Think to yourself: I'm just here to create.
Reading Lists, Platitudes, Creativity, & Inspiration
In recent years I’ve become one of those people who reads something like a half-dozen books at once. I’m always jumping around depending on my mood, my setting, my deadlines, or the location of my reading glasses (a new and unwelcome addition to my life since turning 45 last year).
The current reading list includes:
The Man Who Could Move Clouds, A Memoir– group-reading it over on my Substack chat. Jump into the conversation any time on the app! Updated today. Go check it out! »»»»
The Club, by Ellery Lloyd – My current light-fare, go-to for intense days and airplane travel (i.e. my life recently). Reese Witherspoon’s stamp of approval gets my stamp of approval!
The Creative Act: A Way of Being, by Rick Rubin – I find creativity books by people who are not writers to be so much more informative. It’s so important to think outside of the box and beyond the limits of our horizon. I think Rubin is trying to do too much with too little here, but there’s a lot to get out of this one.
American Rose, a Nation Laid Bare, the Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee, by Karen Abbott – I love everything Abbott writes (enough that I’ll forgive her for having two subtitles here), and this biography of Gypsy Rose Lee does not disappoint. Lee’s incredible life is made perhaps even better by Abbott’s clear excitement for telling it. This is what great nonfiction looks like to me.
Box 88, by Charles Cumming- for when I’m in the mood for a thriller. Opens with a plane crash, so not for reading on planes! I bought it purely because it was blurbed by my favorite spy-fiction writer, Mick Herron. Proof that a good blurb will sell books… at least to me!
Kindred, by Octavia Butler - because I’m a big fan of reading the book before watching the show and so I had to read this. The plot really is just jaw-dropping and brilliant and terrifying, but I’m struggling with the clunky dialogue (am I allowed to say that about Butler?).
Oh, and I’m currently on a plane with a People magazine fanzine on Harry Styles that my mother bought for me after I made the oh-so-professional choice to share about my low-key Harry obsession on my Instagram page (#sorrynotsorry).
I know it’s a long list, but I think it’s important. To read. A lot. Of different types of things. Different genres. Old and new releases. It will make you a better writer (and a better reader).
In this light, I picked up the Rubin book on creativity. Rubin, for those of you, like me, who don’t know him already, is a pretty legendary music producer. His new book on creativity was getting some decent hype and quality reviews from a number of places I trust, so I grabbed a copy to see what makes creativity tick for a man who clearly has an instinct for it.
Let me start by saying that I love this book as a physical object. Published by Penguin, it feels like an art book. It’s just tactilely lovely, and I am a sucker for any good hardback without a cover. (side note: I miss the old days of cover art that was actually art embossed on the cover!)
When you open it, it feels like an art book, as well. On the one hand, I now appreciate the big print and big spacing (see my above sorrow re: reading glasses); on the other hand, it instantly makes me take this book a bit less seriously. Right or wrong, the “famous guy writes mediocre short book but he’s so famous the publisher tries to make it look long and fancy” alarm bells go off in my head.
And so I begin.
And my experience of reading the book is as split as my experience of holding it.
I feel like I’m reading The Artist’s Way with a little more haze and a lot less homework. It’s new-agey in a way that feels like there must be some truth in the obscurity, but also in a way that feels like it could just hackneyed advice masquerading as intellectual insight.
The chapters are short and manageable, and there are some pieces of good advice about opening yourself up to creativity, and finding inspiration, developing (and redeveloping) your creative process that, if not original, are packaged well. Maybe there’s some advice in here that you’ve heard before, but it will sound better coming from Rubin than it did from that writing teacher or blog post… ?
Now, in Rubin’s defense, he’s actually up-front about this. On his first page, he states:
Nothing in this book
is known to be true.
It’s a reflection on what I’ve noticed -
Not facts so much as thoughts.
Some ideas may resonate,
others may not…
Use what is helpful.
Let go of the rest.
See what I mean?
It’s like, Yes! Thanks for the honesty!… but why are you writing a poem?
Which brings me to the part of his book that I both love and hate. And I’d love your thoughts on it.
A majority of the 78 (!!) chapters begin with a “poem.” These poems introduce the concept of the chapter and challenge the reader to think for a moment, to pause with the concept before turning the page to see how Rubin applies it.
