Posted by: Liz Massey | June 15, 2008

Summer Reading List (I): Feedback, Flow and Fire

I thought I’d share several batches of creativity-related books and media with readers this summer, and this starting trio is fabulous. One has intriguing research about creative discovery, one has dead-on advice about advice about your creative work, and one is a nourishing brew that slakes the creative person’s spirit.

Toxic Feedback cover

Toxic Feedback, by Joni B. Cole, aims to help writers deal with one of the most treacherous, yet necessary elements of the craft: handling feedback from others. Although aimed at writers, and in particular fiction and memoir writers, the book really addresses two much deeper issues that transcend artistic mediums–how to handle criticism of one’s creative output and how to revise one’s work in an authentic way. I love Cole’s use of humor throughout the book; whether she’s gently exaggerating the scale or absurdity of certain feedback situations she’s encountered or they really happened as she recounts them, the tone helps to reinforce one of her key points, that

“You are the boss of your own story. Not the other writers in your critique group. Not the famous author whose workshop you were lucky enough to get into at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. Not even your mother-in-law, who comes into your house while you are at work and vacuums the mattresses because someone has to protect her grandchildren from dust mites. When it comes to applying feedback, you–and only you–are the one who gets to determine what stays and what goes in your story. And that is a good thing.”

Toxic Feedback, which has a companion website, is a great read for anyone struggling with the tension between staying true to one’s inner creative vision and being open to the opinion of one’s audience.

Group Genius cover

Group Genius, by R. Keith Sawyer, is a wonderful contribution to what I like to call the “evidence-based creativity” section of my book collection. Sawyer is a professor of psychology and education at Washington University in St. Louis, who has also worked as a video-games designer for Atari and a management consultant and who has been a skilled amateur jazz musician. His love of jazz and improvisational theater have formed the foundation of his research on creativity. Creative breakthroughs, he argues, far from being an act of solitary genius, are almost always the end-result of collaborations between webs of like-minded and like-purposed individuals.

Calling on examples as diverse as the true origins of Monopoly, the creation of the mountain bike, and the development of the telegraph, as well as more recent innovations such as the Linux computer operating system and automatic teller machines, Sawyer is persuasive in his argument that cultivating “collaborative webs” of individuals and organizations are key to creative successes.

Especially intriguing are Sawyers’ 10 rules for “group flow.” As a graduate student, he worked with Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi at the University of Chicago, and has expanded upon his mentor’s concept of individual “flow” states to include conditions that encourage group excellence and creative performance.

“Group Genius” is a genius of a book. If you wonder about how to collaborate successfully with others, in the arts, business or elsewhere, this is a lively, accessible introduction to current research and thinking on the topic.

Creative Fire cover

Finally, The Creative Fire, a 3-CD set from author and Jungian therapist Clarissa Pinkola Estes, is audio refreshment for anyone who makes art. Pinkola Estes uses myth, poetry and story to help listeners revive the “ember” of their own creativity. I especially loved her interpretations of the Demeter and Persephone myth and the “Corpse Bride,” a Russian folktale.

Pinkola Estes argues that becoming estranged from the normal cycles of creativity, with their ebb and flow, can rob us of our birthright inventiveness; trauma can also unleash “complexes” that stanch the creative torrent. The CDs are terrific for listening to in the car or anytime one needs a boost to their creativity, as well as a reminder that often the solution to a creative logjam is for the artist to simply get out of his or her own way.


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