Summer may not officially begin for another couple of weeks, but we’ve already reached temperatures in the mid-90s here in Atlanta which means it’s officially unofficially that time of year: the season for porch parties, beer festivals, Braves baseball, Hooch shooting… and summer reading lists.
I assume the idea of the summer reading list came about because summer is typically associated with travel and vacations — particularly beach vacations, days lounging in the sun providing ample time for getting into a good book. But whether or not you have a summer vacation planned, you should make the time to read regardless because books are good for you. On so many levels. None of this should be news to anyone but just for emphatic review: reading helps reduce stress, expand imagination, improve cognitive skills like memory and bolster social ones like empathy, among other scientifically proven benefits. In other words, it makes you smarter. And in the working world, books can also offer inspiration and motivation via exposure to new ideas and modes of thinking, as well as lessons in leadership, self-improvement, professional development, and corporate successes and failures. All super valuable stuff.
So at Edgar Allan, we’ve made reading a priority this year by starting the Edgar Allan Book Club. Below, you’ll find a few of the titles we’ve read so far this year with brief synopses/lessons to obtain from each...
“Big Magic” is a guide to living a creative life. It covers fear and faith, and how to conquer the voices (both internal and external) that challenge your calling to be a "Creative." While it may skew too New Age for more pragmatic creators (Gilbert quite literally and staunchly refers to the inspiration to create and the blooming of ideas as actual magic), I strongly identified with descriptions of the innate urge to stop what you're doing and MAKE something. It does feel a bit like being under a spell, and it’s what compelled me to write two full-length novels, and begin many more.
Gilbert brazenly insists everyone can be creative, but only the brave do so. It's a stupid, kind of against-all-odds-and-reason courage, but that’s what makes the creative so special. There are "treasures" inside each of us that are dying to be discovered and explored, but one must find the creative courage to write (or paint, or design, or build) it into existence. “Big Magic” acts as equal parts road map and guidance counselor to nudge you toward your creative truth in an attempt to help you give birth to the creative being you've been all along.
Two very different books. One maybe connected message, however. But I’ll get to that.
“Educated,” Tara Westover’s memoir of being raised without formal schooling by doomsday preppers, was gut-wrenching, thought-provoking and at times I found myself screaming, out loud, at the people in it for being so brutal and small-minded (I listened to the audiobook version, so there are some people here in Atlanta along my commute who probably wonder who that crazy lady in the Camry is…). When I finished, I found myself thinking about truth, perspective and the ways that we, intentionally or not, hide, obscure and at times, outright delude not just others but ourselves. I wholeheartedly believe Tara’s account of the traumas of her family life. I am amazed however at how different the view apparently is through her mother, father and siblings’ eyes. Ostensibly, they all experienced the same things, witnessed the same confusing realities, but they were all shaped differently by various forces — mental illness, duty, religious fervor, familial loyalty, pure denial. Tara’s viewpoint is the only one we get; she has the first and last word, and before starting “The Circle,” while I don’t doubt her testimony, I wondered if it was fair, if not right.
“The Circle” centers on the story of an Amazoogapple-type mega-tech company with reach into every corner of Americans’ lives. We follow Mae, a newly hired “Circler” as she rises to fame within the company, falls for a shadowy usurper, goes “transparent” (broadcasting her life, 24/7), then begins to lose it all as the ever-pervasive all-seeing eye of the Circle begins to gaze all they do. In this world, the Circle is bent on eliminating privacy (to really simplify the concept), “making all that is unknown, known.” Their aims sound noble, but anyone with a soul and a tentative grasp on history knows in their gut that unfettered access by all individuals to all information at all times is a recipe for abuse of power, if not just massively slippery slopes. So, as expected, things begin to spiral out of control. No surprise really.
Now the overlap: What if Westover’s life had taken place in “The Circle’s” ultra-transparent world? Would we be reading a different story? Better yet, would Westover’s life not take the track it did? Would she have been more than the PhD-educated, world-renowned author and lecturer she now is without the abuse and chaos she suffered? Or, less? We’ll never know, but we would know what the stark “truth” of those days on Buck’s Peak really were — no denial possible by anyone. I guess what it made me want to ask myself is, should we? What do we gain?
A book in which Guy Kawasaki talks about how to dangle carrots and grease tracks.
