reviews

Book Review: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

This book was recommended to me several times by different people in quick succession. I figured I may as well take the advice. It was autumn and I was looking forward to winter. It was part of what appealed to me about moving to Berlin in the first place: long, dark winters that gave me time to read, write, focus on indoor projects. I wondered if part of why so much art, music, poetry, science (calculus!) were produced here – lots of time isolated indoors. I hoped this book would give me guidance and inspiration as I settled in for hibernation season.

It’s not a book you just read straight through, it’s an activity book. Two basic tasks form the foundation of the 12 week program: the Artist’s Date and the Morning Pages. Each week has a theme and a corresponding set of exercises that the author says are optional. I committed from the beginning to doing the Artist’s Dates each week and the Morning Pages each day, deciding I would only do the other exercises if I felt like it.

The Artist’s Dates were easy. The idea is to something different, something inspiring. Maybe walk a different route, go to a new place, try something that seemed fun but that I had never tried before. I pretty much do that anyway. I pushed myself to go a little farther with it – sit down to sketch, check out an art gallery. No big deal. If you don’t do that kind of stuff already, it might be more important to you. For me the only difference was keeping track and making sure that I did it once a week.

The Morning Pages were another story. That was new for me. 3 pages a day of stream of consciousness writing. I quickly found that it was best to do it first thing, because if I didn’t the day would get away from me and it would weigh on me. It became a ritual, get up out of bed, sit down to write. Sometimes it was easy, sometimes it was hard. One day was just a stream of obscenities about how stupid the whole exercise was. In time, though, it came to be so sweet, so precious. It became the thing I looked forward to when I first awoke – a quiet moment, a safe, cozy place.

The first week I read the chapter and did an exercise. I reacted horribly to it. I had a complete failure of confidence and sank into a pit of despair and self-doubt. I was angry and pouty. Something was getting stirred up, but I wasn’t sure it was something I wanted to see. I never did any more of the exercises, but I did keep reading the chapters each week until week 8. I read the line “Artists and intellectuals are not the same animal” and I got so mad. My herb teacher Michael Moore used to say “a good herbalist is a generalist”. I loved that because it honored all of who I am. It let me be an artist AND and intellectual, and an herbalist above all. I got mad at the author and the book and didn’t touch it for a month.

I kept writing those pages, though. When I finished my 12 weeks it came as a relief. I had done what I committed to do. I may not have engaged the book as thoroughly and deeply as possible, but I got through the 12 weeks of Morning Pages, as promised. Feeling released from my bondage, I skimmed through the rest of the book. I came upon an idea that struck a chord: fill the form. Whatever the thing is – a sonnet, a novel, a painting, a blog post, a meal – make a whole one, don’t worry about if it’s good, just if it fulfills the requirements of the form. Yes. Nobody cares about the work you don’t finish, no matter how good it is. Better to finish something mediocre than struggle endlessly to make something perfect. Yes, I like that idea. And I had done it. I filled the form. 12 weeks of Morning Pages. Done.

As I reflected on those 12 weeks, it stunned me to realize how effective the process had been. It worked! I hadn’t done it perfectly. I had merely filled the form and that had been enough. Here’s what happened to me:

1. I took on a new creative form: the website. I had tried before, but always stalled out. Something about doing the Artist’s Way let me push past that. I struggled with it and kept going and made this site. It’s not great, but it fills the form. I had this idea that I’m an herbalist, and I should get a web person to make my website. Something about reading this book unlocked that. It became possible to do it myself.

2. I remembered how much I enjoy drawing for pleasure. We do it when we are kids, coloring. Sometimes it comes out good enough to hang up, sometimes not, but it’s fun either way. And singing. As an adult, an American, I have gotten so caught up in focusing my energy on the things I can do to a high standard. This book helped me get back into creating for joy and not for product.

3. I realized the importance of morning ritual, one of those things I’d heard a million times but didn’t really get until I’d practiced it. I let go of the pages and instead made a list of all the activities that fill a similar role for me, things that cultivate me, nourish me, but are not about producing: juggling, yoga, meditation, drawing, writing, reading Hafiz, and so on. I haven’t been consistent about taking time to do something on the list every morning, but I sure do feel better when I do. I think part of why I am writing this is to remind myself how important this insight is.

And so, yes, everyone who recommended this book was right. (Thank you!) It’s a remarkable work. It’s full of statements I disagree with, things that made me mad, things that made me have weird emotional reactions that I can’t really name. It reaches deep, or forced me to. It changed me. Now that I’ve written this, I’m putting it back on the shelf. And yet I feel I’ve only skimmed the surface of what I could get from this book. I may redo it next winter, if next winter I am feeling that I want to emerge in to spring changed. Maybe then I’ll read the last 3 chapters.

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