Reviewing The Artist’s Way: Weeks 5 & 6

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After the tribulations of week 4, weeks 5 and 6 moves into less difficult though still thought-provoking material as Cameron continues to unpack our negative conditioning when it comes to art. With week 4 being something of a turning point, Cameron digs deeper into her subject, making connections among her themes in a way that brings greater depth to the original material while relating it to topics under review.

Week 5: Recovering a Sense of Possibility

Limits and Possibilities

“What dream are you discounting as impossible given your resources?”

Week 5 investigates how our own thinking (the product of “negative patterning”) interferes with our creative life. In the Limits and Find the River, Cameron aims to change how we view our so-called limitations. She notes that we serve as gatekeepers to our artistic possibilities, because we assume there are limits to what we can accomplish. These beliefs may manifest as dismissing inspiration as overly impractical/ambitious or feelings guilty for the bounty we possess or receive.

Cameron indicates such beliefs may be shaped by scarcity thinking (more commonly called scarcity mindset or mentality). The Artist’s Way doesn’t explore this concept further, but I feel it is worth reviewing given the associated negatives. Scarcity mentality results from an excessive focus on what an individual lacks (typically, time, money or connection), which absorbs too much of their “mental bandwidth” and makes it difficult for them to make good choices (eg, eating healthier, exercise, and, here, delving into artistic interests). In Cameron’s eyes, however scarcity thinking causes blocked artists to view God/the universe as a “capricious parent figure”, effectively making the divine the scapegoat for our artistic underachieving.

Cameron observes that we often reject our dreams by dismissing them as impractical. Listening to our internal creative guide instead can help us finding our path and achieve our artistic visions. (Image by jiao tang from Pixabay.)

Rejecting this notion, she suggests that we listen to our internal creative guide/intuition to find our path instead. Morning pages may be helpful here: Cameron recommends asking questions in the evening and listening for answers while writing on the following morning. However, we first need to believe that we can make progress towards our vision. Such progress occurs by continuing to work through artistic blocks, taking meaningful steps to achieve these goals (“doing the footwork”), and being open to opportunities from diverse sources.

Problematic “Virtue”

“The urge toward respectability and maturity can be stultifying, even fatal.”

Seemingly switching topics abruptly halfway through the chapter, Cameron revisits a theme first mentioned in week 2 (recovering a sense of identity). Week 2 largely focused on how others (fellow blocked creatives, crazymakers[*]) may fuel our self-doubt or otherwise sabotage our creative recovery and lead us into self-destructive behavior.[†] Reexamining this theme from the opposite viewpoint, this section looks at how “obligations” to others block artists creatively. The perhaps understated connection here is that this form of self-sabotage serves to limit to our artistic possibilities when we get caught up in “virtuous production”.

Cameron begins with observing that artists require both time and space alone to create and heal/recharge. After sharing some longish if relatable scenarios, she reveals that many of us prioritize the needs of others, giving up our time and/or money to satisfy their wants at tremendous personal and artistic cost. Dubbing this the virtue trap, Cameron claims we’re afraid to decline requests or prioritize our needs and desires because we enjoy our positive reputation.[‡] Referring back to week 2 reveals some likely reasons (eg, guilt at disappointing loved ones seemed to be spot on for me) as to why artists continue “making nice” instead of “nurturing” a “sense of self”. Also similar to week 2, Cameron’s “telling it as it is” approach here can seem harsh (she equivocates this behavior with embracing a “martyr’s cross”), but her concerns are valid ones. An important takeaway is that we need to consider whether our generous impulses are genuine or are rooted in feeling obliged.

We might appear to be angels to those benefitting from our generosity, but are we actually suffering from the strain of unwanted obligations? (Image by Pexels from Pixabay.)

