This morning, I completed a twelve-week program of self-reflection and “recovery” for artists created by Julia Cameron and rendered in her book, The Artist’s Way.
I’d been considering this program ever since I heard about it during my days as a professional actor in the late nineties. I’m not sure what took me so long to try it. Pride? Procrastination? Fear of what I might discover about myself? Maybe. But I suspect it’s because I was embarrassed to claim the identity of capital A Artist.
For as long as I can remember, and with evidence dating back to the age of eight-and-a-half, I’ve wanted to be a creative person. And I have. Singer, actor, filmmaker, musician, writer. I harbored another desire, though, one I refused to acknowledge until my late twenties. I wanted to make my living being a creative. I won’t unpack my whole life story here, but in 2018, at the age of forty-two, I finally accomplished the goal of earning all my income come from creative pursuits: residuals from decades-old acting jobs, money from playing gigs with my 80s band, and advances and royalties from my books. It was (and still is) an incredible feeling, one I cherish every day. To be fair, “make a living” is relative. I’m married to a schoolteacher with a steady income and health insurance. If it weren’t for that, I would either have to take another job or accept a different lifestyle in a less expensive locale. That’s been a hard truth for me to swallow. I enjoyed a high income as a sales and marketing executive, and took a huge pay cut to become a professional writer. But I add value to my family in other ways – and while I’m proud of that, it took me a long time to accept.
The period between publishing Symptoms of Being Human and completing edits on The Lightness of Hands was a dark and difficult time for me. My lifestyle exploded when I adopted kids. Two manuscripts died after multiple drafts. I had a significant mental health crisis. Then, the pandemic obliterated my lifestyle again, forcing me to become a home school principal, a job for which I am profoundly unqualified.
But then, things reached a new normal. Kids returned to school. I entered a new phase of writing. It felt like time to do some serious mental, emotional, and creative house cleaning. Enter The Artist’s Way. It’s a twelve-week program comprising essays and exercises designed to help creative people recover from their block and generate lasting breakthroughs.
The primary tools of the program are morning pages, artist dates, and tasks. The tasks range from writing exercises (draft a list of your creative allies make plans to stay in touch) to more abstract assignments (repot any pinched or languishing plants in your garden.) One task requires the artist to make a list of creative wounds and generate affirmations to heal them. I remembered an incident that occurred while I was attending an arts high school in Los Angeles. A teacher made a discouraging comment that eventually contributed to my choice to drop out and return to conventional high school. This exercise helped me identify that moment, release my regret, and consciously decide not to let it affect future decisions.
Many of the tasks, though, I found puzzling and new-agey. One suggested the artist collect rocks and gather flowers. Another required the fashioning of a “god jar” in which the artists would put their resentments, fears, and hopes. These tasks I forewent. Others I tried despite my aversion: create a photo collage. Make art of the phrase “Treating myself like a precious object will make me stronger” and post it in your writing space. It’s hard to say whether these efforts made a difference.
Morning pages and artist dates form the backbone of the Artist’s Way. Morning pages are what they sound like: three handwritten, stream-of-consciousness pages cranked out every morning. These aren’t meant to be read, shared, or published, and they don’t need to be part of a story or work in progress. They’re meant for venting. Getting out what’s on your mind and in your heart. Most days, I enjoyed these. I tend to walk around convinced there’s something I’ve forgotten to say, some idea that’s become lost in my cluttered mind. Morning Pages helped to dispel that feeling. Sometimes I found them irritating and repetitive, but mostly, they were healing and brought me relief from unwanted thoughts.
The tool I found most difficult was “artist dates.” Each week I was supposed to take my inner artist on an outing, just the two of us. For example, the author suggested the reader go to a museum, have coffee and a croissant at a café, or visit a strange church to hear gospel music. I found these many of these suggestions difficult to justify, but I tried. I went to a record store and flipped through used albums. I visited a piercing shop and upgraded my earrings. I got a tattoo. I did find these things enjoyable and healing – but indulging in artist dates meant skipping a workout, cutting into writing time, or eschewing quality time with my family. I didn’t want to do that. I did, however, create for myself a Friday Film Festival. I’ve been wanting to watch more movies. The artist date assignments helped me rationalize taking the time. I intend to make it a habit.
The aspect of the program that bothered me most is its focus on God and spirituality. Like Alcoholics Anonymous, the book insists the reader need not believe in organized religion or a specific deity, only that they recognize that their creativity comes from an unseen spiritual source. In my experience, creativity comes from somewhere in my mind that I do not understand and can’t inspect – but I find calling it “God” or “spirit” off-putting and unproductive. I cringed at every mention of the words. For me, this significantly diminished the value of the program.
Though I skipped many of the tasks and artist dates and glossed over the vague new-agey stuff, I felt the value of the course was worth the work. I had three significant breakthroughs. I gave myself permission to abandon the practice of outlining and return to my roots as a pantser. As a result, I’m writing the weirdest and most ambitious project I’ve ever attempted, and enjoying every word. I also recognized an itch to return to my dream of becoming an actor. I enrolled in an acting class for the first time in two decades, and I’m loving every minute. Perhaps most importantly, I became comfortable calling myself an Artist. That alone is a triumph worth three months’ work.
My favorite books about creativity are The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, On Writing by Stephen King, and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. If any of these authors created a workbook like The Artist’s Way, I would dive in immediately and with vigor. I prefer their no-nonsense, working-class approach to creativity. But, in such a book’s absence, The Artist’s Way is a valuable and useful program for coming to terms with one’s creativity.