10 Non-Directing Books that Will Make You a Better Director

In Case You’re Keeping Score…

As promised when I first began this blog, it’s important (although not THAT important, judging by how long it took me to write this post) to stray outside of the insular worlds of film and theater specifically to broaden one’s horizons, or just to think about creative work in a different way.

I should say upfront that I don’t endorse or agree with every idea in each of these books, and all of them have their own cultish following – something I tend to be allergic to, lest I be a tool of someone’s recruitment scheme (except Apple – you should all go buy one now!).

I’m not here to prop up the cult of anyone’s personality or to suggest anyone’s potentially controversial ideas hold water – but I do think that for the craft and the business of directing it’s important to learn to hold conflicting ideas in one’s head at all times (hence a skeptic CAN be a fan of Robert Anton Wilson, for instance).

The Language Instinct:

How the Mind Creates Language (1994)

by Steven Pinker

Language is something we all use a lot. Hell, I’m using it right now! Pinker (the first of three Stevens on this list – and zero Stephens in case you’re playing the home game) is a smartypants among smartypantses. He teaches psychology at Harvard and has written extensively about the brain. But this book is my favorite of his, as it deconstructs language and linguistics in a way that even the product of  state university system (me) could understand. In it, he breaks down language to its roots and explains the cutting edge (or at least the cutting edge in 1994) of scientific thought on the subject. It is no coincidence that this book is first on this list, as anyone in the world of communication could learn a thing or two from Pinker’s point of view and his accessible (and often hilarious) way of expressing his ideas.

  • WHY DIRECTORS SHOULD READ THIS BOOK: Directing is often about understanding and illuminating behavior, and so much of the human condition is expressed in language it’s hard to imagine a more important aspect of people to think about.

Everything Bad is Good for You:

How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter (2005)

by Steven Johnson

I have been hearing since I was a child that TV and video games will rot my brain. Well, Steven Johnson comes at it from a different point of view. Although it’s easy to compare today’s complex video games to, say, “Missile Command,” or television shows today to “The Jack Benny Show,” Johnson’s book goes beyond the superficial differences and examines what we track when we plays these games or watch these shows. What he demonstrates is astonishing – how video games stimulate a dopamine reaction in the brain, giving us a chemical “reward” for each success in the game. Similarly, the complexity of television shows (compare “House, MD” to “Marcus Welby” or “CSI” to “Dragnet” and you’ll get the idea) and how many storylines audiences can hold in their brainpans today, and how much less information we need in order to get it.

  • WHY DIRECTORS SHOULD READ THIS BOOK: Understanding the complexity, media literacy, intelligence, and expectations of an audience can be helpful to say the least.

The Tipping Point

How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000)

by Malcolm Gladwell

Even as a diehard fan of Malcolm Gladwell, it’s hard to tell if he will go down as one of the preeminent thinkers of our time, or as this era’s version of pop psychology. Although his easy-goes-down assessment of how things really work has been criticized by media critics as reductive, I find his books to be fascinating and filled with actionable information – more than I can say for most. This book, his first, became a sort of bible for viral and social marketing, and all transmedia. Analyzing how an idea propagates through a population, one can easily use it as a manual for inserting any message into a culture. Luckily, that act requires so much cooperation from said culture that these ideas can’t be used in too many nefarious ways… OR CAN THEY?

Regardless, this book is a must-read for the information age, and his other two books Outliers and Blink are well worth the read as well. Especially Outliers. Really – I almost listed it here instead.

  • WHY DIRECTORS SHOULD READ THIS BOOK: You want to get your idea out there into the world?

You are Not a Gadget:

A Manifesto (2010)

by Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier, one of the inventors of “virtual reality” in the 1990’s, points a scathing finger at the state of the internet in this brutal, sometimes right-on-the-money, sometimes rambling book which contradicts much of the groupthink, e-business models, and pro-piracy arguments affecting (or infecting) the internet today. In the book, he refutes things like the hive mind of the internet, open source computing, and the hacker mentality. He even takes some liberal swipes at MIDI, the high-tech way a lot of music is made today. He coins a phrase – “cybernetic totalism” to describe the mindset of the online world and why it needs its ass kicked right about now. Only time will tell of Lanier is viewed as a crank or a prophet, an old man angry embittered because the internet didn’t give him what he wanted or a brilliant media critic – but You are Not a Gadget speaks directly to our time, our current economic model for monetizing creative work, and what might be wrong with the information superhighway in the here and now.

