Reviewing The Artist’s Way: Weeks 7 and 8

After examining some major creative blocks over several weeks, week 7 shifts the discourse by looking into the kind of mindset we should embrace for creativity. With these insights in mind, Cameron returns to dissecting creative blocks associated with time in week 8. Much like week 4, week 8 represents a turning point as we begin to look at healing our artistic wounds.

Week 7: Recovering a Sense of Connection

Listening

Providing a welcome respite from reconsidering our negative conditioning, week 7 focuses on practicing what Cameron defines as the right attitudes for creativity, beginning with listening. Cameron reminds us that we’re strengthening our listening skills with morning pages and the artist’s date, which respectively helps us hear past our inner censor and tap into inspiration. Describing inspiration as “getting something down” instead of “doing”, she asserts that another party (God, the universe) accomplishes the “doing”. Connecting inspiration to listening, Cameron states that artists are actually listening when we are “getting something down”. When artists are “in the zone”, they are listening for the next artistic step.

How do think you receive your inspiration? I rather like the idea of tuning in with an old-fashioned A.M. radio. (Image by Lubos Houska from Pixabay.)

Cameron likens such listening to delving below “the surface of our normal consciousness”[*] or dialing into a “stream of inspiration” like a radio. Artists use these ideas but, as Cameron emphasizes, it’s more like “taking dictation than anything fancy having to do with art”[†] as artists are “more conduit than the creator of what we express”. Cameron supports this concept by quoting several expressions (“the brush takes the next stroke”) and artists (eg, Michelangelo) who share her view that guiding force(s) assist us with creating art. Whether this interpretation suits you or not, Cameron’s clearly intends to alleviate any stress we might be feeling about finding our inspiration. For her, it’s important that we’re in the moment listening as we create, knowing that universe will help us.

Embracing the Imperfect

Perfectionism is not a quest for the best.

Perfectionism, as Cameron quickly makes plain, is a wrong approach to art, one that diverts artists from “getting it down” to “getting it right”. In doing so, perfectionism slows a project’s momentum and dampens the joy of creating. It also sets unrealistic expectations for both early drafts (which should be unpolished) and finished pieces (as perfect is impossible). Trapped in a perfectionist cycle, an artist might never reach the project’s close. Cameron’s tough love attitude makes an appearance here, as she castigates perfectionists for claiming humility instead of the egotism that she believes inspires them. This comment should be taken with a grain of salt: fear, not pride, seems to drive unhealthy perfectionism, and perfectionism itself may be associated with mental health disorders.

Taking Risks

We deny in order to do something well we must first be willing to do it badly.

Taking risks may seem like a gamble, but they have a potential to payoff, particularly in our artistic lives. (Image by Joachim Kirchner from Pixabay.)

Artistic recovery requires us transform our wish to be creative into being creative, something that involves risk. As Cameron observes, we excel at avoiding risk. Lingering at past triumphs, we claim we can’t try new things given our limitations. But, as she tartly retorts, we’re really unwilling to try without being assured that our efforts will be perfect. If we want to become proficient at our craft or expand our artistic range, we must accept that our initial undertakings will be imperfect. Cameron, therefore, recommends we drop this unrealistic expectation. Furthermore, she endorses taking risks for their own sake, because they let us redefine our limits and make it easier to continue taking more risks that may work out. Cameron provides a brief exercise here to encourage us to think about what we might attempt if we were unworried about being “good” at them.

Jealousy: An Indicator of Artistic Desire

Much like anger in week 3, jealous is not a “right attitude” for creativity but an emotion that covers other feelings. Unmasked, however, jealousy offers powerful insights into what we desire as artists—knowledge that we can utilize to live more creatively. As Cameron explains, jealousy hides our fear and resulting frustration when we watch other artists doing or being admired for things that haven’t yet mustered the courage to do. As a “stingy” emotion, it falsely persuades us that only an artist can be the “best” when there’s space for everyone. It similarly blinds us to our alternatives, namely that we can escape this cycle by acting on our desires. Cameron provides two exercises to help us conquer our jealousy by taking “antidote” actions (The Jealousy Map) or find ways to soothe and encourage our inner artist child (Archaeology).

Cameron calls jealousy a “tough-love friend”. While it may provoke some thornier feelings, it also reveals our artistic desires. (Image by Lenka Marková from Pixabay.)

Week 8: Recovering a Sense of Strength

Most would agree that time is a major creative block. Cameron has at least indirectly dealt with issues of time management when she urged us to explore how we occupy ourselves.[‡] In this week, she intends to address other time-related issues as they also serve as creative blocks. Relating heavily to some “wrong attitudes” and unrealistic expectations that week 7 illustrated (notably, perfectionism), this week seeks to unpack these attitudes as we concurrently move past artistic wounds.

Artistic Wounds and Survival

Cameron investigates artistic losses from the perspective of survival. In an artist’s career, both personal as well as artistic setbacks will occur. Cameron points out the danger of turning such moments into “secret losses” that, left unprocessed, could become artistic blocks. Before we attempt to convert these “losses into gains” (see below), they need recognition and time to be mourned. By respecting our losses, we protect our future as artists.

Mourning our losses is an important first step to surviving artistic losses and preventing them from becoming artistic blocks. (Image by Richard Mcall from Pixabay.)

Meditating further on artist’s wounds, Cameron reiterates that bad criticism (weeks 3 and 2) is among the worst wounds because such critiques imply the work or artist somehow is faulty without evidence. She also briefly discusses self-inflicted wounds. Such wounds, caused when artists refuse artistic opportunities, typically become sources of regret. Promising to further review this topic in week 9, Cameron recommends that we, for now, mourn these losses.

