Top Albums for boosting creativity

When you’re working long hours on a creative project music often becomes an integral part of the process. The kind of music you like to listen to is going to be different for everyone. Years ago I interviewed Chuck Palahnuik, when I asked him what he listened to while he wrote he said NIN! Without a moment’s hesitation.

I tend to prefer listening to music without words for first drafts stuff. But if it is a record that I have listened to over and over again, than the words cease to matter and become   part of the music. Here, in no particular order, are the twelve records that have helped me to focus, to think, to write, and to get in the groove. Try em out!

1. Radiohead. Amnesiac

A lot of times when you are working on something, especially writing, music can be used as a sort of placeholder for finding an emotion. All Radiohead has that Radiohead vibe. While I was working about schizophrenia, paranoia, trapdoors and subterranean unrealities I listened to Amnesiac obsessively.


2. John Coltrane. A Love Supreme.


First of all it is simply one of the most beautiful and inspiring pieces of music ever recorded. Also it is instrumental, so if your writing there are no words, which can be a distraction.

3. Alice Coltrane. Translinear Light


Her music is so lush, rich, and imaginative. Perfect for daydreaming. Since this is a list of albums I picked this one, but you could work with any of her records on in the background and be inspired.

4. Beethoven’s 9th


When you really need a shot of the sublime, this is it. Listening to this, really loud with high quality headphones has brought me to tears, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to have that experience.

5. Tim Hecker, Ravedeath 1972


I don’t so much listen to Tim Hecker, as just let it wash over my ears. Sometimes you need that white noise in the background to really focus, and this is really noisey and really white.

6. Darkside, Psychic


This record is the perfect soundtrack to keep on trucking late into the night on whatever you’re working on. There are lyrics but they are vague, washed out. Great night time creativity music.

7. Binaural Beats

Not a record, but a certain frequency of tones. Some of them can be trance inducing, very trippy and interesting stuff. I’m only just starting to experiment with these . . . but it is worth mentioning. Google it.

8. DJ Koze, Amygdala


I think the reason this works so well as creative background music is that the lyrics are in German, so it doesn’t distract, but it tickles the mind.

9. The Caretaker, an empty bliss beyond this world


Named after the Jack Nicholson’s character in the Shining, this music is haunting, soft, nostalgic, and feels weighted with memory.

This guy has a bandcamp page. Check him out.

10. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III


Sometimes while you’re working you need ambient music that won’t get in the way. And sometimes you need a kick in the pants to wake up and keep going and get energized. You need beats, energy, and attitude. These tracks deliver.

11. Destroyer, Kaputt


Mellow yacht-rock, sung by a guy who lay on the couch during recordings too sound more relaxed. I don’t know why the hell this works. But it sure does. One of the best records to come along in the past couple of years. & sometimes you want to keep working but you wanna be chill about it . . . right?

12. Astral Weeks – by Van Morrison.

No other record so perfectly captures the hazy, dreamy, early morning quality of that place that we go to in order to create. There was a period in my life when I was writing a longer project where I listened to this record as a ritual every morning while I wrote.

The writing on my wall


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I have 3 quotes that I keep up on the walls of my work space. I thought I’d share them because, well they work for me. Taken together they work as a whole ethic for work and creativity. I would recommend anyone do this: of course you can use any quotes. No need to get fancy. It can be as simple as scrawling the quote in sharpie on a sheet of paper. Just having the idea there on the wall serves as a reminder. . . and it slowly seeps deep into your self. Here are my 3.


Inspiration exists but it has to find you working.

— Picasso

I love this because it reminds me that no matter what you have to work to accomplish what you want to do. Even if you are Picasso you have to show up every day, and roll up your sleeves (or if you’re Picasso just take your shirt off) and get started just doing the work. You have to work at it everyday, and then sure, sometimes you get lucky.


The Daimon is our destiny; who would ever set us to the hardest work not impossible.

— Yeats

The Daimon is your tutelary spirit. A good teacher knows that you must be challenged to learn beyond your comfort zone. It is that voice that pushes you further. Whatever you are afraid to tackle, maybe that is exactly the thing you should be working on.


Solvitur Ambulando

— Diogenes

This is posted over my door. It reminds me that when I get stuck it is good to leave and go take a walk.

Zen, tennis, drawing, and invoking the muse


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After a frenzied trip to the library, where it seemed I just had to throw every book I could carry into my backpack I was struck by an interesting parallel between tennis and drawing, and creative writing.

I was reading “The Inner Game of Tennis” by Gallwey. Which is all about staying loose and relaxed while you play tennis. It’s a zen approach. Tennis is such a psychological game, the number one enemy is yourself.


The Inner Game of Tennis, goes on to explain that every layer has two selves. Self 1. And Self 2. The book says that self 1 is the ego mind. That it gets in the way of self two, which is the natural self.

The tennis book quotes D.T. Suzuki’s classic “Zen and the art of Archery”

“Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking.”

