This post covers my top 5 non-fiction faves. Stay tuned or join the fan list for my top 5 fiction faves coming soon!

YAY! It’s one of those “TOP 5” lists! So, what books do deep-thinking songwriters read obsessively? Here are the books I turn to again and again. Let’s dive right in.

1. The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz

If you’ve been a fan for long, you might have guessed this one. I mention it throughout the blog. You couldn’t know that at the time I read it, I was sort of forbidden from reading it.

I was on silent retreat sometime in the mid-2000’s with a few other women. The goal of extended silence, among other things, is to open up and listen. Guidelines usually advise not to bring books and journals. Having them around creates the temptation to fill up your time with “doing” rather than “being.”

But I snuck a few in, because at the time, “being without doing” sounded hella boring and borderline terrifying.

I honestly don’t know how a copy of The Four Agreements came into my possession or why I smuggled it into this particular silent retreat. As the others were presumably sitting on their meditation cushions, I was hiding in my room reading.

The Four Agreements are:

  1. Be impeccable with your word.
  2. Don’t take anything personally.
  3. Don’t make assumptions.
  4. Always do your best.

Here’s the shortest explanation of the book I can come up with: If everyone lived by these four agreements, there would be peace in every aspect of life on Earth.

Most disagreements and suffering originate in not honoring one or more of these agreements. Usually, pain stems from being dishonest, with yourself and others; taking others’ actions as personal attacks; assuming you know others’ intentions (in fact, assuming you know jack shit); and a lack of self-compassion. If I could throw a magic spell over the world, it would be that we all live by The Four Agreements.

So cliché, I know. There’s no easy path to peace on Earth, obviously. But on reading this book, I found a way to create peace in my own life, and have diligently worked to incorporate the agreements into all my relationships, especially my relationship with myself.

2. The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck

I don’t think there is another book I have read cover to cover more times than this one. It’s been around a while, first published in 1978. I have owned a few copies over the years, given them away, and replaced them. There’s a copy in every used book store. It’s a classic.

I believe the first time I read this book, it was early in my first marriage. I was ripe for Peck’s important messages, which for me have been: stop expecting your life to be easy and happy all the damn time (the book’s first line is “Life is difficult.”); be patient and trust the process (developing discipline); neuroses vs. character disorders; everyone has their own world map; and my favorite working definition of love.

Over the years, this last one, my favorite working definition of love, has become incorporated into my deepest senses. Peck defines love as:

The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.

Soak that one in. Ahhhh…doesn’t it feel so good? It’s like warm mud between my toes. Love is the rosebud, the cocoon, the nebula.

3. Non-Violent Communication, Marshall B. Rosenberg

I came to this book by way of my homeschool community. I homeschooled my only child through second grade. There is no inherent correlation between the book and homeschooling, except that my homeschooling friends are some of the most deeply rooted, intentional parents I’ve ever known.

Don’t let the title throw you. This book is not about social justice or civil disobedience. Rosenberg’s theory is that words often hurt, and hurting others, even with words, is a form of violence. He developed a method of communication that is heartfelt and compassionate. Practicing non-violent communication, or NVC, we do all we can to avoid causing harm to ourselves or others.

As I mentioned, I started using NVC as a parenting approach. Any grown-up knows that challenges can arise when talking with kids. It’s just so easy to slip into, let’s say, less than purely compassionate word choices. What comes out of our mouths, healthy or otherwise, eventually comes out of theirs. My kid, for example, began dropping the F-bomb, combined with the name of a certain deity, by the age of three.

I sought a less reactionary way of communicating as a parent. What I found in NVC was an expansive world that freed me from the shaming, blaming, and passive aggressive language so many of us grew up with.

Since that first introduction, I’ve participated in two long-term book/practice groups, and this coming weekend will be attending my first NVC workshop.

NVC teaches four basic components to communicating compassionately: observations, feelings, needs/values, and requests. The scripted formula goes like this: “When I see you ___________, I feel ___________ because I need/value ____________. Would you be willing to ____________?”

For example: “When I find my power drill out in the yard after you’ve borrowed it, I feel annoyed because I value taking care of tools. Would you be willing to return my tools after you borrow them?”

It sounds a little hokey, I know, but that’s just the template. You have to make the language authentic to you. With practice, I swear, it works.

