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Reading for creative inspiration: Eight great books to kick-start the writing process

“Even if I knew for certain that I would never have anything published again, and would never make another cent from it, I would still keep on writing.” – Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write

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I have certain life goals that involve writing and art. It’s possible I may never reach some of these goals, or even any of them, but they are important enough to me that I won’t give up even if I die trying. However working toward these goals means I have to fight the powerful pull of other people’s expectations, the world’s obligations, and most daunting, the feeling I am being selfish whenever I work on my own goals rather than working on behalf of somebody else’s agenda. I know this is a common scenario for writers, artists, and people in general who want to do wonderful creative or intellectual things that the current market is not necessarily asking for. There are occupations that people want to do out of love – like acting or writing screen plays or doing historical research. The problem is more people want to do these occupations than the market wants to pay for. I know, for example, a guy with a graduate degree in history who has successfully managed a historical sites for 25 years, won an Emmy for directing a historical film, and published many articles in his field. He recently applied for a new job at a historical site and is happy to be one of 21 finalists for the job. Which pays about 40k.

At Norfolk Botanical Gardens, May 2015. Photo by me.

At Norfolk Botanical Gardens, May 2015. Photo by me.

I do not mean to imply that my immediate family is not supportive because they could hardly be more so. Most often the battle is with my own internal expectations. I am so happy my sons have now safely reached adulthood and I have been able to retrieve some of my mental real estate. But still it’s a constant battle. If I separated myself from the world and had the perfect writing studio isolated in the middle of the forest it would still be a battle. Lately I have felt the strain of swimming against the tide and started to feel like I am running out of time and strength, losing the battle. Every time I think I am making progress the surf comes in and washes me back to shore. The surf may be pleasant and the journey back to shore may be a lot of fun; but there I am, on the warm sand, no closer to that distant speck, the Isle of Publication.

Lifting off. Photo by Aaron Apple. April 2015.

Lifting off. Photo by Aaron Apple. April 2015.

So I’ve had to bring in reinforcements: a small army of books on personal inspiration and motivation. In the past few weeks I have reading or listening to these books so much, sometimes multiple times, that at times I fear I am using my motivational reading as another way to procrastinate. But on balance the time invested reading these books is already paying off on the side of productivity.

For instance, from Write. Publish. Repeat by Johnny B. Truant and David Wright I have taken the advice to start using Scrivener software for my writing projects. I am still using the 30-day trial period, but I think like it and will probably pay the $45.00 or whatever it is to keep it. I’ve used Microsoft Word for years but what sells me on the Scrivener is that it doesn’t insert a bunch of indecipherable code behind your writing and eventually, when I complete something I want to self publish, it will theoretically transfer into e-book format with fewer problems. I find technical problems are discouraging and a huge obstacle to getting things done so if $45.00 will prevent them from happening that is money well spent.

You could open a book store that sold only books on writing (if you wanted to compete with Amazon….). I found a list of 499 books on Goodreads called Best Books on Writing. I went through the list and took inventory: I have read 21, own three more that I plan to read, and am in the process of reading another. I also have a bunch of writing books on my shelf that are not on this particular list. The list, for some reason, includes several novels such as Lolita and Little Women as well as a collection of Wallace Stevens’ poems. There are also several reference books such as dictionaries and style guides. But the vast majority of the books are how-to guides: novels, screen plays, poetry, business writing, etc. Steven King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft appears three times, but I did not notice any other duplicates. On Writing is such a great book on writing that maybe it deserves to be on the list three times.

It makes perfect sense that books on how to write should be so numerous. In order to write a book you have to be a writer, and what subject do writers know best? The books I list below are the ones I have read just in the past three weeks or so.

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The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I love Pressfield’s metaphor of the creative life as an internal war. Because it’s not only a metaphor – it’s true. The birth of anything new is always a struggle. There are forces that want to bring new creation into being and there are equally strong forces that want to maintain the status quo or tear it down. The book helps you realize what you’re up against when you blithely decide you’re going to sit down and create something, whether the something is a story, a work of art, a musical composition, or a small business.

