3 Books Every Artist Should Read
An easy trap for artists to fall into is becoming so focused on their career that they stop consuming content for inspiration… and no, I’m not talking about marathons of reality tv disguised as self-care. I’m talking about intentional consumption of content specifically for igniting awe, not escapism. Personally, as someone with ADHD, I tend to hyperfixate on endless edcational YouTube videos in an effort to get ahead, leaving my creative brain hardly any time to marvel at the world. These are three books I think every artist should read not to learn, not to escape, but to encourage child-like wonder.
Written by Cal Tech physicist Alan Lightman, this reads more like a collection of poems than a novel which can be great for the ever decreasing attention spans of today’s artists. Inspired by Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, Lightman uses each chapter to propose a new theoretical world in which the nature of humanity is inextricable from the conception of time.
As Lightman imagines what dream worlds might have been bouncing around in Einstein’s head, the reader is left to consider how their own experience of life is so deeply connected to the conception of time. What if time flowed backward? What if time moved slower in the trees? How would life be different if we perceived time as motion? What if we could live forever?
The pandemic left many feeling as if they had “jumped timelines” into some alternative dimension. Personally, I feel like time moves noticeably faster than it did before 2020. I reflect on how much busier I was before Covid changed the world’s work culture and how despite that hectic schedule, I was able to do so much more. Now, I often feel as though it takes me all day to accomplish one thing. Life is fun, right?
I’m a really big fan of books that you can pick up at any point, are fascinating, and are low-commitment…like lovers. That's why I return to this book often when I’m stuck on a project to remind myself that it’s never about an original story, but HOW a story is told. I also love the fact that occasionally actual consequences of special relativity plays out in the worlds. Would you rather live the singular best moment of your life forever or live the entire journey of high and lows? How would life be different if time moved faster when you moved faster? This book is one of my all time favorites for embodying my two favorite words “what if".
Letters to a Young Poet
This is one of those suggestions that ends up feeling like a friend you never knew.
In this book, The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes a series of response letters to a young aspiring poet concerning the nature of becoming a great artist. It was actually first recomended to me by my theatre teacher when I studied in NYC and I have given it to countless friends for opening nights, graduations, and the occasional goodbye. It reads less like a professional advice column and more like a deep dive into the intricacies of the human heart.
“Things aren't all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life”
The responses to the would-be writer are so intimately touching that you feel as though Rilke is speaking directly to you and his word still resonate with freakish accuracy today. Many of my Pep Talks for Artists Series videos are inspired by his beautiful musings on what it means to offer beauty in a harsh world. Especially today, this is the type of real talk that so many artists need.
The Artist’s Way
This is not a fictional novel, but a course by Julie Cameron designed to curate the creativity within the artist through actual exercises. Don’t mistake it for some boring workbook though. The journey through Cameron’s masterpiece is an intimate one and definitely delves into the intersectionality of one’s personal relationship with spirituality and inspiration.
Morning pages, for example, is a fairly well-known practice of many artists to journal their stream of consciousness thoughts upon waking every morning without regard for structure, quality of writing, etc. It is an exercise to know oneself. Like anything, one has to actually DO the exercises to understand the value they offer. As one becomes more used to not editing their own thoughts or creating for the sake of production, the practice reveals many truths about the artist as creator and human.
When I was touring with Broadway, I started doing nightly live streams from my hotel room. These were often hour or longer stream-of-conciousness monologues I would deliver to anyone who would listen. It became one of my strengths and was a direct result of years of journaling and talking to myself, first on paper and then, on platforms like TikTok and Instagram. I remember becoming aware of how it felt like I was communing with a wiser part of myself that I came to refer to as future Anna-Lee. As crazy as it sounds, this daily cathartic council with myself was one of the things that saved me during the worst of the pandemic. Suddenly when my career, my friends, and my life as I knew it had been taken from me… I had myself to turn to during those hard months in social isolation when i wondered if my art even mattered anymore.
Many of my exercises for familiarizing oneself with the sensation of discomfort for the purpose of building confidence as a performer are simply iterations of exercises Cameron introduced me to such as the solo Artist Date where one sees a movie or a museum by oneself.
While it’s definitely not for everyone, this book is a holy grail of creative self-development. The writing alone is enough to inspire bravery even without the exercises. In fact, whenever I’m asked why I haven’t written a course for aspiring artists it is because this book already exists.
Anna-Lee Wright is a Korean-American performance artist best known for her work on Broadway and film and television. Whether playing herself as one of the leads of MTV's hit prank show Ladylike, or choreographing at national dance conventions across the country, her work is always rooted in the fascination with human nature and social emotional learning. As an adopted immigrant, she speaks publicly about the importance of the intersectionality of mental health and art. Coming to terms with a diagnosis of autism later in life, she seeks to amplify open conversations and authentic storytelling for the purpose of finding ways to better the world through empathy. She is usually found talking about uncomfortable issues to hopefully embolden others to do the same and therefore cultivate self-realization through the power of honest vulnerability.