Pros: Creative, fun, poignant, non-pushy; rich with ideas; helpful and honest
Cons: A bit silly at times, but that isn’t necessarily bad
Rating: 5 out of 5
First published 10/28/2002
I’m quite fond of Eric Maisel’s books. He’s a psychotherapist and “creativity consultant,” and he has written a number of books on writing, art, and creativity. Several of them are among my favorite writing books: “Living the Writer’s Life,” “Deep Writing,” and “Write Mind.” Unlike those other books, this one is not aimed specifically at writers; it’s aimed at you, me, your brother, and the guy in the cubicle down the hall. In other words, anyone who’d like to use a little more creativity in their lives, whether for painting, writing, mathematics, relationships, or business plans.
Whatever you do, creativity helps you do it better; whatever the details of your life, you feel more alive. Creativity improves your work life and enriches your life in general.
The book is designed to be read one section at a time, to take you through a year of learning. It has 88 sections, two per week, to get you through ten months, and then the idea is that you spend the last two months of your year devoted to a particular creative project. Each base section is pretty short – generally a page or three – so you’ll have no trouble reading it in a few spare minutes some evening. Then it’s followed by at least one exercise, and sometimes several. Sometimes the exercises are very specific; at other times, Maisel suggests ways to apply the exercises to whatever area you’re trying to become more creative in.
Many of the ideas in the book are relatively basic, but this in no way makes the book less valuable. After all, they’re only basic for people who are already highly creative and making abundant use of that creativity. If you aren’t entirely sure where to start, then you will find the concepts fairly easy to understand, but they won’t feel redundant or pointless. In large part this book is designed to help those who aren’t sure where to start when it comes to creativity, and who haven’t had much luck sitting down and getting started with their creative projects.
Even highly creative people will still find things of value in this book, however. Some sections will feel like remedial schooling, but others might unlock surprising ways for you to move forward in your work. People with more experience using their creativity might prefer to skip from section to section instead of following the “plan,” using the bits that have particular value to them.
Each chapter covers one “month” (four weeks) of ideas and exercises – a total of eight sub-sections with accompanying exercises. The first month is mostly an introduction, a few basic ideas to help you get your feet wet and feel a little more comfortable with the idea of creativity. Here Maisel introduces the idea of making creativity into a religion – a metaphor, but an interesting one, and one that runs as a theme throughout the entirety of this book.
Month two talks about being human – failure, forgiveness, screwing up, dealing with your demons and your flaws, and so on. While this is found near the beginning of the book, it’s a chapter that almost everyone could find much of value in. Few people handle failure and problems with complete equanimity, after all. Month three talks about being mindful – analysis, synthesis, understanding, self-consciousness, and more. The next month goes into exploration – questions, abstraction, reinventing the old, innovating the new, and so on. Month five takes you into the realms of the deep and the dark; these are frightening places, but they’re also intimately linked with creativity.
Month six will help you figure out how to use yourself as a resource, while month seven will help you connect with others. Month eight teaches you how to be ambitious (in a good way!), and month nine teaches you how to be truthful. Month 10 gets personal by talking about love, and then month 11 leads you into the work you’ll be doing.
There’s so much here!
Of course, the listing above makes the book sound simple. It isn’t. There’s a great deal of value in here. Maisel doesn’t see creativity as a straightforward skill – he sees it as a way of life, and he addresses it from that perspective. Thus, this book doesn’t just address problem-solving; it also addresses ethics, how you treat yourself, how you treat others, and more. Or, as Maisel says, it’s all about truth, beauty, and goodness.
He manages to do this without being pushy, which is one of the things I love about his books. He has strong opinions and ideas on how life should be lived, but he never phrases them in an imperative form. Instead he gently convinces, allowing you to come to your own decisions. (I’m a pretty stubborn person, and his “tone” never causes me to balk in irritation.)
He’ll teach you to go deep into that scary darkness, and he’ll have you tear up a textbook just to teach you the value of self-education. He’ll give you some suggestions for coping with depression, and he’ll teach you to “kill maybe.” He’ll help you figure out how to deal with other creative people, what you want from your audience, and how to think big. He encourages you to be ambitious and to try to do the amazing things that, deep down, you really want to do, while reminding you to care for the people around you as well as yourself. And he does all of this without judgment, without telling you that you’re a fool to be scared, or that you’re an idiot if you don’t do X, Y, and Z. He clearly brings a great deal of experience as a psychotherapist to his writing, and takes good advantage of that experience.
We are our own best jailers.
Okay, so some of the exercises are silly. Sometimes, though, that’s a part of Maisel’s point, and it’s worth trying many of them anyway. Some of the exercises get very personal, because so much of us goes into our creative endeavors. Not everyone is going to find all of these exercises comfortable, but that’s also part of the point. Being creative often requires you to do things you aren’t entirely comfortable with.
There will be some people who aren’t going to like the book because of that discomfort, that level of personal exploration, or that silliness. If you think you’re in that crowd, you might start out with a less “deep” book for now. If you think you can live with that, then I urge you to give this book a try.
I keep thinking that one of these times I’ll end up giving one of Maisel’s books a less-than-perfect rating. But no matter how many of them I read, I always find myself giving them the perfect five. There’s a reason for that, and I hope that if you have any interest in creativity, you’ll check out one or more of his books.