Malevolent Mentors

Alongside bad criticism, Cameron also condemns those who carelessly wield their critical powers. She strongly believes that mentors act as authority/ parental figures to young artists who place their trust in these guides’ judgement, with significant harm done when these teachers fail to fulfill their duty.[§] Lacking resilience, support or the experience to seek other mentors and/or opinions, some surrender their artistic aspirations altogether while others become shadow artists (week 1).

Universities, however venerable, can host their share of misguided mentors. (Image by Bonnie Taylor, EdD from Pixabay.)

Cameron, having detailed how such poor mentoring occurs in childhood, takes pains to provide examples of how unwary young artists may encounter harmful mentors in the university setting and beyond (The Ivory Power). Sandwiched between her illustrative examples, however, are her sweeping generalizations about academia and intellectualism that lean into overstatement.[**] Her larger point—that academics should nurture young artists at their level—however, is indisputable.

Gain Disguised as Loss

The key here is action.

Artistic losses, however, are more than wounds from which we need to heal. They are also lessons. Cameron assures us that we can use such losses to guide us when deciding how we should proceed after a loss. Asking how losses help us and our craft can reveal new directions and approaches that we might have otherwise neglected. Drawing from her own experiences, she emphasizes the importance of eschewing self-pity (“Why me?”) that leads to artistic blocks or setbacks in favor of determining the next move. Searching for alternatives is a sure path to developing a diverse artistic career.

Age, Time, and the Creative Process

I’m “too old” is an evasive tactic. It is always used to avoid facing fear.

As blocked artist, we often believe there’s a “right” age to be creative—one must be either young and crazy or old and eccentric enough to take up art. Citing “crazy” as the precondition for creative excursions reveals the truth. Age is less problematic than our egos, as we dislike revealing our inexperience or fear looking foolish. This same fear also causes us to question the time we invest in learning new skills or spend working on art.

Cameron indicates that our worries about how much time creativity takes represents an “ego-saving…trick” to prevent us from taking artistic journeys. (Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay.)

Time is a touchy subject because we want results that justify our efforts. Focused on product, we might bypass the pleasures of exploring artistic sidelines or new skills, which misses the point of creating. Creativity, Cameron explains, is about “doing” not being “done”. There is always more to learn about practicing our craft. Even when we complete projects, they will suggest further avenues to study. Viewed properly, the artistic process is a continuous one of creating and learning.

Filling out the Form

Large changes occur in tiny increments.

Cameron’s emphasis on centering the creative process includes some practical advice on getting started. Aware that recovering artists often rush towards their goals or impulsively yield to subconscious beliefs that their lives must significantly alter before they embrace their creativity, Cameron advocates that we take some baby steps. By now, Cameron exhortations to pace ourselves as we work through creative blocks/limitations should be familiar. Here, she details her reasons for taking one’s time.

Filling out the form serves as a great metaphor for how we can (line by line) accomplish something for our creativity every day. (Image by Esa Riutta from Pixabay.)

Filling the form is shorthand for breaking our loftier goals (however ambitious they may be) into small, daily tasks. In addition to being a means to manage projects, performing incremental “next available steps” affords us immediate success that sustains our progress. In contrast, “big picture” thinking fuels our anxiety about achieving results, leading to procrastination and discontent with our constraints. Similarly, dramatic lifestyle changes and their attendant difficulties distract us from creative work. By filling the form, we employ our current resources and move forward steadily. Cameron closes the chapter with an activity that again scrutinizes (Early Patternings) how earlier conditioning may continue to block us.

Some Closing Thoughts

Given the motivational nature of weeks 7 and 8, it’s unsurprising to see familiar themes emerge. Perceived through Cameron’s unique lens, some fresh perspectives and original ideas pop up, which make repeating the advice bearable however discursive her material may be.

Notably, Cameron’s right attitudes weave these familiar elements into the means for reframing our thinking about creativity that’s often actionable.[††] Helpfully, these ideas also build on each other. For example, perfectionism—the section that contains the most conventional thinking—becomes a thread that runs through week 7 into week 8 as she identifies how it interferes with inspiration’s flow to how adopting anti-perfectionism grants us the humility to be a beginner at any age. Ideally, I would have been preferred reading the perfectionism section couched in more positive terms, as we’re advised on what to avoid in lieu of what we should do (my headers in week 7 indicates how that might look). Particularly praiseworthy, though, is how she turns jealousy, a hateful little emotion, into a tool that detects our unrealized artistic dreams, one that points out the risks we need to take.

I enjoyed making some imperfect pottery during one of my artist’s dates.

Week 8’s return to deconstructing our negative conditioning is a bit drearier, as it pokes at our artistic wounds (to heal them!) and revisits how we earned a few of those wounds. Least successful is the section on academia, which could’ve been more concise and far more nuanced. This week shines, though, when Cameron shares how to both mourn and learn from our artistic wounds. Filling in the form, as part of her discussion on embracing the artistic process, illuminates a concrete plan for moving on past losses that help us reach larger creative breakthroughs. While I still have quibbles with some of Cameron’s ideas (see the footnotes), these weeks provide the solid reasoning that should persuade us to question why we aren’t creating.

Are you working on improving your creativity with The Artist’s Way? How far have you gotten? If not, would you try it? I’d love to hear why or why not.

NOTES


[*]Potentially, the collective unconsciousness or an individual’s subconscious (as Jackson Pollock, an artist referenced in week 7, claimed about his work).

[†]I dislike how this comparison diminishes the artist’s role to that of an amanuensis, given the skillsets artists cultivate.

[‡]Cameron cites multiple ways in which we squander time (week 2’s crazymakers, week 4’s media deprivation and week 5’s obligations) that could be otherwise used to create art.

[§]I appreciate Cameron’s desire to highlight both the betrayal and insidious emotional abuse wreaked by these teachers, but I wish she hadn’t linked this to sexual abuses (particularly incest) given the other abuses they bring to mind.

[**]Universities aren’t for everyone, as both brilliant self-taught artists and other instructional venues for artists exist. However, I’m not persuaded that universities are ill-equipped to support artists so much as they, too, possess some bad apples on staff.

