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.