While I’ve had this blog for a few years, I didn’t start writing regular posts until the Coronavirus pandemic hit and life ground to a halt. Writing is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but I wasn’t sure I could maintain the pace of producing a post (at least one that I found interesting) every single week. Starting last April, however, I managed to average a post/week until the end of 2020 and I thoroughly enjoyed the process. As the year was coming to a close, I started to wonder how I might improve my writing which has always been informational rather than creative. A close friend, who is perhaps the most creative person I know, suggested that I read The Artist’s Way, A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron
The Artist’s Way contains a 12-week writing program to help artists of all stripes tap into and nurture their creative potential. Last week, I finished the program. I can’t say that I feel magically transformed as a result, but the book did teach me a lot about how to care for my inner artist. It also got me thinking about all kinds of ways to approach a story and to advance the way I express myself. I’m a skeptic at heart so many of the spiritual claims made throughout the text didn’t resonate with me. Also, I wasn’t fond of the emphasis on recovery. That said, there was much to like about Cameron’s process, her persistent coaching, and words of encouragement. Below are my thoughts regarding what worked and what didn’t work for me.
Structured, Step-by-Step Approach
First off, I like the structure of the book. The first few chapters, which I read at the end of 2020, set the stage. You learn that once you get started, you’ll need to commit to 12 weeks during which you will:
- hand write 3 pages/day in a notebook, the morning pages
- set a time for yourself each week to nurture your creative spirit, the artist’s date
- perform various exercises, designed to break bad habits and get you thinking in new ways, tasks
This seemed like too much for me to take on but my friend encouraged me, saying that even if I only did the morning pages, I’d benefit from the experience. With this in mind, I embarked on the 12-week journey at the beginning of January.
Each subsequent chapter of the book aligns with a new week in the program. This worked well. I’d read a new chapter on Sunday and throughout the week, I’d try to put its advice to good use. I started most days by writing the morning pages. Throughout the week I executed those tasks that most interested me. And, I tried to squeeze in an artist’s date. Having a program laid out made it much easier for me to set aside time dedicated to self-improvement.
One thing I appreciated about Cameron’s coaching is her upbeat and encouraging delivery. She shares her own successes and setbacks and she emphasizes repeatedly that the best way to achieve is to do and that you are only going to produce something you’re truly proud of after producing plenty of works that make you cringe.
The book is full of motivating advice and packed with inspirational quotes from other artists. Here are a few of my favorites:
“I shut my eyes in order to see” — Paul Gaugin
“Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music—the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.” — Henry Miller
“Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.” — Edgar Degas
“Satisfaction of one’s curiosity is one of the greatest sources of happiness in life.” — Linus Pauling
“No trumpets sound when the important decisions of our life are made. Destiny is made known silently.” — Agnes de Mille
I loved reflecting on Cameron’s curated words of wisdom each Sunday morning as I plunged into the next chapter.
Formatting might seem like a trivial quality to praise, but in a writing guide, if done right, it can be very useful. The pages of The Artist’s Way have enormous outer margins. When you’re reading a book that calls for a certain amount of soul searching and reflection, it’s great to have space where you can jot down your thoughts, right beside the text that provoked them. My marked-up copy now serves as part reference manual, part journal.
Tasks and Artist Dates
The tasks and artist dates were a mixed bag for me. There were a lot of tasks to do each week and I started out doing most of them. They got my brain working and gave me unexpected subject matter to ponder and play with. The downside, which I discuss more below, is that as the weeks continued the tasks seemed to belabor subjects that had already been covered or that just didn’t interest me. Around week 8, I started to experience serious burnout and had to cut back on the number of tasks I was doing.
The idea behind artist dates is fantastic—setting aside a couple of uninterrupted hours each week to nurture your creative consciousness. The problem for me was coming up with artist dates in the midst of a pandemic. Cameron gives some examples: visit a great junk store, take a solo trip to the beach, go to a matinee, visit an aquarium or an art museum. These kinds of experiences just weren’t going to happen.
At first, I told myself that this was okay. I could take a walk in a park, listen to music, make a gourmet meal, or attend a performance over zoom. While I did all of those things, I didn’t achieve the benefits that Cameron promised and I blame the pandemic for that. I was already walking multiple times a week simply to maintain sanity. I cook for my family almost every night and I’m a good cook so a gourmet meal is only slightly exciting. Since last April, I’ve spent so much time in front of a screen that adding another screen experience to spark inspiration is less than ideal. A concert over zoom is like replacing a good French croissant with fare from the Pillsbury doughboy. I’ll gladly consume it but when I’ve finished I’m wondering, did I really need that?
The practice of regularly making time to have fun all by yourself seems clearly beneficial. It’s just not so easily achieved when you’re largely confined to your house and so are the other people who depend on you.
As I suspected before I began, the discipline of writing the morning pages probably yielded the biggest payoff. I never wrote for my blog during this exercise. As Cameron advised, the practice was more of a meditation where I wrote about things that were on my mind or that I wanted to sort out. That can get tedious on mornings when you’re eager to work on a different project or your still obsessing over the same stuff you wrote about the day before.