2006 Camp Fuji Martial Arts Expo

Alright, when I play tennis, I won’t overthink, stay in the moment. Cool. But then I started reading this book on how to draw ” Drawing on the Right side of the brain”.  And glory be, it is talking about the exact same thing! That we have two selves. One self which is more loose, open, creative, and another self that overthinks. That the trick to learning to draw is simply to quiet the verbal side of the brain because it gets in the way.

This book divides the two selves into the Left and the Right brain. The left brain, which is dominant, is logical, verbal, it is what we use as our default mode. The Right brain is creative, loose, and nonverbal, creative, and way better at drawing. If you look into the science on this, it is basically true, but as always, the scientists correctly point out that things are a little bit more complicated than a simple left vs. right division. I’m not concerned with that so much as just the interesting fact that both of these manuals at how to be good at something: tennis, and drawing, are both saying that the key is to quiet your mind. To learn to do it without thinking.

Hmm, very very interesting. Very Zen. I do think that the way our minds work is more complicated than saying there are two halves. As if there is just the “Normal” brain. And the hidden creative brain. No I doubt it is that simple. We have more than just two gears. But being aware of your different modes of being, of consciousness  . . . I think this is getting somewhere. I further, being aware that mastery of something (it has been called flow) seems to involve losing track of oneself.

And then here is the trifecta. The third book in a row I picked up, also seems to be talking about the same thing. About losing yourself in order to do something well. This book is Steven Pressfield’s excellent “The War of Art.” WHich I just read (in one sitting last night!) , and it has the fascinating theory . . . again that to do something well you have to lose track of yourself. You have to get beyond your ego. He explains this same thing as the previous books on tennis and drawing, but he does so in terms of creative writing. And instead of talking of zen, or of accessing the right brain refers to it as invoking the muse. He actually recites a prayer everyday to the muse when he sits down to write (It’s the opening of the Odyssey.) Which is really cool!

His main idea is that creative writing is such a psychological game that your number one enemy is yourself. Sound familiar? It’s the same main as in the tennis book! It is fascinating that all of these books are best-sellers in their field, all of them widely considered classics. All of them are considered unorthodox. But what nobody seems to notice is that they are all talking about the same thing!

Here are three short excerpts, from three very different books, that are really about the same thing:


From The inner game of tennis

We have arrived a a key point: It is the constant “thinking” activity of self 1, the ego mind, which causes interference with the natural capabilities of Self 2. Harmony between the two selves exists when the mind is quiet and focused. Only then can peak performance be reached.


From Drawing on the right side of the brain

The left hemisphere is the great Saboteur of endeavors in art. When you draw, it will be set aside—left out of the game. Therefore it will find endless reasons for you not to draw: you need to balance your checkbook, phone your mother, plan your vacation, or do that work you brought home from the office. 

  . . . In the creative mode we use intuition and have leaps of insight . . .


From The War of Art

Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. . . . 

Here’s what I think. I think angels make their home in the Self, while resistance has its seat in the Ego. 

The fight is between the two.

The Self wishes to create, to evolve. The Ego likes things just the way they are.

All of these books are excellent and I recommend them, especially if you are into tennis, drawing, or writing. But I think the really interesting thing is that everybody is talking about the same thing here! The athletes, the writers, the artists, the zen monks . . . we just all have a different vocabulary for it! Because it has been noticed in just about every corner of human art and endeavour. I think that the first step to taking these “weird” and esoteric ideas and making them available to all of humanity . . .is going to be to realize that all of these different ways of flow or focus, or whatever you want to call it. Quieting the ego-self. They are talking about the same thing!

That is the first step. I don’t know what the second step is yet . . . perhaps it is a (r)evolution of human consciousness?

Quitting smoking (the easiest but still hard way) for writers


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Quitting smoking is not easy. It sucks. There are some books out there (I won’t name names) that tell you they have an easy way to quit. Of course they sell millions of copies, but I think they are bunk. Quitting is hard. I read a book on quitting that claimed  there is no reason to smoke, that cigarettes don’t do anything for you. That’s bullshit. If that was true nobody would start. Period.


Cigarettes make you mentally alert. They help you focus. And I am saying that they do so beyond just the “fix for the craving” part. Yes, once you are hooked not having a cigarette feels distracting, it’s hard to focus. But anyone who has ever worked with there brain knows that smoking while writing, or thinking gives your brain a boost. Sorry, but that is just the truth.

I was talking with a fellow writer yesterday, “It helps you concentrate,” he said. “It’s like pushing a little button,” I said. “Yes, it is . . .” he agreed. And then we both stared sadly off in the distance.

That is why a lot of the smartest people I know smoke. Pretty much all the writers I know smoke. It is brain candy. Of course the boost in focus it gives you is not really worth the fact that it will kill you slowly and painfully, and that is just the start of a long list of negative things it will do to you.

