A few years ago I made an acquaintance who turned out to be an illustrator. While this really isn’t anything like being a musician, the two disciplines do share an artistic and creative mindset. Naturally we got to talking about the frustrations that can happen in our fields, and how the uphill climb can feel interminable. He recommended The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and I immediately put it on my Christmas list.
When it arrived under the tree, I started reading it immediately, resisted half the advice, and gave up after chapter 9. It sat for three years while I told myself I’d do it another time. Then I went through a series of disappointments and disruptions that put my life in chaos.
I fell into a grinding depression. It wasn’t the kind where I was on the floor sad; it was more like exhaustion and a short fuse. Minor annoyances could ruin my day. By late August of this year I’d lost patience with my own behavior. I was living in a fog, too, unsure of the next steps in my life, and lacking the energy to do many of them in any case. So I made a deal with myself: do The Artist’s Way, or therapy. Something needed to give. I chose The Artist’s Way.
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Julia Cameron addresses her book to those she calls in “artistic recovery”—artists who’ve been somehow wounded by mistreatment or ill fortune, or paralyzed by fear or doubt. That seems like an extreme diagnosis, but the more of the book I did (you don’t read this book, you do it), the more sense it made to me, and the more it seemed to apply to my own life. There are twelve chapters, each of which is designed to guide a week’s work. Each is addressed to recovering a particular aspect of the artistic life—a sense of safety, a sense of abundance, or a sense of strength, to name a few.
Each week has its own specific exercises geared towards the appropriate goals. Some of them have obvious utility, such as listing those who’ve supported your art, or those who haven’t, but others might seem pointless or hokey. Cameron acknowledges this and cautions that the exercises we most want to dismiss are ones we might well need and should think twice about skipping. I did better with this some weeks but not others. I couldn’t bring myself to collect rocks, write and mail a letter to myself, or make a “God jar,” for instance. But now that I’m done with the book, I’m going to visit some of the exercises I let go the first time. It should be added that for every exercise that I couldn’t stand there was at least one I just didn’t have time for. Many of these exercises have unexpected but highly effective ways of arriving at the truth of a matter, or creating action items. My favorites were usually speed-writing lists. These are particularly good at cutting through the b.s. and getting to the heart of a matter, and it often left me asking myself, “Where did that come from?”
The two main cornerstones of the course, however, are the morning pages and the artist’s date.
The person who told me about this book mentioned the morning pages first and foremost and swore by them. In this activity, which is much like journalling, you write three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing each morning for roughly a half hour. This is followed up with a series of affirmations, such as, “I have the right to be an artist.” Hokey, but it works. Believe me. You can’t write something ten times a day for twelve weeks and not address it.
The artist’s date is time you set aside for yourself to replenish the artistic well—maybe taking a long walk, buying a new record and listening to it, or going to an art gallery. I was better with the morning pages than the artist’s date, but I do see the point of it and am getting better at giving myself the playtime I need to experience rejuvenation and inspiration.
The turning point for me came in a cemetery, of all places—the Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia, to be exact. I’d been past it many times and always wanted to check it out. It seemed pretty from the outside, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. As I got lost in between larger-than-life monuments and under trees turning auburn in late September, I felt like I was in a different world.
The grave of artist Thomas Eakins. Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia.
The famous artist Thomas Eakins is buried there, but I didn’t know this until I showed up. His grave is hard to find, and it took me several attempts, “cheating” with my phone. I was about to give up when I caught myself looking past the angel statue that I was using as a landmark to find his stone, which lays flat along the ground and cannot be seen from more that a few feet away. I stood over his grave, and my body felt electrified. I’ve always enjoyed visiting the graves of inspiring famous people. There’s nothing but skin and bones and dust there, but it’s as close as I’ll ever get to them, and that’s exciting for me.
I left the cemetery feeling like a different person. The first time I attempted this book, I never did an artist’s date. Blew them off. Now I was convinced of their indispensability.
As I made my way through this book, I noticed my mood lifting. I was a little less tired, a little less irritable, a little more healthy in my decisions. Then some quiet but important changes started happening. There was even some of what Cameron calls “synergy,” that is, when good things that you’re hoping for just happen for no apparent reason at all. The full-blown version of Finale, the composition program I really needed, went on sale for 75% off. The song cycle that gathered dust for four years got the revision it needed. I started studying to become a personal trainer again after a long period of burnout. My composing and musique concrete mixing took off, but with a gentler undertone to my approach than the spartan isolation I enforced on myself before. I restarted this blog.
Then I did the unthinkable for anyone of my ilk: I scheduled two mini-vacations. These are not day trips. One is halfway across the country; the other is on the west coast. I have almost never allowed myself such outings.
Maybe all of this is a coincidence, but I doubt it. It seems so illogical and in many ways needlessly circuitous, but it works.
I will admit, however, that I deliberately ignored one piece of Cameron’s advice: fasting from reading. Her point in prescribing this is that many blocked creatives use reading as a distraction. But for me, I use it for ideas and inspiration. I left it aside, and I make no apologies for it. I believe the week I was supposed to avoid reading I was making my way through Pierre Schaeffer’s journals on musique concrete. I made a lot of progress in my work because of that book. That’s a subject for another post some day.
Other exercises Cameron assigns include not only digging up monsters from the past (the teacher that told you not to quit your day job, etc.) or our own limiting beliefs (I’ve never drawn before, how can I start now?), but also doing good things for yourself—activities as simple as enjoying the texture of a favorite fabric, lighting scented candles, or throwing out old, ratty clothes. Caution, though: some of the digging could drudge up some very powerful demons. I think it’s important to learn from these exercises but not indulge the hurt in a counterproductive way. If you need an inoculation against jerks, I recommend the Stoic philosophers.
Cameron has a semi-religious outlook that may be annoying to many, but the book is still profitable if this concept is somehow modified or even shelved, since the focus is on change from the inside out. The type-A reader (of which I am one) may sometimes feel coddled, but patience with the author is the best approach. She’s been teaching this course for years and knows exactly what she’s doing.
This isn’t a book everyone will like but it is a book almost everyone would benefit from. I suspect Cameron would agree, since she repeats several times that everyone is creative and simply needs to learn to tap into that potential. For now, I need to keep it handy on my desk as a continuing guide and reference. I feel ten times better than I did three months ago, but, like I felt when I first talked to my acquaintance about this book, I still have a long way to climb. The difference is that I’m now more likely to enjoy the trip.