In “Enchantment,” Kawasaki is enthusiastic to turn his readers into real charmers; the kind of people that can get others to stick to them, ultimately helping them get what they want. The tactics he promotes come off as very thoughtful and occasionally righteous. Told through an anthology style, with mostly personal history, these tactics are presented in a listicle-like format.
Some look like this, for example:
When in a leadership role, lead by example and be forgiving of shortcomings. When something goes wrong, take responsibility.
- Ask questions when you don’t know the answer.
- Be authentic.
- Focus on what you can change and not what you can’t.
- Be transparent.
- Give access.
However, there is an overarching theme that helps unify his points. In its entirety, “Enchantment” is really about understanding that people want to be the hero of their own story and have a purpose behind why they do what they do. The overarching idea is to serve that desire, and Kawasaki is ardent that we all need a purposeful group narrative in order to place ourselves into a meaningful story. He writes that with this approach, our ventures will soar with passionate people doing things, well, passionately.
There is a tinge of uneasiness I got from reading this book, though. In all of the lessons, strategic and tactical, the purpose seems to be to influence how people think of you. It is in the title in a way, but it seems that the real purpose for behaving this way is that it’s the right thing to do by people, not because it will manipulate them into thinking you’re greater than you are. Why not write a book about actually doing things well, honestly, and without ulterior motives?
It’s not hyperbole to say that Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” appears on just about every What Writers Should Read list. It’s part anecdotal narrative of King’s life, part candid instruction and advice for the aspiring writer, and part inspirational just put pen to paper kick in the butt. After all, as King writes, “the work is always accomplished one word at a time.” (p156; note page numbers are from the 10th anniversary edition of book).
Of course, “On Writing” is tailored to the writer of fiction, so I wondered if it would be as applicable to my work in journalism and brand messaging. The answer, unsurprisingly, was yes. As a writer with an editorial background, I’m used to crafting stories that, while researched, take shape from my own point of view, and branding always feels less malleable. I’ve often approached brand with a more fixed mindset, trying to fit a brand into a preconceived structure, replicating the format and language of brands that have come before, rather than letting the new brand and its own story lead the way. But in reading King’s words, I realized I could approach brand as fiction. Brand already has characters (the company, the users), and one can think of messaging more like telling a story. In King’s words: “In fiction, the paragraph is less structured — it’s the beat instead of the actual melody. The more fiction you read and write, the more you’ll find your paragraphs forming on their own. And that’s what you want. When composing, it’s best to not think too much about where paragraphs begin and end; the trick is to let nature take its course.” (p131-132).
Other applicable branding advice from King:
King writes with an “Ideal Reader” in mind — akin to your target audience in any other form of writing, including journalism and brand messaging: “I.R. will help you get outside yourself a little, to actually read your work in progress as an audience would.” (p219)
Along with the idea of keeping your audience in mind, King writes something similar to the notion of aligning your message with human primitive needs like those presented in “Storybrand,” (Edgar Allan Book Club’s February book) e.g. building social networks, conserving time, conserving financial resources, gaining status, etc.: “When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story.” (p160)
King got advice from an old editor that can parallel the idea of internal versus external messaging in branding: “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out.” (p57)
“The War of Art” focuses on the internal battle that we all face when flexing our creative muscles, as Steven Pressfield takes readers through the various ways that resistance shows up in our lives. This book is relatable for anyone — not just specifically those in the creative space — as we all face feelings of self-doubt and fear of the unknown, but some of the biggest takeaways I had while reading were:
Resistance by definition is self-sabotage.
Resistance and self-doubt: A counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident: the real one is scared to death.
The pro vs the amateur: The pro does not over identify with their job. They take pride and work as much as needed, but know they are more than their job description, while the amateur does not. Resistance loves this.
We make a conscious decision to become a pro. There is no mystery in it...just choice.
The act of professionalism is an attitude of egoless-ness and service.
The mother of all fears is the fear that we will succeed.
When we push through our fear and lean into success, we may lose people in our lives, however we will gain new people. They are better and truer friends, and we are better and truer to them. This is because we have tapped into our authentic self.
A question I’m left to ask myself is: “What is my territory?”
As an artist we must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.
Creative work is not a selfish act or a beg for attention on the part of an actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t just have your contribution; give us what you got.
This book can be a source of support for those who have issues completing work and want to understand why. It won’t necessarily give you any advice on how to actually complete a project, but it does help to shed light on some of the ways that we resist.