Some of these I absolutely love! I found myself sitting and thinking over their potential meanings or insights and started flagging pages to share with clients to help writers get unstuck.
No matter what tools you use to create
the true instrument is you.
This is such great advice for writers!
I mean, I could never have said it so well, and it’s so necessary.
Every writer at some points tells themselves “I’m not a writer.” and it is heartbreaking. You are a writer because you want to write. It’s that simple. The story is in you, whether you mean it to be there or not. No stack of degrees, or even bestsellers, is more valuable to your process than just embracing the simple fact that you stand in your unique and important creative space.
Beware the assumption
that the way you work
is the best way
it's the way you've done it before.
As a coach, I work with a lot of writers struggling with the proverbial “writer’s block.” We practice new habits and work on action plans to try alternative ways of approaching the research, the story, or the page. I love how Rubin condenses the importance of such creative diversity of practice. I feel like I want to make this some sort of footnote in my email signature.
There is a time for certain ideas to arrive
and they find a way
to express themselves through us.
This is one that made me think.
He seems quite convinced that ideas will happen no matter what. He writes early on of his belief that, “if you have an idea you’re excited about and you don’t bring it to life, it’s not uncommon for that idea to find its voice through another maker… because that idea’s time has come.” I’m intrigued, but I’m not sure I buy it. He’s making the argument (I think) that all ideas and creativity are worth it and so you shouldn’t be afraid to try. But are ideas these sort of inevitable, agentic things? That seems a little too far for me…
Those are some of the “good” poems. But when you pause and look at them, you may feel, as I do, like the poem-ness (?) is forced. Where’s the line between short and memorable, and self-importantly vacuous?
Which brings me to some of the ones that really feel like bad bumper stickers.
Look for what you notice
but no one else sees.
This feels like bad, knock-off Confucius. Or maybe the Karate Kid?
Taking a wrong turn
allows you to see landscapes
you wouldn't otherwise have seen.
I mean, yes. But is this some profound insight into “the Creative Art” or just a really mediocre Instagram post?
never explains why
This is the last poem in the book. I think it’s meant to be very spiritual. And don’t get me wrong. I kind of enjoy the simplicity of it. But I find myself asking what can I really do with it?
What do you think?
You may be surprised at this point to discover that I think I would recommend this book. It’s an easy read. It’s got some really useful, simple advice for thinking about creativity and for thinking creatively.
I think anything that pushes us to embrace more of the Creative in each of us is a good thing.
And if the worst thing that happens is you suffer through a few cheesy Instagrammable aphorisms, then it’s no different (and probably a lot more enlightening) than your daily scroll-through anyway.
A quick reminder that this month we’re reading The Man who Could Move Clouds, A Memoir, over in the Substack Chat (on the Substack app). Every Wednesday I’ll post some thoughts and questions and I look forward to our discussion. Jump in anytime!
This week, I’m wondering how you are feeling about this book as nonfiction. It’s a memoir that elides amnesia with ghosts, homeopathy with magic, and weaves pieces of a modern life together with a past in a way that feels mystical and fantastical. I’ve never quite grappled with the suspension of disbelief in nonfiction in quite this way before.
Head on over to the chat and let me know what you think.
Just a quick update that my class online at the Newberry, Deconstructing The Devil in the White City on March 29 has only 4 seats left!
Grab yours today!
If you want to spend an afternoon diving into the mechanics and magic of this nonfiction classic, I hope you’ll join me. And if you have any books you would like to see “Deconstructed” in a later class, leave me a comment below. I’m excited to do more of these in the future.
If you head over to thewritemalloy.com you might notice some changes. I’m working on updating the site and would love your feedback and insight. What do you think of the new look?
I’m excited to better showcase my fabulous authors and to encourage more writers to embrace their Authority!
Let me know when you are ready!
All book links head over to bookshop.org where I have an affiliate relationship because I believe in indie bookstores (but I’m not going to lie - I still shop on Amazon, too). Any purchases you make from these links supports local bookshops and I make a very small commission that I can then use to, you guessed it, buy books on bookshop.org and support my favorite local independent bookshops!