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 it was 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 do 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 that’s what I do, 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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