The best of genius at work, in their own words and pictures?
March 25, 2009 5:25 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for books featuring (first hand) the creative processes, influences, daily routines and preparatory works of creative people - visual artists, film makers, novelists, poets etc.

It dawned on me recently that I often enjoy insight into the creative process of great minds even more than I do their completed, published works. The letters of Samuel Beckett, the manuscript facsimile of 1984 by Orwell, the theories of Robert Bresson, to name a few.

I'm looking for the best books - diaries, letters, collected preliminary designs or sketches, written manifestos - by great creative minds. Preferably behind the scenes of their great works or their career, rather than especially notable works in their own right. They needn't be direct documentary insights into the creation of certain works, I'm also interested in reading diaries and letters relating generally to the formative experiences/periods of these lives. I am only interested in "primary evidence" - actual documents transcribed or reproduced, rather than biography or speculation.
posted by fire&wings to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. It's written as self help for creative work, but provides insight into the choreographer's process.
posted by classa at 5:55 PM on March 25, 2009

The Habit of Being by Flannery O'Connor is quite good in this way.
posted by coevals at 6:03 PM on March 25, 2009

For individual artists, journals and collections of private correspondence can be very enlightening. I've greatly enjoyed Camus Notebooks 1931-1951, Notebooks 1951-1959, and Flaubert's letters.

Chipp's Theories of Modern Art is a great collection of visual artists discussing their work, though letters and other statements. It's fascinating.
posted by wheat at 6:38 PM on March 25, 2009

McSweeneys published a book of some pieces from The Believer of writers interviewing other writers. It is a great read for other reasons as well, but it definitely has a lot discussions about process.
posted by mr_felix_t_cat at 6:44 PM on March 25, 2009

You need to check out Rebel w/o a Crew by Rob Rodriguez. It's essentially the production diary for "Desperado" and a fantastic insight into the movie making process.

From my amazon wishlist:
Tenacity of the Cockroach
Getting Away With It By Steven Soderbergh
Making Movies by Sydney Lumet
On Directing Films by David Mamet
In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch

Going further out on a limb, Doors of Perception is basically a memoir of a formative experience of Aldous Huxley.
posted by now i'm piste at 7:08 PM on March 25, 2009

oh, I forgot one of the best:

Eva Hesse's Datebooks, 1964/65
posted by R. Mutt at 7:26 PM on March 25, 2009

One of the most interesting books I've ever seen that kind of relates to this is Willem De Kooning: The Late Paintings, the 1980s which is the work he did when his Alzheimer's was pretty bad. If you're familiar with his work, seeing this later work is fascinating. He went into the studio everyday and painted. He painted because that was what he did. His style becomes essentialized and his work becomes these simple zen koens. I learned more about how artists work by looking at that work than I did from almost any other monograph.

Another book I might recommend that explores the topic but from an entirely different angle is The Destruction of Tilted Arc. It's a collection of documents about the case to save Richard Serra's work Tilted Arc as collected and commented on by himself and his wife. It's not a piece that specifically talks about the creative process, but in defending their work, the Serras reveal quite a bit about how that kind of an artist works and why their work requires provocation. It also includes speeches and testimony from many prominent modern artists and critics about what that kind of art means and its place in our world. Why some art needs to inconvenience us and why that is often at the core of the creative urge.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:30 PM on March 25, 2009

posted by Jaltcoh at 9:19 PM on March 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have a similar interest but haven't gone so far as finding any books. For smaller insights, I really like this blog: Daily Routines
posted by alexherder at 11:53 AM on March 26, 2009

It occurred to me that MOMA's catalog of Chuck Close might also be worth a look. Chuck Close was a photorealist who was suddenly struck with a spinal artery collapse that left him significantly paralyzed. His work went from being giant, intricately detailed reproductions of photographs, to being entirely about his adaptation of process. This site, with a whole section on how Close adapts traditional image making processes, is worth a look. As is this book on his process.

I think the reason I find the cases of De Kooning and Close so illuminating is because they both represent forbidden experiments. In De Kooning's case, it would be what if you took the person away and all that was left was the working artist. And in Close's case, it would be what if you took away technique but didn't change the impulse. They both have before and after bodies of work. Maybe it's the empiricist in me but I love evidence, and these two artists offer some fascinating evidence about the work of making art and the artist, though the approach is certainly reductive.
posted by Toekneesan at 4:14 PM on March 26, 2009

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