Cameron doesn’t offer suggestions for negotiating with the people in our lives, although I imagine “the footwork” here may entail require some honesty about our needs, establishing boundaries and counselling for some. However, she recommends that we embrace our creativity, continue to discover who we truly are, and trust in God/the universe. The tasks for this week are designed to assess whether we’re caught in the virtue trap as well as help us suss out our personal desires, something Cameron believes will help remove barriers to investigating these interests. I would also add that embracing an abundance mindset, which dovetails with Cameron’s advice, might be useful as there are instances where real scarcity requires tradeoffs.

Week 6: Recovering a Sense of Abundance

Faith and Finances

Creativity is not and never has been sensible.

Week 6 builds off week 5’s examination of limitations, as it launches into a related (though meandering) conversation on issues surrounding finances. In The Great Creator, Cameron points out a panoply of negative ideas we have about the divine/higher power, money, work, virtue, and art. For example, money can be viewed as the only “true” source of security, the proverbial root of all evil, and a necessity that must be amassed in sufficient quantities before one can safely (if ever) practice art. By these standards, artistic pursuits seem foolish and likely to make our lives unpleasant as though we might be defying either God’s will or acting recklessly. Attributing such beliefs (much like week 5) to toxic ideas about God, Cameron recommends revising one’s concept of the divine in morning pages, an exercise that likely won’t appeal to some nonbelievers.

According to Cameron, our beliefs that we should be sensible (garnered from what others’ think “is sensible for us”) spurs us to be a “cheapskate” to ourselves while blaming the divine because we dismissed our opportunities. From her perspective, there’s little evidence that God/the universe or creativity is particularly sensible. Therefore, we should expect support from our higher power. Art, too, should involve enjoyment and generosity to ourselves in the form of breaks and treats, which in turn will helps us accept gifts from the God/the universe (as first suggested in week 3). Finally, we should pursue our interests as they are what we’re meant to do and doing what we’re intended to do will lead to us opportunities, money, and relationships. Here, Cameron seems to be making the case that abandoning our artistic dreams is the less practical choice.

Luxury

“Art requires us to empower ourselves with choice.”

Completing the week is Cameron’s discussion on luxury, which loosely continues her thoughts on artistic needs from week 5 (The Virtue Trap). Explaining that our ideas about money affect our ideas about creativity, she observes that we might blame our financial limitations when we feel blocked instead of realizing that we’re actually feeling powerless or constrained. Art, she explains, requires expansion and the belief that we have sufficient supply[§] from God/the creative force.

Authentic luxury is more about the joy it brings than its price point. (Image by Aline Ponce from Pixabay.)

To experience this abundance, we should practice self-care (at a minimum) and pamper our inner artist child by indulging in what Cameron labels as authentic luxury. What constitutes self-care or luxury, of course, varies among individuals. But it’s less about lavish spending (as her case of the famous artist illustrates) and more about enjoying things that bring us joy. Cameron’s examples center on small, typically inexpensive luxuries like watercolors sets, fresh fruit, or a flower. Luxury, too, may represent time to relax and recharge or spend time with loved ones.

These examples also illustrate several ways in which we deny ourselves creative joys, such as undervaluing ourselves (one artist tellingly indicated her reasonably priced luxury was “more than I thought I was worth”), perfectionism, or feeling obliged to work when they have a moment to relax (a recipe for burnout, creative or otherwise). As “serious adults”, we’re likely to deliver “wet blanket messages” about how we “should be working” or how we should deny ourselves simple pleasures as they’re unnecessary or “silly”. But, as Cameron indicates, this is the entire point: “serious art is born from serious play”. The chapter closes with an accounting task, which should reveal whether our spending on ourselves matches our priorities.

Some Final Thoughts

“Pray to catch the bus, then run as fast as you can.”

Weeks 5 and 6 cover similar ground[**] in their discussions about our (often unconsciously held) beliefs that interfere with our creative lives. Strikingly though, I found it more helpful to embrace being more openminded about my artistic prospects when Cameron exposed how contradictory and conflicting (not to mention miserable) these so-called sensible beliefs can be than to lean more into spiritual dependence. Perhaps the reason why The Artist’s Way works for people regardless of their stance on spiritual matters relates to its ability to plainly show us what we need to consider (and reconsider) in our lives.