[††]Bonus points for shoeing in how indispensable her own tools, morning pages and the artist’s date, are to creativity.

Reviewing The Artist’s Way: Weeks 5 & 6

Ready f

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 through our blocks or 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.

Reviewing The Artist’s Way: A Challenging Week 4

Recently, I posted a review on my first three weeks working on The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, a self-help book aimed at teaching its readers to embrace their creativity. Week 4, which I’m discussing here, proved to be challenging enough that I felt it needed its own post. Because it contains an exercise that many find difficult (something Cameron also acknowledges), I want to emphasize that there’s always something valuable to learn in such cases—but patience and perseverance are attributes you might want on hand as well.

Allow me to explain.

Getting to Know Me

The snowflake pattern of your soul is emerging.

Julia Cameron

Week 4 focuses on reflection, specifically considering how previous lessons help us become our more authentic selves. While it runs a tad long, this discussion notes how these changes may manifest and affect us before reminding us to use our affirmations to deal with these feelings as we work through our various artistic blocks. The two main exercises focus on learning more about that authentic self and its preferences. “Buried Dreams” explores past interests to provide some activities to try during the second exercise. While the connection between tasks was clear, restating how they relate to the chapter’s theme would be a useful addition.

The second and more challenging exercise is called reading deprivation (now renamed media deprivation). For one week, participants must not read, watch television, or go online—similar to digital or social media detoxes. In The Artist’s Way, Cameron argues that reading and other media distract artists from self-examination. Removing such distractions let us (1) get in touch with our feelings and thoughts (introspection); (2) connect with our inner voice (inspiration); and (3) refill the artist’s well by experiencing the sensory world. With our time freed up, Cameron first predicts we’ll become productive but eventually will shift to playing once we run of busywork. Play is important, because it lets creative grow (eg, the artist’s date). With this tool improving our understanding of ourselves, our creativity should increase as blocks dissipate.

According to Cameron, too much media negatively impacts an artist’s creativity. (Image [designed using Canva), by R. E. Gould)

Understanding the Challenges

Problems with Persuasion

This lesson unfortunately includes some elements I found counterproductive to getting onboard with media deprivation. As observed in my previous review, Cameron occasionally hints at a topic before she talks about it. Week 4’s introductory page contains one of these spoilers, as it urges readers to use the “reading deprivation” tool. Inserting this brief admonition before the lesson, detrimentally shifted my focus onto this alarming development. If preparing readers for this concept is a must, it’d be better to mention that we’ll later encounter a tool that assesses media’s impact on creativity where reading blocks are first mentioned in conjunction with filling the artist’s well (“Basic Tools,” p. 23 in the 2020 edition).

But the commentary itself also creates some barriers to reader buy-in. It’s difficult to summon enthusiasm for using this tool when the essay first characterizes words—my artistic medium—as a cross between tranquilizers and junk food. Some claims made here also seemed questionable (eg, that artists are “addicted” to reading[*]). Beyond the rhetoric lies the real problem: people eschew the hard work of examining their feelings and thoughts, using media as a shield. Starting with this point and connecting it to reflecting on our authentic selves could avoid creating more resistance to an already challenging exercise.

Creative Concerns

Turning to those challenges, there’s the matter of motivation. Usually, people who limit their media consumption (as I generally do) voluntarily do so, placing Cameron in the unenviable position of warding off her students’ displeasure[†] while encouraging them to undertake an unwanted challenge. Others understandably worry about how they’ll manage their obligations with such restrictions. These are the prime reasons some find this assignment frustrating. I also identified some other potential obstacles. The introspective among us might not need more time for self-scrutiny. Others who find media inspiring may find it puzzling/upsetting to be deprived of that inspiration. With these latter points, clearly stated goals[‡] might diffuse some resistance here, as these persons could focus instead on other goals such as exploring alternate sources of inspiration.

Getting Some (Online) Guidance

Cameron does respond to the more obvious concerns involving reading deprivation in The Artist’s Way but provides minimal instruction. Being told to procrastinate when it came to work or school struck me as unhelpful, as that’s not always possible. Because I previously found an online resource for this book, I consulted it and discovered that Cameron had been calling this tool media deprivation since at least 2012, which made me wonder why my book from 2020 didn’t reflect this. Regardless, Cameron’s website does advise her students to limit their inflow of media as much as possible without being irresponsible or getting fired. Her online description of media deprivation as a form of “conscious unplugging” also appealed to me more, convincing me that checking my media consumption couldn’t hurt.

It is a paradox that by emptying our lives of distractions we are actually filling the [artist’s] well.

Julia Cameron

Mixed Results

Less Internet, More Doing

With my plans in place and the household informed, I grumpily undertook the requisite week of media deprivation. I quickly discovered my mobile phone was a problem. For a device I spend half my life trying to find when I need it, it felt uncomfortably handy when I didn’t want it. While I couldn’t switch it off,[§] I could relocate it to a nearby room (something I plan to continue doing). With my phone out of reach and apps keeping me focused, my time on my computer was more productive. I also zipped through my to-do list efficiently and finished some projects lingering in my backlog.

Bookless and Bored

Not all my results were rosy. For example, I felt left out when my spouse and child watched television while I tidied up again (apparently, that supply IS inexhaustible). While I hardly missed games and television, losing some family time due to an undesired obligation was difficult. I also missed my reading time. Putting aside a great book (Lulu Allison’s The Salt Lick) was tough but receiving THREE more books in the mail that I also wanted to read (including Sarah Tinsley’s just released debut novel, The Shadows We Cast) felt unfair. The occasional boredom here wasn’t great, nor was having the time to dwell on it helpful. But I have to say, heading to bed instead of fuming was a good solution.

