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  • Writer's pictureCrossline Theatre

7 Books Every Artist Should Read

Words by Natalia Knowlton & Kara Chamberlain

We always joke about having an unofficial Crossline Theatre Book Club because we usually read the same books and then talk about them on the Warren Street platform or in a Cafe Nero (not very fancy, we know). The subject matter varies but over the years we have read many books on how to be an artist, books that make us go "I really wish I had read that when I graduated from university!"

So this is it, a list of the books that we wish we had read at the start of our careers. We think this is the perfect post to launch DIY Artist. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter where you are in your creative career, these books have become our artist bibles that we always go back to.

1. How to Be an Artist Without Losing Your Mind, Your Shirt, Or Your Creative Compass: A Practical Guide

By JoAnneh Nagler

NK: I first came across this book at the Tate bookshop when I was looking for a birthday gift for Kara, it was a classic example of buying a gift that was more for me (I do that a lot). Thankfully, we have very similar taste in books and then she bought it for me months later (we also get each other the same gifts, a lot). Nagler tackles day jobs (and how to make your peace with them), creating a budget on an ever-changing freelance income and making time in your schedule for your craft. This book drastically changed my attitude towards day jobs and how they are not a sign of "failure" if your art isn’t paying the bills. But most importantly, it taught me to manage my time. I’m still learning to balance various day jobs, writing, self-producing and of course time to have fun and relax. If you find yourself resenting your day jobs and wondering how you can find time to work on your art, this book is for you.

KC: This book was an absolute game changer for me, especially in terms of my time and money management. I never thought I’d find a book that gave practical examples of how to schedule your life as a freelance artist. Nagler has a way of combining the romance of the artistic lifestyle with useful advice on how to survive it.

2. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

By Elizabeth Gilbert

NK: If 'How To Be An Artist' takes a logistical approach to your creative career, 'Big Magic' takes on the self-help route (divisive term, I know, but hear me out). Although Gilbert also tackles finances and day jobs, she also looks at dealing with rejection, facing your fears when you have an idea for a new project, and defining what success looks like for you. There’s also a helpful chapter on why you don't need an MA in a creative discipline, which at first was hard to read as a recent MA graduate. If you feel that you need more formal education but don’t have the money for it, she makes a good case for why an MA is not necessary (or a guarantee!) for a successful creative career.

KC: This book came to me at a time when I was really struggling with my artistic career. It was the necessary antidote for doubt, and it taught me to trust in my creative ideas. Gilbert is raw and honest about her own experiences, which makes this book easy to read and amazing for your inner artist. She blends together the literal act of making art with the spiritual, big-picture, world changing magic of art. My copy is dog-eared and highlighted and has my scribbles all over it - the sign of a good read.

3. Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone

by Brene Brown

KC: If this was an article about books every human should read, this would be the first - possibly the only - book I would mention. It isn’t technically about art making, but it is about two of the most fundamental parts of being an artist: belonging and courage. I’ll let this quote from the book explain:

“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”

Every artist needs a little Brene Brown in their lives. Her works about shame, vulnerability, courage, belonging, and leadership are all hugely important. Watch her TED talks, her Netflix special, listen to her podcasts, or read her books (tip: she narrated the audiobook for Braving the Wilderness herself, and it is amazing). Starting the journey towards true belonging has improved my resilience, my drive, and my artistic passion. Thanks Brene!

4. Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write

By Stephen Jeffreys

NK: I’m not usually a fan of playwriting “guides” as someone who avoids realism and naturalism in my writing. But this book should be mandatory reading for playwrights! Jeffreys’s chapter on structure is flawless and something I’m constantly going back to. It’s my favourite playwriting book because he looks at alternative structures and analyses the plays that break the “rules” of playwriting if that’s your thing. But even if you’re a more traditional playwright or just need a refresher on character work and writing tight dialogue, this book is a must!

5. Being a Playwright: A Career Guide for Writers

by Chris Foxon & George Turvey (Papatango)

NK: As you might've guessed from the title, this one is for the playwrights! An MA in Playwriting will teach you all about writing but again, what about the logistics of being a writer? Through this book I finally learned the difference between a staged reading and a rehearsed reading (and their purpose in the writing process), how to invite theatres to see your work and the benefits of self-producing as a writer. I still look at it every time I'm about to send an email to a theatre. They've also got a helpful chapter on useful day jobs for writers if you’re looking for ideas.

KC: Don’t tell Natalia, but I haven’t read this one yet - she bought it as a gift for me last Christmas and it has been in my ‘books to read’ pile since then (sorry!). To be honest, I don’t think of myself as a playwright. I’ve co-written two scripts with Natalia, created stories for short films, and am in the process of writing a solo show, yet for some reason I feel like an imposter. Maybe that is why this book has seemed daunting in the past. Since starting this article, I have cracked open the book and peeked through the first few pages and I’m already enticed! The first section seems un-intimidating and the sections on how to promote your work will really apply to my whole career. Looking forward to diving in and facing my fear of the big P-word.

6. Show Your Work!

By Austin Kleon

NK: Self-promotion seems to freak out most artists, which I totally get. But Kleon's thesis is that in this day and age, an artist can't afford to be mysterious. What does that mean exactly? Have a website (or spotlight/mandy page) and active social media accounts where you're not just spamming your followers with "come to my show!" tweets/posts. It's a very easy and fun read, full of cool illustrations with ideas on how to promote your work. He makes a "boring subject" interesting and inspiring. I also recommend his other two books: Steal Like an Artist and Keep Going.

7. Finding Your Voice: A Step-By-Step Guide for Actors

by Barbara Houseman

KC: Those of you who have done some performance training may have come across this book already. I picked up a copy while in drama school, and it has been a useful companion ever since. Full of vocal exercises (that I rarely make time to do anymore...woops) it is useful for vocalising newbies and experts alike. But I like it for the Introduction chapter. Barbara Houseman writes about the connection between the voice and the self in a way that helped me to engage with the power of my own voice. I spent a lot of my life disliking my voice - I thought it was too deep and un-feminine (which is total crap, if you ever hear me speak or sing I am like the anti-Nora Jones) - so I started trying to make it sound different. Voice teachers and singing coaches helped, but it was this book that opened me up to the idea that falling in love with my voice is the start of a much bigger self-love journey.

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