I found Cameron’s firm push towards some personal accountability in weeks 5 and 6 to be particularly vital, as we should be aware that we (not our circumstance or higher powers) get in our own way when we “responsibly” say no to ourselves and yes to obligations and hardship that we resent undertaking. Such accountability also necessitates voicing our needs to the people in our lives, as it’s unlikely that anyone else will say carve out free time for our artistic practice or notice we’re struggling if we say nothing.

Cameron’s more practical suggestions also provide solid advice. For example, she effectively recommends utilizing project management tactics (ie, breaking our artistic projects into manageable chunks) to work around our more immediate difficulties or limitations. With this approach, it seems less reasonable to dismiss a potentially intimidating project, because we genuinely don’t know what might be capable of achieving without giving it a trial. And, frankly, Cameron’s ideas that we should enjoy a creative life (sprinkled with rewards and rest) sounds far more appealing than the alternatives. Given that many of her ideas about adding enjoyment to our lives seem fairly attainable, one might argue that giving them a try would be the sensible thing to do.

The flowers I bought today were by no means necessary, but they do make me happy.

NOTES:


[*] In week 2, Cameron states that our ongoing involvement with crazymakers occurs as an attempt to avoid a creative life (thusly using their abuser to block their creativity, the veracity of which depends on the situation) and claims that such blocked artists may be codependent. Codependency represents an unhealthy relationship dynamic in which one party is a giver and the other a taker, with varying causes. Since Cameron terms this abuse and mentions potentially abusive situations, it’s important to understand that some mental health professionals would not consider an abused individual to be codependent. The concept of codependency has evolved much since this book’s publication, which means Cameron’s discussion and advice may not be current. For those experiencing abuse (US), you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline (https://www.thehotline.org/) for assistance.

[†] This term, first used week 2, likely should have been defined there, as I took it to mean some more obvious forms of self-destruction (eg, self-harm, substance abuse) versus the subtler ones (eg, clinging to relationships with a disinterested partner, maladaptive behaviors like avoidance and procrastination) eluded to here in week 5.

[‡] For anyone interested in nuance here, “positive reputation” applies both to situations where an individual is praised for their (reluctant) deeds and to situations where their actions let them escape criticism because they choose to meet others’/societal expectations. In the latter scenario, praise tends to be in short supply (people assume your generosity constitutes a duty or feel entitled to your assistance) but criticism is quick to follow should you buck conventions.

[§] This term is not specifically explained, but in the context of week 5 it refers to artistic inspiration, friends, lovers, homes, etc.

[**] Understandably, there’s some overlap as week 6 is a more in-depth discussion of a specific limit (finances). In fairness, though, Cameron’s discursive presentation may bear some responsibility, too.

The Artist’s Way: A Review of the First Three Weeks

Cameron doesn’t teach creativity per se, so much as she encourages her readers to allow themselves to be creative.

Towards the end of 2021, a writer friend shared that she planned to work with The Artist’s Way. I’d never heard of Julia Cameron or this book before, so I was curious about it. Since we were discussing how we both wanted to write more going forward, I decided it might be worthwhile to see if this book would help me achieve that end. When in a pandemic and dealing with another surge and some unpleasant life stuff, jumping feet first into a new endeavor sounds fun—especially if it helps your writing life. So, without further ado (that is, reading up on it), I ordered it and planned to get underway in January.

Nothing like leaping before you look, right?

What is The Artist’s Way?

It’s a self-help book based on classes that Julia Cameron teaches on creativity. Meant to be used by any artist (from the hobbyist to the professional), it does not focus on a specific art form, although writing does feature in it (more on that shortly). Cameron doesn’t teach creativity per se, so much as she encourages her readers to allow themselves to be creative. For this reason, the book works on what undermines people from embracing their creativity and provides various techniques to encourage/explore creativity.

