Reading and Living the Creative Life | The Reader’s Shelf, May 15, 2013

Live the creative life vicariously in three novels about artists in passionate pursuit of their callings. Then look within to discover (or recover) your own creative DNA with the help of a writer, a world-renowned choreographer, and a creative arts therapist.

Cassandra Mortmain’s father, a once-celebrated author, has been stymied by a years-long writer’s block, while Cassandra has no trouble filling her journal with prose about daily life. Originally published in 1948, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (Griffin: St. Martin’s. 2003. ISBN 9780312316167. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780983486701) is a coming-of-age novel about an eccentric family living in poverty in a remote, romantic English castle. When they meet two wealthy American brothers, Cassandra and her sister fall in love, but complications ensue. Comedy and tragedy take turns in this meditation on the mysteries of artistic expression. A true classic, Smith’s novel continues to be a favorite for generations of readers.

In an unnamed South American country, terrorists interrupt a birthday party at the vice president’s estate and take everyone on the international guest list hostage. Among the captives in Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto (Perennial: HarperCollins. 2008. ISBN 9780061565311. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9780061188053) are world-famous opera singer Roxanne Cox and Mr. Hosokawa, a powerful Japanese businessman. Mr. Hosokawa is an accomplished amateur pianist and becomes Roxanne’s accompanist for her daily practice sessions. Terrorists and hostages begin to form bonds, some romantic, as they fall under the spell of Roxanne’s voice and witness the discipline and devotion of great artistry. Patchett’s characters are so compassionately drawn and intimately portrayed, readers will find it impossible to take sides as the inevitable denouement draws near. Bel Canto is a fictional testament to the universal language of art and its power to transform.

Serena Frome is a young bureaucrat in a British spy agency and an avid reader of fiction in Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth (Anchor: Random. 2013. ISBN 9780345803450. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385536837). It’s 1972, and Serena is asked to assess and fund secretly an up-and-coming author, Tom Haley, as part of a Cold War initiative to support anticommunist writers. Of course, Serena and Tom fall in love. Can Serena maintain her fictitious identity as she watches her lover create masterly fiction on the page? The surprise ending satisfies on many levels and cleverly shows just what it takes to bring invented (or maybe not) characters to life.

Julia Cameron’s 12-week program for breaking through creative blocks, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, 2d ed. (Tarcher. 2002. ISBN 9781585421466. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9781101156889), is a creative recovery classic. Especially noteworthy are Cameron’s insight into the wounds that cause some to forgo the creative life and her conviction that their inner artist can be reclaimed. Her signature tools are morning pages (three pages of longhand, stream-of-consciousness writing to override one’s internal censor) and artist’s dates (weekly excursions to replenish creative reservoirs). Cameron’s lessons, exercises, and activities are designed to connect aspiring and working artists with their inner wellspring and the creative energy inherent in the universe. In Cameron’s view, this is an essentially spiritual (though nondogmatic) path.

For choreographer Twyla Tharp, every day is identical, filled with familiar rituals and routines that nurture and support inspiration and the development of skills essential to her craft. In The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life (S. & S. 2005. ISBN 9780743235273. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781439106563), Tharp’s lessons and exercises, highlighted with examples from her own creative successes and failures in the dance world, feature consistent, daily practice and useful tools for a steady unfolding and flourishing of artistic expression.

Shaun McNiff, a creative arts therapist, believes that a person’s license to create art is irrevocable and that making art opens up the world, ideas he explores in Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go (Shambhala. 1998. ISBN 9781570623578. pap. $22.95; ebk. ISBN 9780834826885). His creative therapy includes spontaneous, repetitious gestures and switching back and forth between art forms to induce free expression, with examples from painting, sculpture, environmental art, body movement, music, and creative writing. McNiff teaches artists how to look at their finished, created objects in new ways. This mode of “contemplative looking” illuminates and informs the next creative work.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at