An Unexpected Twist

Ultimately, the promised boost in creativity never occurred, because my grudging efforts ended with deprivation. I could not summon any enthusiasm for hobbies, new or old. Afterwards, I struggled with understanding why I’d been so angry, given that I’ve chosen on numerous occasions to put aside books and other media for weeks with far less difficulty. The Artist’s Way, as it may surprise you, did help here.

In week 3, Cameron explains that we should pay attention to our anger, because it tells us something. My subsequent interrogation here was illuminating. I realized that this assignment unwittingly resurfaced memories of being too exhausted to read while caring for my then newborn, which was a painful instance where I briefly lost “me” in motherhood. This contributed to my resistance, as lacking sufficient reason to set aside books kept me unmotivated. Exploring the source of this reaction or looking for some way to make this exercise meaningful to me might have produced different results. Putting in a more since effort with the other activities, too, may have helped.

Conclusion

One of bigger takeaways of this week is that The Artist’s Way might benefit from an update that modernizes it in general and specifically brings it in line with Cameron’s current thinking. I found the more recent descriptions of media deprivation more appealing as they avoided hyperbole and provide more guidance. As for me, media deprivation proved to be more of trade off than a trade up, but I still learned things about myself (eg, buy-in is critical for me). Knowing what I do now, I’m seriously considering giving this another try, as I’d like to see whether I finally reap those rewards.

TLDR: Trying new things is hard, especially with a bad attitude. Staying positive and finding purpose in doing things differently might help.

Further Reading

For a more positive take on media deprivation, read Ben Kassoy’s article here. While I disagree that Cameron’s goal involves understanding our media consumption (it’s always bolstering creativity), he makes some great points on why media deprivation/detoxes aids mental health and makes us more mindful about our time online.

NOTES:


[*] I suspect that Cameron means reading blocks instead of a reading-based behavioral addiction, which apparently is a compulsion to read that negatively impacts on one’s life and mental health.

[†] Understandably, no one enjoys bad news (or tough love, as the case may be here), but some of what Cameron endures seems uncalled for.

[‡] The Artist’s Way might’ve benefited here by using tactics seen in traditional textbooks (eg, enumerating goals with bullet points, objective statements) so that main points are easy to locate and understand.

[§] It’s a must for someone with a school-aged child who seems to be an injury magnet this year.

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.

Uplifting Reading for the Quarantine: the Inspiration in Michelle Obama’s Becoming

“For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others.”

When I began writing this post about the books I read over the last few months, I focused on a few I wanted to highlight for Black History[*] and Women’s History Months. What I wrote, however, seemed to strike the wrong note as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. I still will assert that it’s always a great time to read more books written by black and/or women writers, but I’m going to put the cheekier tone on hold. For now. Instead, I’m focusing on reviewing a book that I feel provides inspiration for these troubling times: Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming.

At the end of Becoming, Michelle challenges us to reconsider how we look at our circumstances. Within a week, the area where I live in Pennsylvania went from practicing social distancing to receiving stay-at-home orders.[†] Right now, it’s easy to view these restrictions as confining, but it’s also easy to reframe this effort as doing our part in limiting this disease’s spread. We might not be able to control our circumstances, but we can choose how we consider such situations. Michelle Obama’s story has many lessons, but the power of shaping your own narrative is an important one.

(TLDR: For those of you needing a quarantine read that keeps your hope afloat, check out my review of Becoming and see if it appeals to you. Stay safe, everyone.)


Becoming

Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, gives its readers an insider’s view of the First Lady’s life up to and through Barack Obama’s historic presidency. Both touching and humorous, she shares her unique perspective on career, politics, and family. Michelle’s achievements, as is often the case for first African Americans to hold a position,[‡] differ from her First Lady predecessors in many respects. But her blue-collar upbringing on Chicago’s southside (an area known for “white flight”) shaped her life profoundly, sparking both her ambition and willingness to help others. She recognizes that for her to achieve success as a student, corporate lawyer, nonprofit organizer, First Lady, mother, and wife, others first had to invest in her success. Poignantly, Michelle reflects on how various relatives abandoned their dreams to survive and how her parents sacrificed their own aspirations (eg, home ownership) to help their secure their children’s future. Both Michelle and her brother, Craig Robinson, would go onto attend Ivy League schools and embark on professional careers.

Career, Love, and Politics

During Michelle’s early career as a corporate lawyer, she met Barack Obama. This section of the book, often laced with fond spousal exasperation, shines as these opposites fall in love, find a balance that works for them, and support each other through familial losses, infertility, family life, and what now seems to be Barack’s inevitable political ascent. Aware that Barack’s ambitions could eclipse her own, Michelle credits him for helping her “swerve” from the more sensible if unfulfilling law practice into nonprofit work despite the pay cut and their student loans.

As their lives became fuller with the arrival of their daughters and Barack’s burgeoning political career, the book shifts into the more familiar history of that ascent. Michelle, wary of politics and the scrutiny it would bring their young family, was reluctant to become a politician’s wife. Despite her concerns she supported Barack’s decision to run for various political offices and, ultimately, his presidential candidacy because she believed “he was exactly the kind of smart, decent president I would chose for this country”.

White House Days

When it comes to her years in the White House, Michelle focuses on the development of her outreach programs (eg, the Let’s Move) as First Lady. She discusses the pain and discomfort associated negative and often racist publicity targeted at herself and her family as well as how she learned to put it aside. In addition to revealing her behind-the-scenes planning and her reactions to notable events as they unfolded, she also shares what it’s like living in the White House. As the presidency approaches its end, fun tidbits abound (including her early preview of a musical that would one day become Hamilton). But there’s also a strong sense, however, that those final days were a blur between campaigning for Hillary Clinton and preparing for the Trump presidency. Arguably, Becoming might be part of the process of unpacking these moments.

