We met Ellen McSweeney at The SAVVY Musician in Action at the University of South Carolina in June 2015. Immediately, we were so impressed by her leadership, creativity, and encouraging attitude.She is a multi-faceted musician and creator, as well as a brilliant writer. After SAVVY ended, we became big fans of Ellen’s weekly newsletter, The Pearl, which offers insights and inspiration that keep us going throughout the week! Ellen often writes about what influences and guides her on her creative journey, so we were dying to know what she would choose as her favorite books.
I’m a huge believer in the power of a great book. Picking up just the right book, at just the right time, can transform your life. But I’m also minimalist who’s spent most of my career living in a small apartment with no storage space. I purge books ruthlessly, giving away everything from novels I adored to self-help books that didn’t quite land with me.
These five creative books, however, make the cut every time I pare down my collection. I can say without hesitation that these titles are worth your hard-earned cash. Whether you’ve got an exciting new project, a bad case of writer’s block, a mediocre day job, or a bunch of scars from the battle for artistic survival … one of these titles is for you.
Five Books Every Creative Should Own
So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport
Read if you need: tough love, practical career strategy, a non-musician’s perspective
By the time I finished this book, I no longer believed in the “do what you love” hypothesis — and it was a relief. So Good They Can’t Ignore You blasts through feel-good career wisdom, arguing instead that “follow your passion” is terrible advice, and that the only way to build a rewarding career is on the unglamorous foundation of hard-earned skill. Don’t ask what the world can offer you, author Cal Newport advises. Ask what you can offer the world — and then get really good at it.
Newport cautions us against the escapist fantasies of 21st-century entrepreneurship: Work from anywhere! Live in Bali! Earn passive income while you sleep! Some of the cautionary tales he shares — a successful lawyer who inexplicably wants to become a masseuse; a corporate career woman who pursues a dream of becoming a yoga teacher and ends up on food stamps — hit painfully close to home for me.
This creative book encourages us to take a clear-eyed look at how we can use skill to build career capital. So Good They Can’t Ignore You transformed the way I think about my violin practicing, writing, and composing.
Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach
Read if you need: compassion, wisdom, meditation instruction
If you’ve ever struggled with fear, loneliness, depression, or impostor syndrome, you’re not alone — and you need this book. After decades spent working as a meditation teacher and psychotherapist,Tara Brach found that her clients and students all had one thing in common: the unshakeable belief that something was wrong with them.
For classical musicians and performers, this limiting belief can be compounded by our strict training, competitive job market, and the high-pressure nature of our work.
Radical Acceptance was a life-changing book for me, and the first book that actually helped me establish a meditation practice. If mental and emotional well-being are at the top of your priority list — which they probably should be — this is a wonderful resource. You don’t need to be a Buddhist, or have any particular beliefs, to benefit from this book.
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Read if you need: a complete 12-week reboot of your creativity
Now almost twenty years old, The Artist’s Way is a twelve-week, self-guided course to recover your creativity. It’s one of the absolute iconic texts for creative people; frankly, a lot of current creativity literature is just riffing on it. My college friend Alyssa gave it to me as a Valentine’s Day gift in 2005, and in the ten years I’ve owned the book, I’ve gone through the course three times. Each time, I learn more about myself and what’s standing in the way of my creativity.
The course helps you blast through creative blocks — most of which are inside yourself, of course — by using two basic tools: morning pages (daily, stream-of-consciousness writing) and weekly artist dates (fun, frivolous, guilt-free activities that delight and rejuvenate you). Cameron’s mini-essays are like Bible verses for artists; you’ll return to them again and again.
Buy a used copy, get a group of friends to start it with you, and dive in. You’ll be astounded by what happens.
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon
Read if you need: fun, approachable, bite-size advice for artistic growth
If you’re a visual person who likes to get straight to the point, Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist has your name on it.
As I mentioned earlier, I purge my books constantly, only keeping what feels relevant and useful. This lovely little book keeps making the cut. Kleon is well-known for his newspaper blackout poems and cartoony aesthetic, and each page of the book could be an Instagram sensation on its own.
A lot of Kleon’s advice is stuff you can act on right away, like sharing bits and pieces of your creative process online, or starting a “swipe folder” where you keep art that’s worth stealing from.
Speaking of stealing, he uses one of Julia Cameron’s ideas from The Artist’s Way: the “praise folder,” where you keep nice things people say about you. It’s supposed to help you through the dark days.
If The Artist’s Way is too spiritual for you, or just too much of a time commitment, try this creative book instead.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Read if you need: a peek into 1960’s New York City, a meditation on creative friendship
You might love this book because of the unflinching way Patti Smith depicts her friendship with the controversial photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. You might love the vivid details that allow you to transport yourself back to the famous Chelsea Hotel, where countless famous American artists cut their teeth. I love this book for those things, too.
But what I love most about this memoir is how it allows you to see two young talents — Smith’s and Mapplethorpe’s — unfold before your eyes. They’re young, they’re confused, they’re broke, and they’re a complete mess sometimes.
But through the mess, they manage pick up the thread of their own creative voices, and it’s astounding to watch. An honest, intimate, and inspiring account of one gritty woman’s rise to artistic fulfillment — and the soul friendships that helped her get there.
What Creative Book(s) Can’t You Live Without?
We would love to expand this list! Share your favorite book(s) about creativity, art, and finding your way through the artistic world.
Leave a comment below with your top pick.