Two satirical Charlie Brown panels. A photo of my two dogs. A pizza menu from Portland. Printed Tweets. Engagement photos. These are just a few things I’ve pinned to the one foot by four foot bulletin board at my office desk. Most of those clippings are there to make me laugh or make me happy, but there are a few useful reminders, like this one, from Austin Kleon.
Your creative output is driven by your inputs. What you read, what you watch, and what you experience directly influence what you make. If you’ve never seen a comic book before, it’s unlikely you’ll just magically come up with the idea for a graphic novel. The more good stuff you put into your brain, the more good stuff that’ll come out; that’s why I’ve always challenged my readers (and myself) to cut back on creative junkfood. So in that spirit, I like to take a weekly email to recommend a few inputs from the past year that I think you ought to check out. Here’s my best of 2017 list.
01: Something To Read
Every year, I try to read more than the last (you can check out my top 2016 picks here). Maybe that’s because when I was young my dad instilled a sense of reading’s importance or maybe I just like putting new books on the shelf. Either way, it looks like I am going to fall short of my 35 book goal for 2017. In part, that’s because I’ve been reading longer books, mostly historical biographies. And while I could heartily recommend a few of those (which you can find here), my guess is that you’d more likely be interested in books that will help you be more creative, be a better improviser, or get more out life. So with that in mind, here are my picks for 2017.
- Creativity—Scratch edited by Manjula Martin. Close your eyes, spin around, and point on the Internet and you’ll likely have bumped up against an article about being more productive, finishing your passion project, or coming up with a big idea so you can quit your job. While many of these articles are full of good advice, they all seem to sidestep one major issue—money. Not here. In this compendium of essays, several writers you know (Austin Kleon, Jonathan Franzen) and others you don’t (Yiyun Li and Leslie Jamison) untangle the sticky mess of money and art in this honest and thoughtful anthology. And bonus fun fact: Manjula’s newsletter, Three Cents, was a big inspiration for the format of my newsletter. Talking about inputs and outputs!
- Improv—Guru: My Days with Del Close by Jeff Griggs. Widely regarded as the father of modern longform improv, Del Close invented the Harold form and trained megastars like John Belushi, Chris Farley, and Tina Fey. But no genius is without their problems, and Del had plenty of his own—anger, depression, drugs. This hilarious and sad memoir, written by one of his students-turned-hospice-caretaker, reflects on Del’s legacy alongside the funny moments the pair shared during their time together.
- Life—The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig. Another sad memoir, this time by an Austrian author who came of age during the early twentieth century, Vienna’s golden age. But that was before his life was thrown into chaos by two World Wars.
02: Something to Download
Although I rarely listen to his show anymore, Marc Maron’s WTF podcast remains one of the best in the industry. It’s consistently in the iTunes Top 10 for a reason. But in another case of inputs begetting outputs, it seems everyone’s raced to copy his format—hour and a half long interviews with big names in comedy, creativity, music, art, and culture.
I’m sure Joe Rogan, Tim Ferriss, Kevin Rose and the others all do great work (they must, they’re consistently in the Top 10 as well), but I’m tired of listening to the same people do the same interviews and give the same advice. Advice that feels inaccessible and impractical for anyone who isn’t already a famous, wealthy, entrepreneur. That’s why I’ve fallen in love with Jocelyn K. Glei’s new podcast Hurry Slowly. Yes, it’s an interview show, but the guests are unique, the advice is actionable, and each episode is only half an hour long. Start with the Austin Kleon interview or the Ann Friedman one.
03: Something to Buy
2016 marked my descent into coffee-snobbery. It started with a Chemex Coffee Maker and hand-crank burr grinder. This year, it’s expanded to include a French Press, an Aeropress, and an electric burr grinder.
Good coffee is more expensive and more time consuming than throwing Folgers into your Mr. Coffee or dropping by Starbucks, but I believe the process and the product put me in the right mindset every morning. Is it all in my head? Probably. But even if that’s the case, does it matter so long as I’m benefiting from the effect?
No shame if you want to stick with what you’ve got (or if you don’t drink coffee), but if you’re ready to upgrade, here’s how to get started.
- Buy a bag of fresh, whole beans from Stumptown or Sweet Bloom (~$15 per bag)
- Order a hand-crank burr grinder (yes, this does make a difference) (~$35)
- Grab any cheap electric kettle ($20) and any basic kitchen scale ($10)
- Get your Chemex ($36) and filters ($25)
- Watch this video or read this detailed post on how to use your new toys (free!). You can also do it outside if you’re feel really brave.
Typing it all out like that does make it seem a bit expensive, but it’s mostly startup cost. Once you have the supplies, the only thing you’ll need to buy anytime soon is new beans.
If you end up checking out any of these recommendations (or if you’re ahead of the game and have already), email me—I’d love to know your thoughts.
PS: Don’t feel compelled to buy anything you don’t need.
PPS: No one paid me (or asked me) to say any of this. These are just things I like and wanted to share with you.
Each week, I write a new article helping busy people find meaning and fulfillment through sustainable creative habits. If you enjoyed this week’s letter, you can sign up to get them delivered to your inbox each week by digital carrier pigeon.