I just want to clear up the BS that nicotine does nothing positive. That is a lie. But I also haven’t had a cigarette in two months. And I am confident that I am going to be able to keep writing, and thinking, and being creative. There are other ways to to boost your focus and mental clarity. I won’t list them all here because that would take forever— but the easiest and most obvious way to boost your mental clarity? Simple, it’s get some exercise. As far as brainpower goes, getting some exercise is the easy, low hanging fruit. Go for a walk, or a run. It gets blood flowing to the brain, and works just as well as nicotine. Yeah, it isn’t as lazy as lighting up, it takes more effort . . . it’s also good for your body not just your mind so it evens out.

One last thing: here is the easiest way to quit smoking that I have found (I have tried them all.) Divorce the physical from the psychological. Cigarettes are addictive on two levels:

1. There is the psychological addiction: that is the habit part. You smoke because you are used to it. You have practiced thousands of times. The same little ritual over and over.

2. The physical addiction: this is the actual chemical withdrawal that happens.

You can’t make it easy, you are going to have to take you lumps. But you can at least take your lumps in two separate halves. What I recommend is taking you nicotine in  a surrogate form for a month (or however long it takes). That means using nicotine gum, or patches, vaping, whatever there are a bunch of methods. What worked for me is Snus, it’s a Swedish invention of a little tea bag of snuff that you put in your mouth for 20 minutes or so. It takes care of the chemical addiction. What I liked about Snus is that at $5 a can it is a whole lot cheaper than the gum, the patch and other methods. (Be careful not to end up just addicted to nicotine in a different drug . . .the trick is to quit before you become psychologically addicted to the new form or habit of ingestion)


Using Snus you are able to tackle the psychological habit all on it’s own. It’s just a habit after all, like brushing your teeth, or making your bed. After a few weeks all that’s left is the chemical dependency. Which . . . isn’t fun, but it is what it is.

One last tip. Remember to go outside. Just go stand outside. Or better yet go for a walk. Get the blood flowing. As a smoker I always thought that was the one thing that smokers got that nonsmokers did not: getting to just stand around outside for a few minutes every day. That’s the best part! Of course you don’t have to light a little stick of dry plant matter and stick it in your mouth to go stand outside! We just need to remember that! Now, if you will excuse me, I am going to go for a long walk.

Stochasticity & Stories part 2


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Again, this isn’t really a blog post this is me working out ideas for a workshop I am doing for The Projects this weekend.

You see, I think that stories happen ( I mean the way they occur to us) in a non-chronological order. At least they do for me. That is what I want to explore with this workshop, and so I’m working out some notes here.

A lot of writers talk about stories that way. (I mentioned Nabakov in the previous post.) That an image or foggy picture comes to you, and you know that you want to use that in the story but you might not know if it is the beginning, the middle, or the end.

For example, I was riding my bike over a year ago and an image came to me: A girl with a short sword, and wearing a robe that looked like she was Greek or possibly Roman and she was fighting a gigantic robotic lion. The image just flashed into my head like that, fully formed. I immediately pulled over on the rode and began taking notes because I knew that this would be an incredible image for a story . . . I didn’t know what story, and I didn’t know if it should go in the beginning, middle, or end. And that didn’t matter. We don’t need to know the chronology of the story when we start. Since then that image has grown into a 100,000 word YA novel that I have finished the rough draft for!

So here is the exercise I am working on. Take 4-5 images ( you can draw them, or cut out pictures from somewhere) shuffle them face down. Deal out three in a sequence, and for practice see what story you can come up with. Here is an example: I’m just going to use pictures of myself because that’s what I have on hand, and it’s faster than drawing.

Anthony Alvarado uses a cat computer

Anthony Alvarado uses a cat computer

Anthony Alvarado smokes a pipe on the beach

Anthony Alvarado smokes a pipe on the beach

Anthony Alvarado picks pumpkins

Anthony Alvarado picks pumpkins

Anthony Alvarado hangs out with Ursula K. LeGuin

Anthony Alvarado hangs out with Ursula K. Le Guin

Anthony Alvarado knows Kung Fu

Anthony Alvarado knows Kung Fu

Anthony Alvarado naps all day

Anthony Alvarado naps all day

OK, here is how it works. We humans LOVE stories. It is like we are hard wired for narrative.

The idea here would be to shuffle these pics up and deal out three in any order, and then try to make up a story from the result. Let’s say I shuffled these pics (on cards) and then dealt out:

A: Anthony hangs with Ursula K. Le Guin

B: Anthony has Cat Computer

C: Anthony knows Kung Fu!

So, the story might be Anthony meets Ursula and she says “Hey buddy, you know you got to try writing Sci Fi with a cat on your computer! It’s fantastic!” And so he does and ends up writing a prequel to The Matrix.

OKAY . . . that story isn’t going to win an O. Henry award anytime soon. But it’s just an example, and you get the point!

Play around with it. Make it your own. Make up your own cards, images, pictures . . . the results are infinite.


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