Final Reflections

Like many memoirs, Michelle Obama’s closes with her reflecting on what she has learned thus far. Looking back on her childhood, she realized it could be characterized however she wished, either by focusing on the negatives and positives. Perhaps for this reason she wants to both share her story and listen to those of others. As she best stated it, “For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others. And here is what I have to say, finally: Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us.” She concludes this account at the point of her new beginning, a new chapter where she will continue becoming herself.

NOTES:


[*] In the United States.

[†] Meaning I must stay home unless I qualify as an essential worker (eg, healthcare, grocery, government, etc.) or I need to be out (eg, grocery shopping, need medical attention).

[‡] Several reviews refer to her “improbable” ascent to First Lady, given that she grew up in blue-collar, African American community. However, her family as, Barack Obama observed, was more like a black version of Leave It to Beaver.

The 2018 Reading Review

This year’s review features books I didn’t choose but read anyway, procrastination, and, as always, the new year’s reading list.

At this time of year, I normally like to compile a list of notable books that I’ve read over the past year as well as create a reading list for the year ahead. However, there’s been a change in plans this year, because I have already shared my shortlist of notable books from 2018 elsewhere. As you may know, I belong to the Women Writers Network, which is a volunteer group running a Twitter account that focuses on supporting and promoting women writers. Helen Taylor (one of the founder members and author of The Backstreets of Purgatory[1]) compiled our favorite reads of 2018. Since my top six books of 2018 appear on this list (you can find the list at Helen’s web site), I thought I’d focus on some very different reading highlights from the past year before presenting my to-be-read list, which I eternally hope to complete by the year’s end regardless of how faithless I was to the previous year’s list.[2] But I digress. Let’s get back to last year’s reading adventures.

The Alternative Reading Highlights of 2018

Procrastination Stopper

The 2018 Reading Review by Rita E. Gould. Photos taken of book covers by Rita E. Gould

Over the past few years, I’ve participated in both reading and book photo challenges (you can view my entries to the Reading Women Month book photo challenge and Bookriot’s #Riotgrams here). Although I’ve never per se “won” a challenge by completing all the categories, it’s fun to see what fellow book lovers share.[3] Generally, the highlight of my reading challenges is that they inspire me to stretch outside my reading comfort zone or discover more diverse perspectives.[4] However, this year’s Reading Women Challenge inspired me to stop procrastinating and finish the book that’s lingered the longest on my reading list. I’m pleased to announce I finally read Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller. Despite it being a more challenging read, this fascinating early feminist tract makes a strong religious argument for woman’s self-sufficiency and expanded rights. Partly inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Fuller’s work in turn spurred suffragists in the United States to demand the vote.

Most Unlikely to Be Read

The 2018 Reading Review. Text by Rita E. Gould. Photos taken of book covers by Rita E. Gould.

Book challenges influence my reading greatly, as do Twitter chat suggestions and personal recommendation. One of the more whimsical books I read this year is one I wouldn’t have chosen for myself, even had any of these sources suggested it.[5] Though a difficult to categorize book, Hannah Hart’s My Drunk Kitchen: a Guide to Eating, Drinking and Going with Your Gut proved to an enjoyable read. Part sentimental, part hilarious, part memoir, and part cookbook, it left me bemused but feeling upbeat. While I’m not sure I’d attempt some of the recipes, I’d definitely read it again.

Most Unexpected Source of Reading Recommendations

The 2018 Book Review. Text by Rita E. Gould. Photos of book covers taken by Rita E. Gould.

Speaking of books I wouldn’t have selected without an outside influence, I curiously have Netflix to thank for my discovering the Phryne Fisher mystery novels by Kerry Greenwood. Halfway through the first episode, I already suspected it was based on a book (Cocaine Blues), and the credits proved me right. My thoughtful spouse picked up the first three books for me, which I then read in short order. Reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s work (roughly the same period, different country, very different detective), these flapper detective novels were a great change from stuffy male detectives. Since the television series diverged a fair bit in places from their source material, I’m glad I saw it before I read it—I happen to be one of those people who usually takes a strong dislike to films/television shows when I read the book first. Either way, I intend to check out the credits in the future, in case they point me to a good book or two.

Hopefully, you’ve found some reading inspiration here, regardless of the source. Here’s to the new year and happy reading!


2019’s Reading List
That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Black Faces, White Spaces by Carolyn Finney
Barracoon: the Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston
A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecroft
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)
Claudine at School In: Colette: The Complete Claudine by Colette (Translated by Antonia White)
Migratory Animals by Mary Helen Specht
Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett
Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie
Hawkes
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto (Translated by David Brookshaw)
Waymaking: an Anthology of Women’s Adventure Writing, Poetry and Art
(Edited by Helen Mort, Claire Carter, Heather Dawe, and Camilla Barnard)

NOTES


  1. [1] My review of The Backstreets of Purgatory is here now available here! (Updated: 10 March 2019.)

    [2] Remarkably, I only missed four, one of which was a planned re-read. For the curious, these books are Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto (Translated by David Brookshaw), Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock, and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Little Women was my re-read, because I wanted to see if I still enjoyed it as an adult.

    [3] In itself, a great way to get reading recommendations.

    [4] These reading challenges include the Black History Month Reading Challenge (two books), Women in Translation Month (2 books during that month, 3 more later), and roughly half (around 13) of the Reading Women Challenge. I’m still working on making my reading more diverse.

    [5] This book was a gift from my oldest brother who chose it because it reminded him of my food-based coffee table books (ie, The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan: Classic Diet Recipe Cards from the 1970s by Wendy McClure and The Gallery of Regrettable Food by James Lileks). Thanks, Jon!

Elusiveness of Existence: The Hour of the Star

“But Macabéa in general didn’t worry about her own future: having a future was a luxury.”

