I’m reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I started and abandoned it years ago after reading just the first section on Morning Pages, which is a daily practice of writing three longhand pages first thing in the morning. The point is basically to dump the contents of your brain on paper. They are a fundamental part of the creative journey that is The Artist’s Way. At the time, however, that first chapter was enough for me.
It took me a while to start, but now I’ve been doing Morning Pages for nearly two years, although I only do one page, not three. It’s a shame I didn’t stick with the book long enough back then to read about the other key practice: the weekly Artist Date (time alone to do something you enjoy, just for you, like visiting an art gallery, exploring an antique shop, or going to a concert). So many hours of quality time with my inner creative, forever lost!
The book is written as a 12-week course, with exercises and tasks every week, but I’m not using the book that way. (Not unlike how I love reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up but I’ve never actually tidied up in the way Marie Kondo prescribes.) The Artist’s Way is full of valuable ideas, insights, resources, quotations, and a not unhefty dose of spirituality. It’s a solid read in the genre of creativity and writing manuals even if you’re not interested in a course of “creative recovery” modelled on recovery from addiction.
What convinced me to pick up the book again was The Artist’s Way Every Day, which I borrowed at random from the library. I was looking for something else, noticed it, and thought I would give it a try. After enjoying A Year with Thomas Merton earlier in the year, I was up for another day-at-a-time kind of book.
But I’m not good at reading books a day at a time. You start this kind of book thinking you’ll read the day’s entry in bed at the end of the day as a tonic before falling immediately and blissfully to sleep, but it rarely turns out like that. Instead I binge several days’ worth at once and feel a little ill afterward.
When I manage to avoid such self-destructive behaviour, I use my lunch break to consume a handful of page-a-day snippets at a time. I can only read so many pages while waiting for food and/or eating it within my half hour break, so I often reach my capacity for page-a-day wisdom at just the moment I finish eating, which works out well for all involved.
Here are some of the passages that convinced me to give The Artist’s Way another chance. Just a taste, mind you, not enough to make you feel ill (I hope).
Obsessions with time and perfection
On accepting that you will spend a lot of time writing badly:
“We all have time to write. We have time to write the minute we are willing to write badly, to chase a dead end, to scribble a few words, to write for the hell of it instead of for the perfect and polished result. The obsession with time is really an obsession with perfection. We want enough time to write perfectly. We want to write with a net under ourselves, a net that says we are not foolish spending our time doing something that might not pay off.”
On making use of whatever time you have to write:
“One of the biggest myths around writing is that in order to do it we must have great swathes of uninterrupted time. Speaking for myself, I have never had such silken bolts of time. The myth that we must have ‘time’ — more time — in order to create is a myth that keeps us from using the time we do have. If we are forever yearning for ‘more,’ we are forever discounting what is offered.”
On avoiding perfectionism:
“Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop — an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or making and to lose sight of the whole. Instead of creating freely and allowing errors to reveal themselves later as insights, we often get mired in getting the details right. We correct our originality into a uniformity that lacks passion and spontaneity. ‘Do not fear mistakes,’ Miles Davis told us. ‘There are none.’”
On not waiting for inspiration (this is something that comes up again and again and again):
“We often make the mistake of thinking that we ‘have’ to be the ‘right’ mood to write. The truth is, any mood can be used for writing. Any mood is a good writing mood. The trick is to simply enter whatever mood like a room and sit down and write from there.”
On the importance of consistency as the one thing we can control:
“As artists, we wish we could always work well, but we must settle for working always. The ‘always’ we can control. The ‘well’ we cannot control. For this reason, we do well to simply serve, to focus more on the process of doing our work than on the ‘product’ of work produced.”
On having compassion for our imperfections:
“Who says (besides our Inner Perfectionist, who is always doing sit-ups) that we have to feel calm and centered to write out a piece of music? Maybe we can feel and be a wreck and do it anyway. Maybe we can do it and do it wrong and fix it later. Maybe we do not have to be or perform perfectly. Maybe we are allowed to have a learning curve. Maybe part of what we need to learn is a little compassion.”
The bit about sit-ups was a rare moment when Julia Cameron made me laugh. Personally, my Inner Perfectionist does squats and lunges!
Honesty and attention
On the importance of telling the truth:
“Writing is about honesty. It is almost impossible to be honest and boring at the same time. Being honest may be many other things — risky, scary, difficult, frightening, embarrassing, and hard to do — but it is not boring. Whenever I am stuck in a piece of writing, I ask myself, ‘Am I failing to tell the truth? Is there something I am afraid to say?’ Telling the truth on the page, like telling the truth in a relationship, always takes you deeper.”
But telling the truth is hard:
“As artists, we are perpetually seeking to penetrate the veil of cultural prescriptions and arrive at personal truth. In order to do this, we need to be brave enough with — and open enough to — our own internal territory that our art can express it. In other words, we must be able to face down shame and choose self-disclosure. This takes courage.”
It takes hard work and attention:
“It takes an effort to be clear about things. It is easier and much sadder to be muddy, to never take the time to clarify our thoughts and connect our own perceptions. The act of paying attention is what brings us peace.”
The artist and her trainer
I love this idea of a writer having to be both artist and trainer:
“In order to succeed as an artist we must have two well-developed functions: our artist and its trainer. The trainer is steady and adult. It keeps its eye on the course and the long run. It coaxes, wheedles, begs, cajoles, and occasionally disciplines our artist which, childlike, proceeds in spurts and sometimes not at all. The trick is setting the jumps low enough that our artist can be lured into action. If I am writing nonfiction, I set my goal at a modest three pages. Almost anyone can write three pages of something and my artists knows that. If we set our jumps low enough, our artist can be lured into cooperation.”
This applies to many things in life, not just creating (like, oh, eating well, exercising, saving money, getting out of bed). You need to allow for two very different sides of yourself to exist simultaneously. You need more than one way to talk to yourself and think about the work you have done or need to do.
The important thing is to keep moving forward, keep working at it:
“Writing is the act of motion. Writing is the commitment to move forward, not to stew in our own juices, to become whatever it is that we are becoming. Writing is both the boat and the wind in the sails. Even on the days when the winds of inspiration seem slight, there is some forward motion, some progress made.”
Similar themes about writing in Still Writing by Dani Shapiro. “The Artist’s Way in an Age of Self-Promotion” in The New Yorker. Changing your life and overcoming writer’s block with The Artist’s Way. Letters from an artist working through the program. Brain Pickings has a post about it and the Books of Titans podcast has an episode about it. Julia Cameron herself has a website with about a million related works in book and video format.