Reviewing The Artist’s Way: Week 9

Being told I wasn’t lazy lifted a weight I hadn’t known I was carrying…

As we inch toward the end of The Artist’s Way, some loose ends begin to wrap up. Week 9 closes out the prior weeks’ thoughts on our negative conditioning, revealing what keeps us blocked. It also provides us with insights into what we need to do to start and sustain our creative work.

Fear: What’s in a Name?

Blocked artists are not lazy. They’re blocked.

Week 9’s theme is one of compassion, the kind that artists likely need when recovering from the losses discussed in week 8. Cameron introduces this theme by investigating how we label ourselves. She observes that artists often engage in negative self-talk by calling ourselves lazy when we fail to get creative projects underway (never mind finished). Gently disputing this opinion, she states that we actually are blocked. To prove her point, she recounts how much energy we spend on feeling of self-doubt, regret, and grief (among others). Our artistic inaction, she asserts, is caused by being blocked, and as she reveals, we’re blocked due to fear.

A friendly reminder: blocked artists are not lazy, they’re blocked! (Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay.)

Cameron doesn’t specifically draw out why our calling ourselves lazy is so harmful, but we can readily observe how blaming our “lack” of willpower turns to shame when we fail to get artistic projects underway, in turn begetting a cycle of regret because that fear remains unnamed and unaddressed. For Cameron, calling things by their right name is not a matter of semantics[*] but an act of compassion, because we cease scolding ourselves when we acknowledge what truly impedes our artistic endeavors. Moving deeper into this conversation, she explores what makes us afraid, focusing on how these fears (eg, fear of abandonment caused by parental displeasure[†]) may contribute to an artist’s desire to be wildly successful.

The internal pressures fueling our ambitions and need for success (regardless of the source), however, make it challenging to either create art or be an artist. As Cameron reassures us, we should regard any difficulties in getting going as an indicator that we need help versus a sign that we’re not meant to be artists. Such help comes from our supporters, higher powers (if one is so inclined), and ourselves (eg, “filling the form” from week 8). Conquering our fears, according to Cameron, requires us to love our artist. Normally verbose on these matters, her instruction here doesn’t exactly explain how she envisions this working—which would’ve been helpful—but surely the impetus to be kinder to ourselves is an excellent place to begin.

Contrary to what we often think, finding it difficult to start an artistic project is a sign that we need help, not proof that we’re not meant to be artists. (Image by Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.)

Enthusiasm as Motivation

Remember, art is a process. The process is supposed to be fun.

In the next section, Cameron answers an unposed question: How do we keep going once we’ve finally got those artistic projects started? Many of us believe that rigid discipline, powered by an artist’s indomitable willpower, is the answer. Cameron’s disdain for self-will, long a familiar sight to readers of The Artist’s Way, surfaces as she somewhat uncharitably states that this belief merely panders to one’s ego (making discipline our source of pride opposed to creativity). Discipline, she argues, only delivers temporary results. What sustains us as artists is enthusiasm.

Throughout The Artist’s Way, Cameron firmly states that art is meant to be an enjoyable process. Enthusiasm, in her view, is both a “spiritual commitment” to this process that allows us to recognize the creativity surrounding us and a source of creative energy flowing from “life itself”. Therefore, it’s the joy that we experience from our artistry that keep our artistic momentum going more than our slogging through a schedule. While we may still set schedules, we use them to plan our creative playdates. Similarly, our works areas are more likely to be a bit messier and colorful than the “monastic cells” that we tend to associate with disciplined artists. After all, our artist child self is more likely to create art when their efforts feel like play and their workspaces resemble playgrounds.

One of the items that makes my desk a fun place to be is my color-changing kitty cat humidifier. (Image by R. E. Gould.)
One of the items that makes my desk a fun place to be is my color-changing kitty cat humidifier. (Image by R. E. Gould.)

The one question Cameron hasn’t answered, however, is how enthusiasm relates to compassion. Between the lines, though, one might note the exclusionary whiff associated with discipline as would-be artists see this as the obstacle to their becoming artists. Subscribing to the myth of discipline is another way in which we’re unkind to ourselves, as this belief implies that creating art requires great willpower that only certain people possess. In truth, creativity is available to all, once we give ourselves permission to have fun and see what happens.

Creative U-Turns

A successful creative career is always built on creative failures. The trick is to survive them.

Week 9 opens with Cameron urging us to keep going, noting that we’re on the cusp of learning to disassemble our emotional blocks. It’s an appropriate warning, as impending success is when we most often experience a creative U-turn. As mentioned previously, creative U-turns are losses associated with self-sabotage (eg, opportunities we refuse). Cameron, as promised in week 8, returns to creative U-turns to flesh out why they occur and how to deal with them.

Creative U-turns represent moments when we self-sabotage ourselves, because we’re intimidated by our next artistic move. (Image by mark jennings-bates from Pixabay.)