Do the Work by Steven Pressfield. This book is basically a concentrated lecture based on Pressfield’s approach to art described in The War of Art. It is a nice short motivating lecture about getting to work and bypassing all the excuses. The audio version is only an hour and 25 minutes long, so you could listen to it every morning or every night before bed. For someone like me, whose best intentions need constant reinforcement, so this wouldn’t be a terrible idea.

The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life by Thomas M. Sterner. Among these books this was my absolute favorite, and it’s not even about writing. Sterner is a musician and has a successful business restoring pianos. But the techniques he delivers have been a great help to me: how to focus on the present and if you can’t, how to train yourself into the habit of focusing on the present. It is the way to doing high quality work without stressing out and is exactly the medicine I need at this time in my life. I am on my second reading of this book and may print out parts of it to hang at my desk.

If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. This is an oldie and a classic of writing inspiration that I first read it many years ago.  Then last weekend I suddenly experienced a strong urge to read it again, one of those urges that makes you get up in the middle of the night and look for the book on your shelf where it has been sitting for years, between Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Crafting the Personal Essay by Dinty W. Moore. Ms. Ueland is the wise old guru of writing, understanding, sympathetic, non-judgmental, and a fierce champion of the creative soul, giving no quarter to the naysayers and collaborators with the world of prudence. She invokes the spirits of William Blake, the eccentric writer and an artist who ignored the prudent voices of reason of his day, and Leo Tolstoy, one of my own pillars of inspiration.  Recently at my company we had to do this survey about their potential new mentoring program. In the space where they asked you to name your ideal mentor I typed Leo Tolstoy.

The Portable MFA by Members of the New York Writers Workshop. While helping my son sign up for his first community college classes I started to consider going back to finish my Masters degree. For about five minutes. During those five minutes I discovered this book. It is full of great exercises for improving your writing and claims that if you do the work, you will have learned what you would learn if you enrolled in an MFA program for creative writing. I am still reading and doing the exercises, but so far I find it good stuff.

Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content by Mark Levy. Despite my hatred for the word “content” I have to say this book is pretty inspiring. It is not the usual book about writing marketable products but focuses on techniques for using free writing as an engine for problem solving. Whether your object is an advertising campaign or a novel, you can benefit from the techniques presented in this book.

Take Off Your Pants: Outline Your Books For Faster, Better, Writing by Libbie Hawker. I found this recently published e-book while browsing Kindle deals. Free-writing and writing from the heart is great, but when you’ve been doing that for the better part of a lifetime like I have, sometimes you need a definite approach to shaping all that brilliant free writing into something you might be able to publish. The title refers to the popular “pantsing” versus “plotting” debate among writers. Hawker maintains that if you want to actually make a living in writing in today’s market, you really need to embrace the need for efficient outlining. Her technique leaves plenty of room for creativity within a framework. I found the book well written, refreshing, and helpful.

Write Publish Repeat (The No-Luck-Required Guide to Self-Publishing Success) by Johnny b. Truant and David Wright. Still reading this. It is a treasure trove of practical information if what you want is an income-producing self publishing business. Not entirely sure that is what I want but I like thinking about the idea.

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Some of these are about being true to yourself and your art and ignoring outside voices. Others are about the realities of making an actual living at writing: what you really need to do if you want income. Yes, these are two opposing philosophies and I am torn between them. My heart is with being true to my art but my need for a food and shelter is with the practical school of thought. I am still idealistic enough to think I will find a way to combine the two. Ernest Hemingway did right? So there – it’s not impossible.

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You've reached the Creative Space of Antiguan and Barbudan writer Joanne C. Hillhouse. Author of six books of fiction; and numerous short fiction, poems, and articles. Welcome. For info on my writing, services, and more, scroll down. If you need to contact me directly, email I update this space regularly; book reviews to news of my own books, #theWritingLife, and my CREATIVE SPACE column. Sharing with links and credits is fine but unauthorized use and/or duplication of site content without permission and credit is strictly prohibited. For my other blog, go to

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