It happens to the best of us… and in 2020 it happens all the time: creative block. Whether it’s a lack of inspiration, a lack of motivation, a lack of free time, or some combination of all three, we’ve all hit that wall where it feels like every one of our ideas is stale, everyone else is better or more prolific than us, and there’s no real reason to keep trying.
If you find yourself in the creative doldrums this December, unmotivated and uninspired, this list is for you: 5 creativity-boosting books that have absolutely nothing to do with photography per se, but should be on every photographer’s shortlist all the same.
I don’t think anybody has captured the struggle at the core of a creative life quite so accurately as Steven Pressfield when he wrote The War of Art. The book is about the single greatest enemy of creativity and fulfillment, at least according to Pressfield: Resistance.
Resistance is the “self-generated” and “self-perpetuated” force that will do and say whatever is necessary to keep you from picking up the camera and getting to work. As Pressfield explains in the introduction:
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.
The connection to photography is obvious: it’s not taking pictures that’s hard, it’s picking up the damn camera and getting out there, day-in and day-out, no matter how inspired you happen to feel. As Sun Tzu once wrote, “Know thy self, know thy enemy.” When it comes to creativity, Steven Pressfield will gladly introduce you to the enemy.
The entire Last Interview book series is a fantastic resource, consisting of 14 compiled interviews and conversations with such luminaries as Fred Rogers, Anthony Bourdain, Frida Kahlo, and Ursula K. Le Guin. I haven’t read them all, but my favorite so far features Kurt Vonnegut.
Vonnegut—best known for his masterwork Slaughterhouse Five—brings a biting wit and cutting satire to each of his answers that will, at the very least, serve as an entertaining distraction from your creative woes. At best, it might inspire you to take yourself a little less seriously… and taking yourself too seriously is one of the leading causes of creative block.
For the few people in the audience who haven’t heard of Paulo Coelho’s international bestseller The Alchemist, it’s the allegorical story of a young Andalusian shepherd who goes in search of his “personal legend.” It’s a story primarily about purpose and fate—about listening to the call deep inside that says “go and do this thing” even when that thing seems crazy.
I’m assuming at least a few of us can relate.
Like the rest of the books on this list, it has absolutely nothing to do with photography, but everything to do with facing the inevitable frustrations, distractions, and failures that you sign up for when you dedicate yourself to creating art, any art, including and especially photography.
I predict that I’m going to take some crap for this one. There was a time when The Alchemist would have been hailed as an obvious choice for this list; say, 10-15 years ago. But we live in ironic times when it’s easy (and far more popular) to scoff at such seemingly idealistic ideas as following your “personal legend.” That’s fine. Maybe the critics are right to scoff. But like it or not, sometimes you just need a big fat dose of inspiration that sets your creative world on fire from the inside out, and The Alchemist achieves just that.
First published in 1991, The Artist’s Way remains one of the best step-by-step guides for conquering self-doubt and, in Cameron’s words, “rediscovering your creative self.” In so far as a program for creative growth can become a “cult classic,” this is it.
Though it’s classified as a “self-help” book—a term that immediately makes me squirm—don’t let that turn you away. There’s something foundational about Cameron’s message and methods that has stood the test of time and elevated the book to the level of creative canon. The two core exercises, “morning pages” and the “artist’s date,” might seem a bit woo woo on the surface, but they’ve helped countless writers, painters, photographers, designers, musicians, and everyone in between learn how to silence their inner critic and get back to work.
For better or worse, many of the best books about creative block were written by writers, for writers. But all creativity is storytelling, and I’m convinced that good advice for pen and paper applies just as well to light and film.
Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a delightfully irreverent and encouraging read that will keep you chuckling while giving you plenty of reasons to keep creating no matter what. Creative block often arises from a place of sky-high expectations and unrealistic comparisons. But as Lamott will tell you over and over again, there is only one way to tackle a creative project: “bird by bird.” In our case, picture by picture.
The trick is that there is no trick: you just keep coming back.
To paraphrase Lamott:
I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a [photographer]. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.
Obviously, this is hardly a comprehensive guide to wise and/or inspirational content for the photographer who’s stuck in a creative rut. These just happen to be 5 of my favorite books on creativity; books that, because they’re not explicitly about photography, you may not have considered picking up.
I hope I’ve changed your mind.
But in the spirit of the holidays and lending a helping hand, please drop your favorite “creative rut” book in the comments and let us know why you reach for it when you’re feeling stuck. Maybe it’s a famous photo book like The Americans or Magnum Contact Sheets, or maybe it’s something totally out of left field like your favorite sci-fi novel (the correct answer is Dune) or an inspirational book of essays.
Whatever it is, I firmly believe that if it helps you it will help someone else, too.
About the author: DL Cade is an art, science and technology writer, and the former Editor in Chief of PetaPixel. When he’s not writing op-eds like this one or reviewing the latest tech for creatives, you’ll find him working in Vision Sciences at the University of Washington, publishing the weekly Triple Point newsletter, or sharing personal essays on Medium.