. We can’t know the recipe because there isn’t a recipe: recipes are always outcome dependent. The specific outcome is not the primary driver of our practice. If we obsess about the outcome, we’re back to looking for an industrial recipe, not a way to create art. The more important the project we take on, the more difficult it is to find certainty that our work will succeed before we begin. We can begin with this: If we failed, would it be worth the journey? Do you trust yourself enough to commit to engaging with a project regardless of the chances of success? The first step is to separate the process from the outcome. Not because we don’t care about the outcome. But because we do."

"...while you’re engaging in the practice, you’ll honor your potential."


The message that all of these books have in common is this:
  • Sit down and do the work. There is no hack, no quick fix, no formula.
  • Do the work because there's something in your soul calling you to do it, because you must do it, and never because of any expectations regarding the results of the work.
  • The creative process isn't linear and there's no formula for right ways and wrong days to execute.
  • Everyone has a different approach and being willing to be in a constant process of trial and error as we find the way that works best for us is what it takes to create.
I hope this list helps you find the answers you were looking for on, and has cleared some of your creative desperation.

To quote Elizabeth Gilbert: Onwards and upwards!

*All emphasis in the above quotes is mine


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