If you are at all serious about being a writer, you need to know something about what it means to be a creative person. Few successful writers reach the heights without at least a rudimentary philosophical take on what they are doing. Luckily, creativity has spawned an entire writing genre with many fine books on the topic.
When it comes to books about creativity, my favourite author has to be Anthony Storr. No one does a better job of choosing the revealing anecdotes from creators’ lives. Being a psychiatrist himself, he is unsurpassed when discussing the motivation and attitudes behind the activities of creative individuals. He skilfully weaves anecdote and psychology into a lively, fascinating, and enlightening view of what creative people are like. His strong emphasis on creativity’s rewards is inspiring. All of Storr’s books are jargon-free and a pleasure to read. Here are three of his titles with a comment or two about each one.
Churchill’s Black Dog and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind / Anthony Storr
The black dog of the title is Winston Churchill’s recurring depression, which he likened to a dog that followed him wherever he went. Writers are famously prone to this problem, but writing is a tough profession in which to succeed. As many a struggling indie has lamented, not making any headway can be depressing. For those already prone to melancholy, the writer’s inevitable setbacks can mean more than just a little bout with feeling low. However, depression is only one aspect of this marvellous book. I especially enjoyed the section on how mice in the walls of an old house drove Franz Kafka to distraction.
The Dynamics of Creation / Anthony Storr
I stumbled upon this one in the seventies and have reread it several times since then. It never grows stale. The book presents a comprehensive look at creativity discussing such diverse individuals as Leonardo da Vinci, Darwin, Mozart, Einstein, Kafka, Newton, Balzac, and Wagner. The glimpses Storr provides into the personalities of these exceptional men are priceless.
Solitude: A Return to the Self / Anthony Storr
Being a bit on the solitary side myself, this one is a personal favourite. Titled The School of Genius in the UK, the book was in part an inspiration for my earlier post, “Writers, Solitude, and Creativity.” As the title suggests, the emphasis is on the more solitary aspects of creativity. Storr examines the lives of creative individuals who were less sociable than many of their peers. There are no party animals here.
While Storr is my favourite, he is far from being the only good writer in this field. Here are five more excellent books about creativity.
Fire in the Crucible / John Briggs
Briggs’ approach to creativity is a bit different. Instead of writing about specific creative individuals, he surveyed the entire creativity research effort. He brilliantly sums up the scientific findings in Fire in the Crucible and even attempts to define genius. I think he is right, but I will not play spoiler. This one is a hugely enjoyable read and packed with useful tips and insights distilled from many years of research.
Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention / Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Csikszentmihalyi pioneered the concept of flow, the idea that humans get into a peculiar state of mind when engaging in certain activities, especially, but not exclusively, those related to creativity. Athletes might call this “being in the zone.” If you write, and find the activity completely absorbing, you really need to know about flow.
Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament / Kay Redfield Jamison
Like Anthony Storr, Jamison is a psychiatrist, but whereas Storr believes creative people are not examples of psychopathology, Jamison takes up the older (rather stereotypical) notion that the highly creative individual often suffers from a mental disorder. After studying the lives of numerous creative people, she concludes that the culprit is manic-depressive illness, a serious condition that frequently goes undiagnosed. She is herself a sufferer. The book makes a great case for her ideas, but she is selective in her examples. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this book. Jamison’s writing style is extremely readable.
The Act of Creation / Arthur Koestler
Koestler’s classic book is the most ambitious and complex of those described here. In it, he attempts – with considerable success – to develop a general theory of human creativity as it pertains to humour, science, and art. His intelligent approach combined with his journalistic writing skills make for fascinating reading. The book pairs well with The Ghost in the Machine, his book about the human sense of duality, the mind-body split. Koestler denies the notion of mind as a spirit temporarily inhabiting the body and offers a unique alternative view.
The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods / Antonin Sertillanges
I have saved this one for last because it is very old and Sertillanges was a French Dominican priest. Does that make him an improbable advisor on being an intellectual? As it happens, the Dominicans were a rational intellectual force to be reckoned with. While not specifically about creativity, the book is enormously useful in understanding how intellectuals (writers in this case) get their work done. Sertillanges also provides an entire well-thought-out way of life for anyone interested in being a conservative intellectual.