  • WHY DIRECTORS SHOULD READ THIS BOOK: We all need to be shaken up and reframed a bit about the current online paradigm/theory-of-everything.

Art And Physics

Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light (1991)

by Leonard Shlain

I discovered this brilliant treatise while in college and carried it around with me, hoping its mere presence in my backpack would make me smarter, reading it slowly in chunks. Written by a Bay area surgeon, it looks backward through history to find similarities in the thinking patterns of the most accomplished artists and scientists of each era. While reading about both, the reader inevitably learns about both high-art and cutting-edge science. As someone who finds the art world often confusing and opaque, this book opened the connection between the two worlds for me. Also, it brings to the surface that the current trends of thinking in any subculture may influence any other. As someone who works in “the arts” (although I’m loathe to describe my work as “art,”) I find it helpful to look outside of my own sphere for inspiration and innovation.

  • WHY DIRECTORS SHOULD READ THIS BOOK: Like it or not, bad or good, you are an artist and part of your job is to understand the dance between knowledge and expression.

Cosmic Trigger III:

My Life After Death (1994)

by Robert Anton Wilson

Robert Anton Wilson was my kind of filthy hippie. Obsessed with secret societies and psychedelia, bemused by the bizarre inconsistencies in the world, and intrigued by the nature of perception and deception, Wilson took me down a rabbit hole I didn’t often find myself agreeing with (I’m a fan of the writings of Carl Sagan and James Randi, for instance). On the flip side, this particular book of Wilson’s was, in great part, a meditation on hoaxes and hoaxing, and how EXPERTS [emphasis his] can be and are used regularly to convince us of things that may or may not be true (something I know Randi would agree with). Melding the worlds of Orson Welles to James Joyce to quantum physics and UFO’s and back again, this book was the reason I first signed up on Amazon.com to buy a VHS copy Welles’ “F for Fake,” which I blogged about here. I don’t think Wilson ever drank his own kool-aid, using his fun and easy writing style to help crack open the reader’s closed mindset while blowing their mind.

  • WHY DIRECTORS SHOULD READ THIS BOOK: Wilson was a NERD for how and why we believe what we believe and how that can be subverted or teased to the surface. Isn’t that what we do?

The War of Art

Break Through the Block and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (2003)

by Steven Pressfield

Before I start, let me say that there’s too much “god” stuff in this book for my taste and for that reason (not wanting to alienate anyone of a different religious persuasion than Pressfield)  I almost didn’t include it on this list.

It’s one of many books (like the also-awesome awesome Art and Fear) that is aimed at inspiring creative people to work toward their true potential and to goose them when their confidence flags. The book (written by  a renowned novelist, but I prefer to remember him as the screenwriter of 1986’s “King Kong Lives”), gives creative types some tough love and draws the line between what he believes defines an amateur and a professional. Like a boxing trainer for one’s inner frail artist, shouting in our faces, “c’mon, toughen up! Walk it off!”

Short enough to be read in a lazy afternoon in a hammock, stocked with enough food for thought to kick most artists into action and encouraging them to up their game – and if you’re not particularly religious you can just power through those pages. Or skip them (like I often did). They’re well-intentioned and not meant to convert anyone to any particular religion, and the rest of the book will strengthen your resolve.

  • WHY DIRECTORS SHOULD READ THIS BOOK: Everyone needs a Pressfield-style ass-kicking once in a while.

The Artist’s Way

A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (1995)

by Julia Cameron

For those who know me, you might find it surprising that I’d endorse anything with the word “spiritual” on the cover. Don’t let it bother you – The Artist’s Way allows the reader guide themselves down whatever path they find appropriate, and provides a series of exercises and disciplines (like daily writing or a weekly appointment with one’s self to stimulate creativity) that are designed to help us explore our own creative world (so mine is full of zombies. Sue me). I sought this book out when I was in a fairly stuck point in my life, trying to tap into the creativity I’d hoped was rattling around in there, and looking for someone or something to give me a nudge in the right direction. I partnered with a friend and we went through the exercises in this book – most notably the writing of “morning pages” or three pages of handwritten gobbeltygook whatever immediately upon waking every day. That alone helped me to get unstuck in some very interesting ways, and I continued to do them for several years. “Creative” and “discipline” don’t often appear in the same sentence, but Cameron’s crunchy-granola approach to art-making actually conceals a basic-training drill-sergeant tactic to getting our creative boots on the ground.

  • WHY DIRECTORS SHOULD READ THIS BOOK: We all get stuck, we all lose our creative flow or find ourselves on a path we don’t want for our creative lives.