Of course, there’s more to it, like what to do when your kid or partner fires back, “Well, if it’s so important to you, why don’t YOU do it?” Over the 10+ years I’ve been practicing NVC, I’ve developed my own calm and patience in communication with my loved ones, and although I’m not 100% successful in every interaction, NVC has changed my life.

4. Daring Greatly, Brené Brown

A more recent publication, this book makes the list because Brown is freakin’ brilliant. She is a scientist, which appeals to my need for some level of order in this world. She presents her findings with both logic and heart, with a willingness to take what she’s learned about shame and vulnerability and apply it in her own personal and professional life. Her original TED talk is among the top five most viewed. The fact that we even know about her research validates her decades of study. She had to risk something to put it out there in the first place.

Here’s Brown’s extensive and well-known work in a crude ten-words-or-less: the risk is worth it.

Hey! I did it in five words!

This book gave voice and validation to some of my perfectionism, avoidance, and risk fears. Suddenly, I was normal. I was in the deep end, flapping around like everyone else. Brown’s hard science and soft delivery cleared a path for me to skip the bull-oney and show up, vulnerable and willing to grow.

Surpising take-away: Daring Greatly provides an awesome purview into the different ways men and women have traditionally experienced shame and vulnerability. Understanding this opened more compassion in my relationships.

5. The War of Art, Steven Pressfield

The severe title of this book did the trick. I pulled it from the library shelf.

Pressfield has written fiction, historical fiction, non-fiction and screenplays. From what I can tell, this book is an anomaly among his publications. There’s not a lot of self-helpery in Pressfield’s mostly military-themed oeuvre. This one is kind of special.

However, the subtitle – Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles – belies Pressfield’s penchant for war subjects. His style too, short bursts and pointed sentences, summarily shoots down any touchy-feely gush.

My biggest take-out from this book was a respect for Resistance, with a capital “R.” Pressfield names the mysterious force of Resistance as the source of suffering for creative people, and in fact, for all of us. He personifies Resistance, a tactic that usually irks me, but in this case it works. Resistance, like a check-point officer, prevents us from living to our fullest potential, keeps life small and predictable, and blocks forward movement of all kinds.

Pressfield’s antidote to Resistance, his advice on how to resist Resistance, is to shut the f*ck up and do your art. Although my interpretation is more crude than his, Pressfield’s matter-of-fact, simple directives cut to the chase faster than a drill sergeant. At the time I read this book, and during a few songwriter-blocked times since, I needed to name the beast and get to work. When it’s time to slay a dragon, my guitar is my crossbow and my hook book is my shield.

6. Overcoming Underearning, Barbara Stanny

BONUS! The sixth book in my “Top 5” list is probably the cheesiest of the self-helpish books I own. It’s like Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates in Fried Green Tomatoes) meets Suzanne Somers and they tell you how to make a million dollars.

The reason this book makes the list is because it made me cry. A good sob.

Although it’s tempting to shelf this book in the get-rich-quick section, it’s more than that. Yes, Stanny talks a lot about money, starting with her own story of climbing to a six-figure income, but the core of the book is a vaccine for the general pandemic of “you’re not enough.”

Underearning, Stanny purports, is a result of undervaluing yourself in general. She came to her conclusions and methods after a series of interviews with high-earning women. Comparing their paths to her own and other women, she saw patterns and turned them into a five-step process toward financial empowerment.

Sounds like a real tear-jerker, right?

The book is half how-to instructions and half self-therapy journal. For each of the five steps, Stanny shares real-life stories, offers clear advice, and – here’s where she got me – leaves room for those notorious exercises for inner exploration.

One of the exercises had me imagine a conversation with my child self. I clearly have not had enough therapy in my close-to 47 years, because talking to little nine-year-old Melissa about my financial dreams brought me to my knees. She taught me a thing or two about being authentic and not giving up.

That’s my “Top 5” list, with an extra, at least for non-fiction. I’m sure you notice some threads throughout. To write songs, I observe the world as it is, and to do that, I have to know myself well. These titles have served the inner process and the actual work of sitting down to write. As obsessed as I have been with these books, I’m grateful for their places on my shelf and in my soul.

Happy reading!

Have you read any of these? Intrigued by some?
Please comment below with your reviews and suggestions!