Anyone who knows me well can tell you that I am the queen of excuses. The directions were bad. I lost your number. I had pneumonia. The cornea of my eyeball filled with fluid and puffed out like a glob of pepper jelly. These are all excuses that I can give, and have given, for not finishing.
What Julia Cameron helps creatives do in The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, is shine light on the murky Pond of Reasoning. Excuses may be absolutely true, and absolutely unfortunate, but they’re either helping us toward our goals or holding us back from them, and in most cases, it’s the latter.
The Artist’s Way is meant to be a year-long course for “recovering creatives”. Cameron believes that many people are inherently creative but have no outlet, and that sadly our society beats the propensity out of us.
I am a trained actor with an MFA in Performance Arts. However, when I began my degree, I had to retrain myself to fully experience emotions like grief, terror, and hilarity, because I had unconsciously trained myself not to let those feelings show on my face. Right? People look at you funny if you allow an emotion to overtake you in public. But actors need to have access to this skill. Cameron’s charge is that if creating is important to us, it’s our responsibility to re-learn it.
Reading The Artist’s Way felt like going through therapy. It felt like learning to do Hatha Yoga after having lived for eight years without once lifting my arms over my head. It suddenly became clear that pumping one’s body full of sugar, caffeine and alcohol, depriving oneself of sleep, and engaging in hurtful self-talk is detrimental to one’s creative life. I had a set of exercises to do each day. And there was healing there for me too. Some artists believe that spending time creating is selfish, or that it communicates an unhealthy engorged ego. This is rubbish – an utter lie!
Julia begins the book with an honest and incriminating look at her former self. She writes, “In 1978, in January, I stopped drinking. I had never thought drinking made me a writer, but now I had suddenly thought not drinking might make me stop. In my mind, drinking and writing went together like, well, scotch and soda.” She doesn’t deny that it worked for her; “Creative, yes, but in spurts, like blood from a severed carotid artery.” Cameron knew her habit would eventually undo her and put an end to her creativity as well. So she stopped.
Addiction is something very heavily addressed in The Artist’s Way. So is abuse. Judgement. Guilt. Inspiration. Jealousy. Spirituality. These are things I wouldn’t usually talk about with a fellow artist. They’re private things, scary things. Reading Cameron is like sitting down with an intensely qualified mentor who is immune to your every attempt to embarrass yourself. She’s wholly safe.
One of the first things the course asks of the student is to commit to writing “morning pages”. Cameron says; “…the morning pages are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness…” They are not supposed to sound smart, and you are not to share them with anyone, not even yourself. Julia writes, “All that angry, whiny, petty stuff that you write down in the morning stands between you and your creativity.” Her theory is that we all need to be relieved of daily stressors before we can recover and work cleanly. This was revolutionary for me; if I wrote about the drudgery of picking up the dry cleaning or the embarrassment of a bounced check in my morning pages, it was out of my system for the day and didn’t tend to bleed into my work unless I wanted it to.
A dear friend who once suspected I had a lot to say gifted this book to me. Only now am I realizing just how precious a gift it truly was. If there’s anything I need as a writer, it’s grace, and The Artist’s Way keeps on forgiving, suggesting, granting permission, and inspiring.
And, by the way, The Artist’s Way makes an appearance in Jennifer Kent’s film The Babadook. The lead character Amelia reads it one night as she attempts vainly to fall asleep – but that’s another story.