So, I also used this time to record moments from my current life that I want to remember or moments from my past that I’d like to someday share with my kids. As Cameron predicted, some of the pages are great. Most are far from it.
The benefits were twofold. First, I think that I’ve become a slightly faster writer. Second, it took me at least 30-minutes each day to write my morning pages. This meant that I was forcing myself to spend 30 minutes/day reflecting on my life. That definitely helped me clarify my priorities for how I would spend the rest of each day and what I wanted to accomplish in the coming week, month, year, and so on. None of that was set in stone. My plans and priorities constantly changed, but I was in control of the changes rather than being tossed about by the sea of ideas that normally swirls in the back of my mind.
What Didn’t Work
One thing Cameron does throughout the book is attempt to characterize the reader’s experience. In my case, she was sometimes on the mark but more often she was not. In her defense, she was trying to write a book that would speak to as many readers as possible and she may well have done that. But the more examples you give about how a reader should feel or how their experiences have shaped them, the more chances you open up for a reader to feel as if they’re outside of your target audience.
One of my least favorite aspects of the book was its focus on recovery. I was reading the book and doing the exercises because I wanted to improve my creativity. Cameron writes as if you, the reader, can not achieve your creative potential until you first recover from the trauma you’ve experienced from all the naysayers in your life. I’m just not in that boat.
I’m not saying that I haven’t encountered poisonous people that made me feel small and doubt my competence. We’ve all been in that position. But perhaps I’m just old enough at this point and have had enough successes that such voices don’t prevent me from trying things or doing what I want to do.
It was easy enough to skip over the tasks that focused on restoring self-esteem, like making a list of self-affirming statements and reading them to yourself every day. However, the aspect of recovery pops up often and each time I found myself thinking, “I wish you would stop using that word.”
Coincidences are fun. I remember one family vacation where we were in Florida buying groceries and we ran into another family from our neighborhood, shopping in the same aisle. A couple years later, on a different vacation, we were attending a free concert in Seattle and ran into the same family that had recently moved there. Some people might assign a reason behind why these two improbably linked coincidences took place. I don’t think like that. Instead, I believe that coincidences happen all the time and when they’re extreme enough, as this one was, we notice and remember them.
Cameron asks you to look out for coincidences and jot them down. Week after week, she asks if you’ve noticed an increase. The answer is inevitably yes because when you’re regularly reminded to look for coincidences, you notice them more. At least, that’s how my skeptical mind sees the world.
Cameron wraps this phenomenon in an aura of mystery. Rather than explaining synchronicity as arising from your increasing awareness of normal happenstance, she attributes your growing perception of coincidences to an unseen force that is responding to your blossoming creative energy. While I agree that looking out for coincidences can be uplifting and even productive, the notion that a divine force is thoughtfully laying them in my path as a reward for my initiative is counter to the way I view the world.
Intentions of God/Nature/The Cosmos/Etc.
A fair amount of The Artist’s Way talks about God’s wishes and intentions. Cameron acknowledges early on that many of her readers may not be religious and that the program works no matter what spiritual force one chooses to use as a substitute for an all powerful creator. I’m a fan of the book but I personally felt like Cameron spent too much time trying to convince the reader that God is not a judgmental naysayer but rather a joyful supporter that actively rewards any and all attempts at creativity.
On page 3 of the Introduction to The Artist’s Way, Cameron introduces 10 Basic Principles that lie at the heart of creative advancement. She asks the reader to revisit these principles frequently and to look for shifts in their own attitudes or beliefs. The essence of what she writes is powerful but again the emphasis on both recovery and God’s intentions weren’t particularly helpful to me. In week 6, I decided to tweek them to better fit my own life and view of reality.
I’ll close by saying that I truly am glad to have read The Artist’s Way and to have gone through most of the exercises. While reading, however, I often wished there was a secondary edition of the book that cut out the mystical portions. Below are my revised Basic Principles (numbers 1, 2, and 9 are unchanged). I would never have come up with this list without the help of Julia Cameron, but perhaps my version is easier for other agnostic minds to embrace.
- Creativity is the natural order of life. Life is energy: pure creative energy.
2. There is an underlying, in-dwelling creative force infusing all of life—including ourselves.
3. When we open ourselves to the creativity around us, we nourish our own creativity, even if it’s buried deep within us.
4. We ourselves are creations of The Universe. We should rejoice in our very existence and nurture the creations that we are.
5. Our life is a precious gift that shouldn’t be squandered. Developing our creativity is one way of cherishing this gift.
6. The refusal to be creative is self-imposed and can be undone.
7. When we open ourselves to exploring our creativity, we enrich our lives and enrich the world.
8. As we open new creative channels or widen pre-existing ones, we can expect many gentle but powerful changes.
9. It is safe to open ourselves up to greater and greater creativity.
10. Our creative dreams and yearnings are like small seeds planted within us. If we give them water and light, they’ll blossom. If we ignore them, they’ll shrivel up in darkness and disappear.