Although Clarice Lispector’s final novel, The Hour of the Star (translated by Benjamin Moser), is a slim volume, no less than the creation of the cosmos serves as its opening. Author Rodrigo S. M. (the book’s narrator), unable to decide where he should begin recounting the tragic tale of his young character, Macabéa, chooses prehistory. It’s all the more a remarkable place to start, given that the narrator emphasizes how insignifcant Macabéa is: she could be readily replaced by any other girl like her. But in Lispector’s contemplative work, this signals the novel’s philosophical concerns with poverty, identity, and existence itself. Because if Macabéa is practically interchangeable with countless other poor, northeastern girls of Brazil, she also symbolizes them and becomes something akin to an archetype whose ancient roots are difficult to pinpoint. Rodrigo seems to ask: Have girls like her existed since life has?

“Make no mistake, I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort.”

From this perspective, it’s little wonder that Rodrigo suffers as he writes about Macabéa’s humble life. Lispector’s dichotomous characters illustrate both the difficulty in truly understanding another’s existence and with communication.1 In many ways her opposite (well-educated, clearly older, and affluent), the narrator anxiously strives to pare down his linguistic excesses, because they don’t suit Macabéa’s circumstances. Yet, Rodrigo often fails to retain this simplicity as he expounds on his writing process or as he struggles to explain Macabéa’s “delicate and vague existence”. His attempt to bring himself closer to the virginal Macabéa’s level—by swearing off sex and sports—is undermined as he dines on fruit and sips on chilled wine, luxuries unavailable to her. Here, Lispector entertains the possibilities of empathy while delineating its boundaries. Though pained by his efforts to relate Macabéa’s tale, Rodrigo acknowledges that he writes because he “has questions and no answers”. Macabéa, in contrast, questions nothing and is happy simply because she believes, though not in any specific deity, person, or thing. Rodgrigo’s attempts to define this young woman and her elusive grace seems only to cause him to question himself instead (“Am I a monster?”).2

“But Macabéa in general didn’t worry about her own future: having a future was a luxury.”

As the unlovely Macabéa’s tale finally takes shape, her existence proves to be as undernourished as her body is: orphaned as a child and suffering from rickets, raised by an indifferent aunt, and transplanted from her rural town to Rio de Janeiro, where her life (once her aunt dies) is a lonely one. This young lady’s life is also circumscribed by its material lack. Possessing only three years of education, listening to the radio is a source of unexpected beauty (when she first hears opera) and confusion (when radio hosts discuss unfamilar words/concepts such as “culture”). Lispector’s point that she resembles thousands of girls like her, underscored by Rodrigo’s ineffective guilt that he should do something for this fictional girl, makes a grim point about the haves and have nots.3 Unfortunately for Macabéa, no forthcoming rescue or deeper connection forged with another occurs. Although she briefly attracts the attentions of Olímpico (another northeasterner), he leaves her for her more attractive coworker, Glória. Glória’s guilt prompts her to help Macabéa in some way, but this assistance unintentionally imperils Macabéa. Without revealing too many details, Macabea’s life explodes into that of a “thousand-pointed star” as she departs it, leaving behind Rodrigo—an author powerless to save her—attempting to divert himself from thinking about his own eventual demise.

Summary

The Hour of the Star recalls a certain adage about judging books by their appearance. As someone new to Lispector’s work,4 I wasn’t sure what to expect from such a slim book (under 80 pages), but I was pleasantly surprised to discover this serious meditation on life, death, poverty, writing, etc., complicating a seemingly simple story. The Hour of the Star is a must for a thinking readers, as it gives its audience much to mull over long after its cover is closed.

NOTES:


  1. In Macabéa’s case, she often is misunderstood or unheard even when speaking quite clearly (eg, “As for the future.”). Also of interest, Rodrigo reveals here that he lived in the northeast as a boy. 
  2. Lispector can be somewhat playful in considering identity. Rodrigo, in observing that no one would miss a poor girl like Macabéa, realizes he, too, could be replaced—but only by a man, since a woman “would make it all weepy and maudlin”. Certainly, it’s an amusing idea in an unsentimental novel written by a woman, one that also permits  Lispector to draw a line between herself and Rodrigo and subtly indicate that, though they’re both from the northeast, they are not one and the same. 
  3. In keeping with Lispector’s desire for empathy (whatever its limits may be), Rodrigo encourages wealthy and middle readers to step outside themselves and attempt to experience her life. He assumes poor readers will need not do so. 
  4. This novel appeared on several recommendation lists associated with #witmonth, the month (August) dedicated to reading works by women in translation. 

Review of The Chicken Soup Murder

The Chicken Soup Murder, Maria Donovan’s debut novel, is a moving story about loss and justice. It focuses on a close-knit band of neighbors whose lives are upended by the young deaths of two of their own: first, Janey’s father to cancer and then Irma to “natural causes”. But was Irma’s unexpected death a murder? Michael, her 11-year-old neighbor and the story’s narrator, is stubbornly convinced that Irma’s boyfriend—a police constable, no less—murdered her. No one else, even his Nan, Zene—who worried about Irma after previous electrical mishap occurred following her boyfriend’s DIY project—shares Michael’s suspicions. Although Michael argues she “can’t just have died”, it can happen as his Nan and others point out. Donovan neatly balances Michael’s certainty with adult doubts about his reliability in a manner that leaves readers nonetheless sympathetic to Michael.1

But the heart of Donovan’s novel isn’t its mysteries, but in how it truly inhabits the world of the grieving and how it traces the aftermath of these deaths. Irma and Zene’s decision to live life more fully2 following the loss of Janey’s dad leads Irma to Shawn Bull and his son, George. The perhaps too-aptly-named Bulls become entrenched in Irma’s life, damaging her friendships with her neighbors as she adopts Shawn’s rather less empathetic views.  Michael and Janey are instantly recognizable as youths on the cusp of maturity, a triumph on Donovan’s part (her careful characterization even shows how Janey’s year ahead in school makes her less naïve than Michael). Both are caught in this tide of grief even as their lives go ever onward, the seasons marked by sports and school. Michael is perhaps literally haunted by Irma’s loss and is pained that his grief is unacknowledged by the greater community that doesn’t understand he had a closer relationship with Irma than George did. Janey struggles to cope with her dad’s loss and her mother’s resulting deep depression, alternates between parenting her mother and being infuriated with her—and occasionally, Michael as she worries that he’s forgotten her father (he hasn’t). Among the more poignant moments stem from Zene’s counsel to Janey “The league tables of grief. But it’s not a competition, Janey. Nobody wins.”3 Indeed.

