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: 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: 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.