15 Books to Jumpstart Your Creative Mojo

She leaned across the table and whispered to me in the most conspiratorial tone, "I'm suffering from a bit of creative ennui." She pulled back and let out a simultaneous guttural laugh and moan that caused others in the coffeehouse to look our way, "Oh who am I kidding, I am fresh out of both ideas and inspiration."

"What am I to do?" wailed my generally stalwart companion.  As I am wont to do in these moments, I reached below the table, grabbed my messenger bag, and pulled out a stack of 15 books, each of which I knew might be part of the creative cure she sought.  I kid. I don't carry ready-made resource kits around with me at random.But here are 15 resources I value to refresh my own creative thinking and doing.

Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer
This is not a book that many would normally associate with creativity.  "Is the life I am living the same life that wants to live in me?" is the core question explored in this slender tome. So why am I including it?  Because a creative crisis may be the symptom not the problem. Palmer takes us deeper into listening to the voice of vocation, our vocation. And in that journey he often helps me reclaim my identity as a creative in ways more powerful than any technique ever could.

difference by Bernadette Jiwa
Another slim book (79 pages), Jiwa frames her work as "the one-page method for reimagining your business and reinventing your marketing." While she no doubt helps you do exactly that, Jiwa also helps us think more broadly about what we create and for whom we do so: "If we want to survive in a world with unlimited choices, we've no option but to work harder to make sure that the right people care more."  So perhaps your creative block is tied less to the act of creating and more to losing touch with the audience (or Tribes to use Seth Godin's term; video) who most care about what you care about and how you exemplify that caring in what you create.

Serious Creativity by Edward de Bono
Enough with this search for inner meaning you might be saying. Just give me some tools. Coming right up then. A toolbook I refer to regularly is this de Bono classic offering the core principles and dozens of techniques for what he calls lateral thinking: "With lateral thinking, we move 'sideways' to try different perceptions, different concepts, different points of entry. We can use various methods, including provocations, to get us out of the usual line of thought."  I regularly draw on de Bono's techniques individually in my own work, as well as draw on them to help stimulate fresh thinking in the group sessions I facilitate. A favorite? The Concept Fan. While a bit stilted in tone, the book belongs in your library.

A Whole New Mindmap by Austin Kleon
A Whole New Mind by Daniel H. Pink
Another book chock-full of useful exercises and techniques, Pink's AWNM addresses six "senses" he suggests are required in an era when the value associated with left-brain thinking can so easily be replicated: (1) Design, (2) Storytelling, (3) Symphony, (4) Empathy, (5) Play, and (6) Meaning.  Pink brings each of these sense to life with his characteristic humor and approachable stories and also offers numerous exercises to help you apply them. I wrote a discussion guide about the book's application for associations. Download that free PDF here.

Full disclosure: I was compensated to contribute some of the exercises that appear in the paperback edition of the book.

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
Embedding isolated techniques into our routines until they become habits is an underlying premise of this interesting book from famed choreographer Twyla Tharp. "In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare yourself to be creative."  And prepare us is what Tharp does using a compelling narrative that weaves together personal example, stories from her choreographic work, and exercises to adopt.  Much of the book illustrates the paradox between the preparedness and the openness that creativity seems to require.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work edited by Mason Curry
If you like to gain insight into the mind and practices of an artist like Twyla Tharp, you may love this book. It's a catalog of the daily routines of about 100 writers, thinkers, and other creatives. As you skim the listings (each is only a page or two) you may find specific ideas to adopt or adapt. You most definitely will find yourself thinking more about your daily routine and how to modify it to better incorporate creative habits.

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace
It's one thing for individuals to develop creative routines, but how do organizations institutionalize creative habits so that they support a culture of innovation? Answers for this critical question abound throughout this really enjoyable read that uses the creative folks at Pixar as its cast of characters. What I most appreciate about this book is the recurring emphasis on tearing down impediments to creativity that commonly grow over time in an organization.

Creative Intelligence by Bruce Nussbaum
Pixar?  Seriously?  You want me to be creative like the wizards of Pixar?  If that dialogue is running through your mind then this closing assertion from Bruce Nussbaum calls for your attention: "... we have been brought up to believe that creativity is rare, the special gift of a few individual geniuses, the magical quality that we don't have and can't share. This destructive myth of creativity has crippled us as individuals and as a nation."

Like many before him, Nussbaum tries to dismiss creativity as the domain of a limited number of individuals and reframe it as a form of literacy or intelligence that far more people can develop.  To do so, he examines how individuals and organizations learn to be creative, highlighting five competencies: (1) Knowledge Mining, (2) Framing, (3) Playing, (4) Making, and (5) Pivoting.  Instead of a book of exercises, Creative Intelligence is a book introducing us to core principles that should inform our creative habits.

Creative Confidence by Tom and David Kelley
The Kelley Brothers, of IDEO fame,have written what may very well become the classic book illustrating a very real truth: without confidence we are unlikely to create or innovate. It's an enjoyable read offering the classic business book blend of stories, examples, and exercise, but in a more approachable tone that what often is offered. At the end you'll understand why they believe that: "Creative confidence is like a muscle—it can be strengthened and nurtured through effort and experience."

The Laws of Subtraction by Matthew E. May
Embracing a focus on changing the way we think AND changing the way we do is the space May owns in this useful book that extols the value of (and need for) subtraction in our current age of excess : "Subtraction is defined simply as the art of removing anything excessive, confusing, wasteful, unnatural, hazardous, hard to use, or ugly ... or the discipline to refrain from adding it in the first place."  The discipline to subtract is a critical creative habit to develop, both in mindset and in specific skill (as in de Bono's negation technique). May offers six laws for doing so, each brought to life with numerous examples. In doing so, he bolsters our creative confidence that less is more and that subtraction can be the path to great gain.

Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon
Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon
Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity by Hugh MacLeod
Evil Plans: Having Fun on the Road to World Domination by Hugh MacLeod

I suppose it is a bit unfair to bundle four books by two authors into one description. My doing so should in no way make you think these books don't stand alone or that they are any less useful than those previously mentioned. Collectively they are similar in spirit and form in a way that I think makes it appropriate to talk about them together.

Kleon and MacLeod are both artists who write ... or maybe writers who create art ... or maybe hybrid creatives that cannot easily be categorized.  Kleon's art are "blackout" prints in which the few revealed words remaining send an interesting message.  MacLeod's art originally took the form of drawings and pithy sayings on the back of business cards.  All four of their books are what I consider great plane reads, the prefect length and form for a long plane fight.  Short chapters, punchy writing, practical points, inspiring admonishments, quotable concepts ... you'll find that and more in each book.

The Gift; Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde
Sometimes we just need reassurance that what we do as creatives matters, that we do important work not just for ourselves but for society.  Hyde offers us this support. "The passage into mystery always refreshes. If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labor satisfies. We are lightened when our gifts rise from pools we cannot fathom. Then we know they are not a solitary egotism and they are inexhaustible.”

Bonus Resources:

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