Michael is a remarkable character, a generally sensitive boy whose love for Irma propels him into the awkward role of avenger. But it’s his determination to do right by Irma that raises questions about the lengths to which it’s appropriate to pursue truth or protect loved ones. The degrees in which the novel explores right and wrong here, range from childhood misdemeanors to adults behaving badly, with shades of grey in between. Michael, once bullied by George, in turns is accused of (and occasionally does) torment George. Shawn isn’t above threatening Michael or Zene to protect his son, even after Michael rescues George from certain death. Zene’s decision to keep mum about Michael’s parents and their incarceration (“Best left alone”4) proves to be problematic in several ways. Without giving too much away, her decision to do what she “thought was best” leaves her in a vulnerable position because she has kept secrets from her grandson.

The Chicken Soup Murder lets us coexist in the sometimes messy lives of the bereaved and wronged. Satisfyingly, it doesn’t have easy resolutions or simple fixes for strained relations. Nonetheless, the novel ends on a hopeful note that things will at least be addressed and may change for the better.

Summary: The Chicken Soup Murder is an engrossing, well-paced novel. An unconventional mystery, it features believable characters whose heartbreak is palpable and who occasionally infuriate us with their choices. Narrator Michael is an engaging and often funny, particularly when he doesn’t get adult references. Much like life, there are no easy fixes but hope persists.

NOTES:


  1. The adults in the novel lean towards dismissing Michael’s views—partly because he’s made up stories in the past and partly because he doesn’t get disclose all he observed immediately after Irma died. Since the readers know more, it would be difficult for them to so casually dismiss Michael’s concerns. 
  2. Ironically, this seems to have indirectly led to Irma’s death. 
  3. For the non-sporty/confused fellow Americans, league tables refers to football (soccer) stats. Football is very much present in this chapter, so it’s an apt metaphor. 
  4. This point is particularly infuriating when Zene points out Michael never asked about his parents, as though her earlier discouragement might not have played a role! 

Summer Reading and Women Writers

Summer seems to finally be here, and it looks promising for reading more works written by women writers.

Summer seems to finally be here, and it looks promising for reading more works written by women writers. Recently, the Women’s Writer Network held their second Twitter chat of 2018 on June 5th. This time, our discussion focused on women writing the city, and we had an engaging conversation about how the urban landscape appears in writing. You can check out the highlights here and find our reading recommendations lists here.1 These chats tend to be inspiring, both for generating ideas about and for writing as well as providing opportunities for discovering (or rediscovering) authors. I’ll be sure to announce the next Twitter chat (planning already underway!) when details become available.

Additionally, Reading Women is celebrating their second year podcasting. As I discussed last year, Reading Women, dedicated to reclaiming half the bookshelf, focus on works written by and about women. In additional to the #readingwomenmonth photo challenge (I’m participating again this year), they are debuting a Mrs. Dalloway read along (incidentally, one of the books mentioned during Women Writer’s Network Twitter Chat) as well as other events described here.2

Finally, another opportunity to read more women writers will be in August, which is Women in Translation month. Founded by Meytal Radzinski in 2014, this event seems to grow every year. In addition to Meytal’s 2018 #witmonth resources page, you can check out the Translationista blog run by Susan Bernofsky and the Women in Translation blog (run by women translators) for more ideas and information. I’ll be discussing more about #witmonth when we get closer to August.

The Recs Lists

If you need additional suggestions for your reading list, I’m recommending several books I’ve read. Links will takes you to post I’ve written focusing on the books or their writing approaches.

Finally, check out these articles that list more amazing works by women writers:

For more ideas, you can also take a look at last year’s recommendations. Happy reading, everyone! And as always, feel free to share your suggestions!

NOTES:


  1. You can see the highlights for this year’s first Women Writer’s Network chat on Women Writers and the Environment here. The Goodreads list is available here
  2. I’ve just won a giveaway from Reading Women! 

Lifting The Bell Jar

Plath dispels the notion that people with mental illnesses are monstrous (think Bertha from Jane Eyre). She also demonstrates that psychological distress can occur even in fortunate circumstances.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise involved with properly reading Sylvia Plath’s novel,1 The Bell Jar, is discovering how a coming-of-age story set in the summer of 1953 manages to seem contemporary even as it remains so firmly rooted in its own period.2 Undoubtedly, there are timeless aspects to story arcs that move characters from innocence to experience, just as we find that the issues women grapple with in this book (the double standard, for one) are all too familiar. But what makes The Bell Jar so relatable is its captivating protagonist, Esther Greenwood. Esther is witty, sensitive, occasionally angry, often funny—and not at all what a reader expects to discover in a novel renowned for its suicidal heroine.3 But as The Bell Jar often proves, our assumptions don’t always match our expectations.

“There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.”