People who study certain subjects (psychology, philosophy/religion), attend therapy, or belong to 12-step programs (the course is 12 weeks, which I doubt is coincidental) may recognize some techniques from these disciplines. The benefit here is that these various ideas are specifically aimed at living a more artistic lifestyle. Spirituality is heavily emphasized, as is the belief that all of us are meant to be creative (a central tenet). Overall, this book focuses on helping its readers to live a more artistic life.

The Good: Tools for Growing as an Artist

Morning Pages

The Artist’s Way provides two tools (meant to work together) to use throughout the 12-week course and, ideally, going forward: morning pages and the artist’s date. Morning pages, as the name suggests, should be completed every morning upon awakening.[*] Whether the reader happens to be a pianist or a sculptor, they must sit down and write three sides of paper (that is, 1.5 pages) of text by hand every morning. Generally, no one should look at them—not even their composer initially.

Caffeine is a must for morning pages.

The purpose of these pages is a more difficult to explain. Their job, much like a first draft, is to exist. They don’t have to be about anything specific or planned, just what comes to mind. By getting them done early, it allows you to express yourself less critically, regardless of your mood. They may reveal problematic patterns in your life, provide inspiration, or be an outlet for your complaints, but primarily they help you clear your mind.[†] Cameron describes them alternately as meditation or prayer.

The Artist’s Date

If morning pages are a freewheeling process designed to get your thoughts on the page, the artist’s date is about doing. Much like morning pages, the second tool should not be missed but be performed weekly (around two hours, although a specific time is not required). The artist’s date requires you to go on something like a solo playdate. The idea is to experiment with things that interest you, which don’t have to be especially artistic.

I was well-prepared with some herbal tea and warm outerwear for taking a walk on my first (chilly) artist’s date.

While what you do on the date varies (this depends on the reader’s tastes but there are exercises that provide inspiration), the goal is to help you refill your artistic well (that is, replenishing your source for creativity) by observing and experiencing. Some examples of artist’s date can include taking a walk, cooking a new dish, visiting a museum, etc. Cameron notes that artist’s dates can provide solutions to concerns that come up during morning pages.

Benefits of These Tools

Both tools have the potential to help readers working on their artistic recovery (that is, embracing their creativity). Arguably, we all have artistic blocks that prevent us from creating, whether it’s holding us back in our artistic expression or preventing us from being creative at all. Using these tools can help expose those blocks (morning pages) and work through them by allowing yourself to do fun things (artist’s dates).

Potential Challenges

In the introduction, Cameron announces that she uses the term God throughout (accurately), but the reader can interpret “God” however they choose. She is clear that she does not want or expect people to believe in God if they don’t or aren’t sure about that concept (she suggests the workaround of viewing God as short for “good orderly flow”). I would’ve preferred that she more liberally used generic terms (eg, the universe or even higher power) to be inclusive and more neutral, but the burden is really on the reader to work around the terminology if it makes them uncomfortable. Although she insists her version of God is benevolent, I doubt her assurance erases the reader’s constructs of God, religion, and spirituality that term evokes, for better or worse. Week 3, which involves a more in-depth discussion of God, may prove challenging for some.

Some Minor Difficulties

The Artist’s Way is meant to be used creatively, with readers having a lot of freedom to use Cameron’s suggestions as works best for them. As such, it was not designed to operate as a traditional textbook, but there are areas where I wished there was more guidance present. I ran into a few minor difficulties trying to find information and instructions.

What’s the fuss about paper? Cameron assures there’s “no wrong way to do morning pages”, but some tasks seemed to suggest otherwise.

