nonfiction books

When in Doubt, Read

I’ll just say it: I don’t read nonfiction. History, politics, self-help, spirituality, none of it. Occasionally a biography will make the cut; I’ve read  Max Perkins: Editor of Genius twice. There’s the occasional music book. But by and large the teetering pile on my bedside table is made of novels and short story collections and poems torn from the New Yorker. One might surmise that I prefer the world of make-believe to, well, the world, and one might be right, although I could make a loose case that the two have a lot in common. Art imitates life and all. Still, it’s a deficit. I know. I feel bad about it.

In the months since I left my job at the Boston Globe to launch this website about creativity and aging, a project which at its heart is about why someone would leave a plum gig as an arts writer at a major daily newspaper to do something with no no pay, no benefits, and no foreseeable future, I’ve started reading other kinds of books, books with no plot, no rhyme, no flashbacks, no twists, no sad or happy endings. It sounds like there’s a lot of nothing going on. On the contrary. For starters, I’m reading nonfiction, albeit self-serving nonfiction. I’m playing my guitar. I’m talking to interesting people.

The point is, real is in the rearview and the future is make-believe and these books are stones across the boggy divide. It turns out there are so many kinds of middle. Here’s a thought from each of the books in the snapshot.

Instead of learning how to do something and then doing it, do something and then learn from what you did. Rediscover the joy of beginning and your doubt will vanish.

What appears to be neccessary for radical conceptual innovation is not youth, but an absence of acquired habits of thought that inhibit sudden departures from existing conventions.

What you’re determined to say is filled with all your rationalizations and your defenses and all of that. What you want to say to the world as opposed to what you’re thinking. And as a lyricist, my job is to find out what it is that I’m thinking. Even if it’s something that I don’t want to be thinking.

[Researchers] have found that – despite some bad habits – [the middle-aged brain] is at its peak in those years and stays there longer than any of us dared to hope. As it helps us navigate through our lives, the middle-aged brain cuts through the muddle to find solutions, knows whom and what to ignore, when to zig and when to zag. It stays cool; it adjusts. There are changes taking place that allow us to see a fuller picture of the world, even to be wildly creative.

It’s vital to establish some rituals – automatic but decisive patterns of behavior – at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.

It’s ironic that the United States today has one of the most individualist conceptions of creativity in history, because perhaps more than any society, creativity in the United States is a collective, institutional activity. The creative products that U.S. society is best known for today, including movies, music videos, and videogames, are all made by organized groups of highly specialized individuals.

I bet you can guess which quote came from which book.


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