Shakespeare by Anthony Burgess

Shakespeare by Anthony Burgess

The other day I came across Anthony Burgess’s book on Shakespeare. It’s wonderful, highly idiosyncratic, waspish and very entertaining. Just what you’d expect from a polymath like Burgess.

This quotation caught my eye:

“If everybody owes God a death, the hardworking artist owes fate an occasional physical or mental breakdown: he cannot build so many new worlds without damaging his own fabric.”

Interesting, isn’t it? It certainly rang bells for me. Not, I should hasten to add that I’m comparing myself to Shakespeare or Burgess. Frankly, a lot of the time I even struggle to identify myself as a hardworking artist. However, what I do know is that if I pay no attention to my physical and mental welfare and simply write, things start to happen. Things that I don’t like. So I try to keep an eye on myself and life being what it is, I’m sometimes more effective at doing this than at other times.

The queen of managing a healthy creative life is Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way. Her tools are deceptively simple and some of the best I’ve come across:

  • morning pages – writing 3 sides of A4 every morning as soon as you wake up;
  • the artist date – ‘a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside to nurturing … your inner artist.’

She is very good on being healthily creative. She is  very good on lots of things.

Here’s Burgess again:

“It was time for Shakespeare to turn his back on London – not perhaps for ever, but for longer and longer periods of rural peace which should imperceptibly merge into a sort of retirement. Sort of: no writer ever really retires.”

This was certainly true of Burgess, who kept working through his final illness and was writing on his deathbed. So if you’re intending to be in the writing game or ‘creating’ game for the long haul and there is no retirement, it might be a very good idea to get some healthy habits and  find out early on what works for you.

On the other hand, if the mere idea of a healthy artist fills you with ennui …

If the above leaves you cold, cold, cold and Julia Cameron is not to your taste …

If you yearn for a bit of catastrophic, dramatic, ‘acting out’ from creative types …

The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink

The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink

I’d highly recommend Olivia Laing’s book The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink? It should perhaps be called why male American writers drink but that quibble aside, it’s brilliant, very well written and fascinating in an utterly gruesome sort of way.  She writes about Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver. Great writers – great drinkers. Car crash lives. I loved the book; I also love my morning pages and artist dates.

What do you make of Burgess’s quote? Do you manage to build worlds without damaging your own fabric? Are you good at cheating fate? Any tips to share on mental health and the creative life? I’d be delighted if you left me a comment.


My typewriter did not look like this beauty!

Unfortunately my typewriter did not look anything like this old beauty!

I came to writing relatively late in life. I was in my twenties before I even dared articulate to myself that was what my dream was. I sat on my bed looking at a clapped out old electric typewriter on the other side of the room and feeling this huge space between me and it. It seemed impossible. The only thing occupying the space at that time was my longing to be a writer.

But how to begin?

In the end I did three things:

1.  I did a writing course taught by Sahera Chohan* and Nigel Watts;

2. I did The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron with my friend, Francesca Howard*;

3. I began to read books on writing and creativity in general.

 * See my blog roll for their inspiring blogs.

Books on writing

Books on writing…

The first book I read was Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Still one of my favourites. It was Francesca who suggested doing The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. She wanted to become a painter and I wanted to become a writer and she suggested we do the course together and talk on the phone weekly about how we’d got on. Without those weekly telephone calls I’m not sure I would have finished it. As I remember it, I was appalled at Week Four, the reading deprivation week, and extremely stroppy when it came to collages (which I loved doing when I got down to it) but at the end of it the seeds of hope and possibility were planted in me.

More books on writing

More books on writing…

I have read many other books over the years and I’ll give a list at the end of my favourites but one which I’m reading now and absolutely love is by Anne Bogart: A Director Prepares. Seven Essays on Art and Theatre. These are her chapter headings: Memory; Violence; Eroticism; Terror; Stereotype; Embarrassment; Resistance. It’s a brilliant inspiring book and I can’t recommend it highly enough. She uses examples from the world of theatre, painting, dance and literature.

Here are some of my favourite quotes from the book:

‘The saving grace in one’s work is love, trust and a sense of humour.’

‘Every creative act involves a leap into the void.’

Here she is on resistance:

Laziness and impatience are constant internal resistances and they are very personal. We are all lazy. We are all impatient. Neither are evil qualities; rather they are issues that we learn to handle properly…. Attitude is key. Naming something a problem engenders the wrong relationship to it… Try not to think of anything as a problem. Start with a forgiving attitude to laziness and impatience and cultivate a sense of humour about them both. And then trick them.’

To find out how to trick them buy the book!

And some more books on writing...

And some more books on writing…

When I look back, books played a crucial role in leading me across that room towards the typewriter, towards the moment when I put my hands on the keyboard and began to write. They play a crucial role in keeping me there. I continue to buy these books (71 and counting!) and I continue to explore the whole subject of creativity. I find it endlessly fascinating.

The questions I’m looking to have answered are how do other people do it – create? How do dancers dance, painters paint, actors act, writers write, singers sing, directors direct. How do they persist? How do they deal with setbacks? What can I learn from them?

Here, in no particular order, are twenty of my favourite books on writing and creativity.

1.Negotiating with the Dead – Margaret Atwood

2.Teach yourself Writing a Novel – Nigel Watts

3.The Courage to Write –  Ralph Keyes

4.The Writer’s Book of Hope – Ralph Keyes

5.Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg

6.Wild Mind – Natalie Goldberg

7.The Artist’s Way – Julia Cameron

8.The Right to Write – Julia Cameron

9.On Writing – Stephen King

10.Becoming a Writer – Dorothea Brande

11.Writing for your Life – Deena Metzger

12. The Poetics of Space – Gaston Bachelard

13. The Paris Review Interviews – all volumes

14. The Master and his Emissary – Ian McGilchrist

15. The Gift – Lewis Hyde

16. Which Lie Did I Tell? – William Goldman

17. One Continuous Mistake – Gail Sher

18. Walking With Alligators – Susan Shaughnessy

19. If You Want To Write – Brenda Ueland

20. A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre – Anne Bogart

There’s also a book coming out in February 2015 called The Art of Creative Thinking written by Rod Judkins, a lecturer at St Martin’s School of Art, which looks very interesting.

Do you have a book which had a big effect on your creative process? Are there any books you would recommend? What do you think of my list?