By Sibyl Perhaps you read my column the other week about diving in to the creative life and were intrigued, but need an extra push of inspiration. Or maybe you are already engaged in art-making pursuits of some kind, and could use some encouragement for your efforts. Either way, read on for Sibyl’s picks for what to read offline to spark your creativity until you positively surge with it.
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger For an entire decade, I read this book yearly, usually in a single sitting on a rainy evening, pacing around my apartment saying the words aloud to myself in a very low voice, or curled up in an ancient armchair with all the stuffing showing.
This book sees all your neuroses and lets you keep them. The story and the characters wind their way around your fears about the selfishness of the creative life versus the selflessness of the religious life, and sews a protective cloak around them. It reminds you that if nothing else, you need to do it for the Fat Lady.
Letters To a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke This slender missive was first given to me at the tender age of 19 by my favorite older cousin, who had just quit her life on one side of the country and travelled to the other on a wing and a prayer, following her creative whims. It sometimes gets flack for being exclusionary (he makes the argument at one point that you are only an artist if you NEED to be, can do nothing else, which is obviously a bit dangerously black-and-white), but what I love about this book most is that it upholds difficulty. Rilke asserts, again and again, that if you are finding adversity, you are doing it right. He instructs the young art-maker to trust his sadnesses, seek out the important, serious struggles and try not to judge the outcomes. Great advice for those days when you inevitably feel like if it’s too hard, you should just pack it in.
Wild Mind: Living The Writer’s Life by Natalie Goldberg Technically, this book is geared towards writers, and there are excellent writing prompts at the end of every chapter. However, there is tons of advice that is good for any artist seeking to find practical ways to loosen up and find the freedom to create. Goldberg advocates for creating from instinct, and writes about all the ways we clog up our first impulses, with suggestions for how to remove those barriers to vibrant creation. She also argues for committing to a specific arts practice rather than allowing yourself to get preoccupied with fifty different things. Since I am a firm believer that commitment, even if you fail fully at it, always leads to depth, I love her application of this to the creative life.
The books that I have suggested in this column have one thing in common: they are all short. The last thing you need is a huge engrossing tome that allows you to avoid creating. Read, get inspired, then put the book down and make something! The more of yourself you put into it, the more uniquely powerful it will be.
Sometimes, visual imagery inspires like nothing else. Therefore, here are three companion documentaries to go with this reading list:
Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time (2001) When I had a newborn, I watched endless documentaries about artists, yearning for the time when I would have a baby off my boob and be able to go back out into the world to create. It was actually a lovely time of incubation and learning, and I discovered Rivers and Tides in that period. I think I watched it over and over for an entire week, whenever my baby was feeding.
The pace of it is enchanting, as Goldsworthy is followed over a year of his work, which takes him all over the world creating ephemeral sculptures out of natural materials. The most evocative piece for me was that the way Goldsworthy works makes him face failure on a daily basis. This is something that is absolutely imperative for an artist: to become so familiar with failure that while it is devastating every time it happens, you learn to trust it, to use those mistakes for even greater works of artistry.
Who Does She Think She Is? (2008) Watching this documentary, which follows several female artists as they struggle to create in the midst of mothering, is an inspiring experience. The personal stories are interspersed with astonishing facts about the lack of representation of women, and particularly mothers, in the art world. Seeing these women have the courage to create when everyone said they were selfish, unrealistic, and irrelevant was incredibly empowering to me. My favorite was a ridiculously talented sculptor who has FIVE children, and does her art-making during naps and after bedtime. This documentary would really be interesting to anyone, not just mothers, because you'll find yourself saying, "If she can do it, with a baby on her hip, and one pulling on her leg, so can I!"
1991: The Year Punk Broke (1992) In the summer of 1991 the seminal noise-rock band Sonic Youth invited filmmaker David Markey along on a two week summer festival tour of Europe, with their little-known opening band, Nirvana. The result, a documentary that will rock your face off, was playing on repeat in my buddy Ben's basement for most of our teenage years. To be fair, I have not re-watched this since about 1997, so I'm going on hormone-fueled memory here.
I'm a little afraid to re-visit it, actually, since doing so sent artist Andrew Kuo into such a tailspin that he was forced to ask, in graphic form, "Wait, did punk ruin my life?" If it did, I don't want to know. Maybe you weren't a baby punk in the 90's who swore she saw God when Sonic Youth's guitars sustained a single note of noise, creating a wall of discordant sounds around you for minutes at a time, but if you fancy my Sibyl columns I think that baby punk might live within you, without you even knowing it. Watch this doc and let the manic expression and vibrant fury of these bands stir in you the desire to smash the world with your art.