Cameron cautions that some artists might feel threatened by their approaching recovery and balk at this progress. Others may find it easier to remain “victim to artist’s block” than to take on the risks of being a productive artist. While Cameron is wearing her “tough love” hat here as she uncomfortably points out how we resist recovery, she also wants us to be sympathetic when we reflect on our U-turns, because creativity has its frightening moments. We can, as she suggests, look at such moments as “recycling times”, that is, moments when need a few tries before we succeed in making a creative leap. However, she emphasizes that creative U-turns happen in all artistic careers—a point so important she mention it twice in short succession before providing a lengthy list of artists who themselves had creative failures preceding their eventual successes.

Failure is a part of the creative process, but it is survivable. To do so, we need to recognize that our creative U-turns or series of U-turns represent a reaction to our fear.[‡] Once we’ve acknowledged our U-turns and their sources, we need to seek help. To begin, we can outline what part of the creative process makes us feel uneasy. We might give ourselves confidence by building up to these difficulties (eg, trying a workshop before seeking an agent). We also can tap into our resources by asking other artists we know for assistance. As Cameron assures us, the help will come.

Blasting Through Blocks

Blocks are seldom mysterious.

Artistic Block Blaster
1. List resentments (anger) connected to project.
2. List fears associated with the project.
3. Ask if there are any fears or anger left, however small or petty.
4. Ask what you gain by not doing the project.
5. Make a deal with yourself to complete the project. 

Source: Cameron, Julia. The Artist's Way: A Spirtual Path to Higher Creativity. Souvenir Press, 2020.

Perhaps the most exciting part of week 9 involves some advice on how to “blast” past our artist’s blocks. Cameron maintains that we need to be relatively “free of resentment (anger) and resistance (fear)” before we can work on our artistic projects. Therefore, we first need to consider what undisclosed concerns exist with a project or whether we have some lingering, unstated payoffs for not working. As she observes, our blocks are relatively straightforward: they act “artistic defenses” against what we may feel is an unsafe situation. Our mission, therefore, is to assure our artist child that it is safe to proceed. Cameron closes this week by providing a short questionnaire that’s aimed at unearthing these concealed barriers to artistic work, which she indicates is also helpful for clearing away obstructed flow in instances where the work becomes challenging (for an abridged version, see the text box).

Some Closing Thoughts

Week 9 ventures into both new and familiar territory as it persuades us to treat ourselves compassionately. While Cameron’s not one to shy from tough talk should she feel it’s necessary, this push to be kinder to ourselves is as valuable as deepening our understanding of how we artistically block ourselves. We’ve all experienced failures in our artistic lives. But we rarely do we let ourselves off the hook for them. There’s something comforting in being permitted to recognize our fears, let go of shame, and accept that we can move past our creative U-turns.

What particularly resonated with me this week, however, was Cameron’s insightful conversation on calling things by their right names. Being told I wasn’t lazy lifted a weight I hadn’t known I was carrying until I realized that my undone projects had little to with my drive.[§] This section makes the case as to why willpower and ego aren’t to blame for our artistic works in limbo—or sufficient in themselves to get us across either the start or finish line. In doing so, Cameron also highlighted (perhaps inadvertently) how dangerous negative self-talk is. Here, it works as a subtle pattern of self-shaming that convinces us we haven’t what it takes to be an artist while neatly preventing us from dealing with the fear blocking our path. This behavior does a tremendous disservice to our creative lives and likely elsewhere. It’s something that gave me pause even as I enjoyed the sense of liberation I felt at being judged “not lazy”.

Many chapters in this book deal with difficult subjects (shame, anger, jealousy, etc), with week 8 focusing heavily on our artistic losses. It’s easy to see why week 9 might seem like a good place to call it quits. Despite the time it took for me to get to and through this week,[**] I found it to be among the more positive experiences with this book thus far, because Cameron’s advice here generally is useful and easy to enact. While I continue to long for Cameron’s writing to stay a bit closer to the point or to explain how love will conquer my fears, week 9 overwhelmingly is one that should be considered unmissable for those reading The Artist’s Way.

Be kind to yourself
A gentle reminder to treat yourself kindly from Julia Cameron and myself! (“Be Kind” image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay.)

NOTES:


[*] Similar to week 7’s discussion on the difference between invention and inspiration in terms of “thinking something up” versus “getting something down”.

[†]Cameron’s is laser focused on attributing artistic blocks to negative childhood conditioning from parents, which, while important, becomes tiresome and neglects other ways in which the same results may be achieved by different means. For instance, someone from a working-class background could also feel compelled to excel artistically to justify the sacrifices their made to provide their child with the opportunity to be an artist.

[‡] We should, too, mourn them as was suggested in week 8.

[§] Briefly, I wished this was something we were told from the outset of the book or was emblazoned on its cover. But I also almost instantly recognized that I would’ve unlikely to accept this point so early on.

[**] I’m closer to a 12-month than 12-week plan.

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.