Cameron states in an early chapter called “The Basic Tools” that there’s “no wrong way to do morning pages” and suggests writing on loose pages and storing them in an envelope or using a spiral notebook .[‡] With the idea that any approach would work, I initially decided to use a comparably sized composition notebook as that works better for me. However, the first two tasks in week 1—when you presumably get underway with these pages—specifically refer to loose paper stored in an envelope. Fearing I misunderstood, I went hunting for the instructions on morning pages, which took some time to find as I forgot that they were in the aforementioned chapter (the index eventually led me back). But better instructions here would have saved me the bother. If the paper choice isn’t set in stone, the associated tasks should reflect that freedom (eg, it could state the notebook cover or envelope could get a star for task 2 of week 1).

Cameron recommends using larger notebooks and paper (left), because she feels they let your thoughts be more expansive—unlike smaller journals (right).

Admittedly, this is a mild quibble, but there are other instances where more detail would be helpful. When you encounter tasks for the first time, there are no instructions provided about how to do them, because this was again discussed previously in the chapter called “Spiritual Electricity: The Basic Principles”. Here, referring to that chapter (as is done elsewhere: tasks 1 and 5 refer in week 2 refers you back to week 1’s affirmations) or just restating the instructions would be useful. With that in mind, the reader might need to be more diligent about taking notes or highlighting specific instructions.

I should also note there are some potential areas of confusion when it comes to some ideas and topics. Morning pages, as discussed above, are hard to describe, because potential use cases and benefits may vary depending on the person and their specific blocks or challenges—which is fair. However, Cameron does occasionally hint at topics that will be discussed in more depth later. Flagging such instances as future topics would be ideal, as I found myself wondering what she meant or whether this was an important practice.[§] Again, it might be best to be patient with the process or just look up items in the index if you want the description immediately.

My Own Journey with Artist’s Way Up to Week 3

Having made the plunge and purchased the book without investigating what it offered, I likely expected something more focused on writing than artistic recovery. I also missed the “spiritual path” part, which normally I would hesitate to buy. As a rule, I avoid discussing various religious or spiritual belief/disbelief systems for various reasons that include weariness with such discussions.

Since I made the commitment to try something new,[**] I decided to continue onward despite my trepidation. As soon as I began reading the prefatory chapters, this book turned up in numerous places online—and another writer friend also started working with it. It seemed like a sign I should give it a chance. As with many self-help books, it’s useful to have a read, learn from what works, and ignore what doesn’t. So far, the morning pages seem helpful when it comes to meeting my goal to write regularly, although I’m not sure I’ve had enough artist’s dates to comment on their effect.

Going forward, I will continue to skip reading ahead as it’s a bit more adventurous this way—plus it allows me fewer opportunities to avoid anything else that’s challenging but negotiable. And, having just completed week 4, this choice already proved to be a good one, as this particular lesson was sufficiently challenging (though negotiable) to merit its own post, which I’ll link to when I finish writing it.

NOTES:


[*] Acquiring caffeine first is permitted and is, in my opinion, mandatory. Under the tasks for week 1, she also suggests getting up half hour earlier to do your morning pages, which I cheerfully ignored as I’m a night owl.

[†] For writers, there is the additional benefit of establishing a daily writing practice, which potentially could extend into establishing a more regular creative writing practice. This is one reason I’m interested in continuing onward with this course.

[‡] Her website offers clearer, perhaps more prescriptive suggestions about morning pages that you can find here and here. For the artist’s date, some more information can be found here.

[§] The most intriguing instance of this (thus far) involves a task in week 4, which asks you to create an altar. Here, it states the altar reminds us creativity is a spiritual versus ego issue. Using an altar and its purpose were not mentioned let alone discussed in any detail previously, which made this task seem out of place. However, the index suggests this conversation will occur in about 100 more pages, so I assume their relevance will become clearer then.

[**] Yes, I’m familiar with the sunk cost fallacy, but I think a trial in such cases can be worthwhile before you decide whether it’s prudent to cut your losses.