The Grim and the Glamorous

From the outset, the sharply observant Esther is aware of how appearances might mislead. Plath’s narrator, an older Esther, describes the morbid thoughts she had about executions and cadavers when she spent part of her summer in New York City at age 19. But from the outside, Esther’s life seems to have all the hallmarks of an American success story: Hailing from an impoverished middle-class background, she’s a “scholarship girl” who wins a position as a summer intern at women’s magazine—an incredible opportunity for someone with writing aspirations—where she attends parties and receives gifts. As she explains, anyone would assume she was “having the time of [her] life” when she instead struggles to get “[her]self to react”. Just as Esther wryly undercuts the image of the glamorous party the interns attend by pointing out the male guests were hired for the photo shoot, Plath exposes the invisible illness haunting a smart young woman’s New York adventure. Plath’s handling here is sure: stereotypical portrayals of mental illness4 are eschewed by showing Esther as nearly indistinguishable from the other smiling interns (significantly, they’re dressed alike) in the magazine spread. In doing so, Plath dispels the notion that people with mental illnesses are monstrous (think Bertha from Jane Eyre). She also demonstrates that psychological distress can occur even in fortunate circumstances.

“So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.”

Psyche Under Pressure

Having stripped away Esther’s smiling veneer, Plath better acquaints the reader with Esther’s background and aspirations. Esther, as magazine editor Jay Cee quips, “wants to be everything”: writer, academic, editor, traveler, lover, wife and mother. And while they are the most socially acceptable choices, Esther feels most ambivalent towards marriage and motherhood. Raised by a widowed working mother, Esther sees the pitfalls of marriage (financial vulnerability, drudgery) more clearly than fellow intern, Betsy, a naïve Midwesterner who wants a traditional marriage. Doreen, in contrast, rebels against deadlines and social mores alike in her quest for adventure in New York. While Esther shares Doreen’s cynicism and humor, she finds Doreen’s seemingly violent sexual encounters repellent and untenable given her limited means. Esther is left with uncertainty, as neither model suits her.

This pattern holds true when Esther examines her options for the future, since her unconventional ambitions don’t mesh well with social expectations for women in the sexist 1950s. Evoking the image of a fig tree with diverging branches, Esther sees her choices as being mutually exclusive. Certainly, the various people attempting to influence her future path imply as much: instructors indicate family must be sacrificed for career, her mother pressures her to learn a marketable skill (dictation) instead of gambling on a writing career, society and family insists her proper role is that of wife, and chauvinist Buddy Willard, the boy she’s dating, insinuates a few kids might cure that urge to write poems.5 Coupled with her ongoing pressure to excel academically,6 Esther appears to experience herself almost as two fragments: the outwardly cheerful achiever and the angry hidden self who chafes against her limitations. Approaching her final year of school, she finds herself filled with crippling indecision and feels that her successes thus far are meaningless outside college.7 While there’s no definitive explanation as to what precipitates depression, Plath could be arguing that society is what ails Esther.

“I hated the very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason.”

The Bell Jar Descends and Lifts

It is, however, apparent that an attempted rape rapidly followed by a serious academic disappointment serve as the triggering events for Esther’s mental health crisis. Although Esther’s breakdown is foreshadowed, the change it brings in her startles: she stops bathing, sleeps poorly, and, alarmingly, cannot write. Plath spends the latter half of the novel exploring misconceptions and stigmas surrounding mental health issues as well as critiquing how this illness is treated. Mrs. Greenwood, for example, fails to understand that Esther’s condition is not a choice and believes Esther could get better if she just tried or instead helped out others suffering greater misfortunes. As a layperson, her erroneous views are understandable, whereas Dr. Gordon (her first psychiatrist) disinterest in discussing her issues almost seems negligent, particularly after her prescribed shock therapy is administered incorrectly. Esther, desperate to avoid another traumatic shock session and convinced that her case is impossible, attempts suicide. Still alive and agitated, Esther is placed in a series of asylums. As it becomes clear to Esther once her scholarship sponsor pays for her to move to a better institution, money determines the quality of the patient’s care.

Not long after Esther settles into the new asylum, Esther meets Joan Gilling. Not only do they share the same hometown, church, and acquaintances, but they’ve both dated Buddy (neither are fans) and attempted suicide. While foils Betsy and Doreen represent extremes of sexual values, Joan serves as a near double to Esther since her journey through mental illness darkly mirrors Esther’s own until Joan succeeds in killing herself. While it’s never clear why one lives and the other does not, Joan’s death reminds readers and Esther’s alike that might also have been Esther’s fate. Esther, however, continues improving. And though some remain wary of her or wish to move on as though nothing happened (her mother in particular), Esther accepts that her illness is an important part of her history that she cannot ignore as there’s no guarantee that the bell jar wont’ descend again. It’s with this sobering, but clear-eyed acceptance that Esther moves toward whatever her future holds.

NOTES:


  1. Unlike the first time I picked it up and partially skimmed it during a busy term (I was studying abroad), which really didn’t do it justice. 
  2. And that includes the period’s casual racism and homophobia. Significantly, Esther kicks the only non-white character, a black worker at a mental institute, with little provocation. While her disturbed mindset plays a role in her aggression, she nonetheless appears to have at least some latent prejudices regarding race and sexual orientation. 
  3. While The Bell Jar is Plath’s roman à clef, I won’t be discussing making any comparisons with Plath’s life (something which has been done extensively anyway) as it tends to divert attention from discussing the book. 
  4. Plath makes this point repeatedly, particularly after Esther is institutionalized, that the mentally ill do not appear different from saner individuals. 
  5. So much is wrong with Buddy. Presented to Esther as a desirable marital prospect, he acts like the spiritual heir to the physician doctor from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” when Buddy tells Esther that her stuffed nose is psychosomatic and claims she’s neurotic. More reprehensibly, this “fine and clean” young man who focuses so much on Esther’s minimal sexual experience happens to be a hypocrite since he’s actually had a sexual affair. Although Buddy’s hypocrisy incenses Esther, it’s his paramour who is described as “some slutty waitress”, a detail suggesting Esther’s internalized misogyny. 
  6. Fearing that she will fail a chemistry course, Esther manipulates her image as a good student to escape taking this course and earns accolades for her intellectual maturity, something which she later feels crushing guilt for doing. 
  7. Esther potentially suffers from impostor syndrome: she describes an incident in which Jay Cee questions her focus and career plans as unmasking her.