How to Win Friends and Influence People (1937)

by Dale Carnegie

Before you ask, no – I don’t claim to be particularly gifted at either of the title tasks. But much like leaving one’s home country, waiting tables, and working as a substitute teacher at SOME point in one’s life, I truly believe that everyone should read this book. Like there should be a law.

Yes, it’s corny and dated, and it’s something that Shelly “The Machine” Levine probably has on his shelf in Glengarry Glen Ross – but honestly this book has staying power beyond everything else on this list. Simply put, this book is about the nonstop social exchange that happens between people and how much easier it is to get what you want from someone if you give them what they want. It’s about exotic things like something called listening (I think the “t” is silent), remembering peoples’ names, and realizing that most people don’t want to help you achieve your goals because you’re awesome – they want to help you when it helps them. Not earth-shattering stuff, but so common-sense that we all often overlook it. As a director, these skills come into play daily.

  • WHY DIRECTORS SHOULD READ THIS BOOK: Without friends, we don’t get to work. Without influencing people, we don’t get any cooperation. Or I suppose you can just scream a lot and abuse people – it seems to work for some directors (but I haven’t found a good book that outlines how to do that).


The Future of a Radical Price (2009)

by Chris Anderson

Of everything on this list, I agree with the ideas in this book by Wired Magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson the least. But that doesn’t make this book any less of a bellwether in today’s world where consumers expect to get all of their media for nothing. No less than The Tipping Point’s Malcolm Gladwell attacked the basic premises of this book here in The New Yorker, and yet at this time I believe that Free should be required reading as it taps into the argument that giving something away adds value to it. He cites many examples, gives the reader’s brain a lot to munch on, and of all the books here it’s the only one you can get for free online legally (I got my copy of the audio book on Audible.com and listened to it on an airplane). Of course, the very idea of “Free” is always a gimmick in Anderson’s world, bringing in the customer who will pay for something else. So there’s a real cash transaction in all of our futures.

  • WHY DIRECTORS SHOULD READ THIS BOOK: As my last, most dire blog entry outlined, filmmakers and creative types need to be thinking of other ways to subsidize their work other than the traditional “sell a ticket/DVD” methods. I hope this trend reverses itself eventually, but in the meantime this book gives good food for thought about how we can all sustain ourselves while working in creative fields.

Your Turn:

What books have helped your creativity? Please do share! They say print is dead, but we all need something to put on our smartphones. Please comment below!


3 comments on “10 Non-Directing Books that Will Make You a Better Director

  1. “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott. she’s incredibly self-effacing, funny, endearing, and forgiving of how much all of us suck as artists, but that’s still no excuse not to write (or be creative in whatever medium you are in.)

    The Twilight Books by Stephenie Meyer – every second I spent reading these filled me with more self-hatred than ever before – and when something makes you angry enough, you do something about it. In my case, it was “I can do better than this puke fest.” Whether or not this is true remains to be seen, but it did get me off my butt and at the keyboard.

    “The Power of Positive Thinking” by Norman Vincent Peale – it’s a little God heavy and might put some people off, but I liked the positive messages/ feelings it gave me. Filling your brain with positivity and optimism – however generic – has to be better than the subtle, subliminal nastiness of the entertainment industry that creeps up on you like the Santa Monica evening fog – before you know it you’re cold and wet and wondering what got you here.

    I agree with your “War of Art,” and really, really feel like I should get back to “The Artists Way.” Most of the other books admittedly looked a little science-y and smart – although the Dale Carnegie might be a fun read!

    • Give “The Language Instinct” a day in court. It is somewhat science-ey, but you won’t have any difficulty reading it. It’s the kind of science (like the Radiolab podcast I always yammer about) that makes science interesting like dinosaurs, not boring like covalent bonds. No offense, Bohr.

  2. Audition: Everything an Actor Needs to Know to Get the Part. – Michael Shurtleff.
    Michael Shurtleff has been casting director for Broadway shows like “Chicago” and “Becket” and for films like “The Graduate” and “Jesus Christ Superstar. ” His legendary course on auditioning has launched hundreds of successful careers. Now in this book he tells the all-important HOW for all aspiring actors, from the beginning student of acting to the proven talent trying out for that chance-in-a-million role. A book that is invaluable for its character study and revealing the true motivations that make any scene, story or performance compelling. A highly recommended resource, even and especially for writers & directors! It asks the most important question we nearly always overlook – “Why do I care?” For the characters, the situation… the scene… what’s going to make me care? What’s going to make me sit there and watch it? The insights here are brilliant.

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