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This Artist’s Way

Last summer, while out to dinner with some East Coast friends, I was introduced to Julia Cameron‘s The Artist’s Way. My friends explained that it was a book designed to “help you become more creative,” and that during its 12-week program you had to commit to writing 3 pages of longhand every morning, and to taking yourself on a solo “date” to do something creative every week. I was intrigued; when we got back to their apartment that night, I pulled the book off their shelf and flipped through it. The exercises I saw included things like “Quickly list five favorite films, and look for the common elements in them”; “What habit do you have that gets in the way of your creativity?” and “Describe five traits you like in yourself as a child.” I was hooked. When I got home, I ordered myself a copy.

I haven’t looked back.

Here is a partial list of the creative things I’ve done since I started working with Cameron’s books:

  • taken a knitting class
  • started occasionally burning incense at home, and ordered 2 god/dess statues (Ganesh and Brigit, if you’re curious :))
  • filled my “writing wall” with beautiful quotes and pictures
  • bought an awesome coloring book I use to keep myself busy during downtime in my Wednesday RPG
  • drawn icons of the four classical elements for the walls of my office, and started a set of Sabbat icons for our family altar
  • bought modeling clay and used it to work out heraldry for the major sects in the world of my novel
  • learned not to be (as) frustrated by writer’s block

Cameron’s overarching thesis is basically threefold: 1) everyone has the potential to be creative. 2) creativity comes out of play. 3) to be creative, you must give yourself space to play in your own head, without worrying what anyone else will think of what comes out of that space.

As my friends explained, the two elements common to all of Cameron’s creativity-workshop books (of which I now own four; Wikipedia lists her nonfiction bibliography at more than 25) are what she calls the “morning pages” and the “artist date.” Morning pages are supposed to be done every morning as soon as you wake up, and they’re designed as a forced 15- to 30-minute brain dump. I do mine in 5×7 lined journals (I like these), usually before Husband wakes up in the morning, and I’ve found myself scribbling about everything from attempting to solve my most recent writer’s block to that day’s frustration with a friend to what I’d like my life to look like in 10 years. Cameron calls it “meditation for busy Westerners,” and it seems to be working well for me.

The artist date is a little more tricky, but also more fun. One of Cameron’s central ideas is that an individual’s creative spirit is an “artist child,” and to keep that child happy requires regular small indulgences: thus, the idea of taking a special excursion every week, by yourself, to do something fun. My recent ones have included buying a bottle of “bubble stuff” and taking it to a grassy spot in downtown Berkeley; driving to the Pacific East Mall in Richmond and wandering through a bookstore where I couldn’t read a single word; and (coming up this week) checking out a tiny store in El Cerrito that sells nothing but buttons.

Of course, each book also comes with more in-depth exercises in theory designed to help participants tap into their own creativity. The first book, The Artist’s Way, focuses mainly on learning to give yourself permission to “waste time doing artsy stuff” (an important step for me, I’ll admit), with chapter titles like “Recovering a Sense of Safety” and “Recovering a Sense of Possibility.” The one I’m working through right now, The Vein of Gold, is intended to help readers explore different aspects of their creative selves; there’s a chapter on “story,” a chapter on “sight,” a chapter on “sound” (that’s the one I just started; this week and next, this logophile will be exploring non-verbal music, which I expect will be interesting). Most of the exercises are fun, and almost all of them are enlightening. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve come out of my office telling Husband “you ought to try this sometime!”

Cameron’s system isn’t flawless. The 12-week Artist’s Way system is at-least-loosely based on AA, and there’s some of that feel to some of the exercises. Her rhetoric has a little more “trusting the higher power” in it than I’m sometimes comfortable with, and I agree with the criticisms I’ve seen elsewhere that adhering too closely to some of her principles could lead you down a road that feels spoiled and selfish. I’ll fully confess that I’m approaching these books with the philosophy of “take what seems to work and leave the rest,” and that when I’m having a busy week her carefully laid out timetable for when exercises should be completed tends to fall by the wayside. But I’m still reading them. I think there’s something here that would be useful to a lot of creative folks, especially in the basic tools.

So if you’re a creative type who’s looking to expand your horizons a little, pick up a copy of The Artist’s Way and flip through it. You might surprise yourself with what you find.

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