by Elizabeth Spencer
In August, I embarked on Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, with a group of fellow creatives from across the world. After months of a global pandemic, national protests over police brutality, and the lead-up to an intense presidential election, it felt a little solipsistic to focus on art. But as my favorite Buddhist nun Pema Chodron would say, “start where you are.” And so we did, starting with “Week 1: Recovering a Sense of Safety” in spite of personal challenges and a world where nothing felt safe.
What I’m trying to say is that anyone can start this book at any time, whatever season of life you find yourself, however creatively stuck or discouraged. Yes, the cover blurb is an endorsement from none other than Elizabeth Gilbert, who found the inspiration for Eat, Pray, Love after doing the 12-week program. But the goal of Julia Cameron’s book for blocked artists isn’t to come away with a bestselling memoir idea or any other kind of instant success. As she writes in the introduction to my 25th anniversary edition, The Artist’s Way is “a book that I think of as a support kit for artists … It [has] a central premise—we are all creative—and with the use of a few simple tools, we can all become more creative.”
For me, the book also served as a long overdue checkup for my inner artist. I plan to make it an “annual checkup” so I can catch any tumorous growths (self-doubt, jealousy, burnout) before they spread. It’s important to note that I didn’t do every single exercise. I fit in what I could and made sure to do the exercises that our book club leader recommended. As with any important text in my life, I expect to get different things from every re-reading.
My inner artist is just a child.
If you have children in your life now or look back on your own childhood, you know kids are full of creativity. From painting to playwriting, clay sculpture, music, dance, and making up worlds with their toys, all children are Masters in Fine Art. Most importantly, they channel their creativity without self-consciousness, self-judgment, or guilt over not doing something “productive.” I mean, have you ever heard a kid say something like, “I’d love to explore watercolor painting but I have no time; I’m always cleaning my room.”
Unfortunately, as we grow up we internalize all these “shoulds” until it becomes easy to devalue creativity if it’s not paying your bills. But as Elizabeth Gilbert writes in Big Magic, “The reason I always maintained other streams of income was because I never wanted to burden my creativity with the task of providing for me in the material world.”
I, too, enrolled in graduate school for Creative Writing thinking that I’d complete my first novel, find an agent through a supportive professor, and graduate into the “sunset” of publishing books and finding a full-time teaching job. When that didn’t happen, I simply moved on to another arbitrary goal: I need to publish my first book by age 30. Then I had my first child without completing my novel and largely gave up fiction writing for the next five years.
The Artist’s Way helped me let go of these perceived failures and approach my inner artist with kindness, a gentle tone, and the nurturing she needs. I’ve also made more space for “play” that is separate from my writing practice. Julia Cameron calls this “The Artist’s Date,” a weekly time set aside to do something fun by yourself. It can be as simple as a walk in the woods or an hour with an adult coloring book and your favorite scented markers from childhood. I have to say that, as a person with kids and a full-time job, it feels truly radical to set aside time that is just for me and that doesn’t move me closer to any kind of personal or professional goal.
The Morning Pages
This practice is probably what Julia Cameron is most known for. I knew what the morning pages were before I read the book. Resistant at first, I came to enjoy this morning stream-of-consciousness writing. Afterward, I felt clearer headed, as if I’d meditated or done yoga, and ready to start my day with fewer laments and anxieties clamoring around my mind. Although I sometimes skip mornings, the 3-pages-day habit is one I’ve held onto after completing the book.
Reading Deprivation Week
In Week 4, Julia Cameron introduces the tool of reading deprivation. Next to morning pages, this was the practice I had the most trouble accepting and warming up to. But though it was hard to give up leisure reading for a week, I did come to agree with her argument that “For most artists, words are like tiny tranquilizers. We have a daily quota of media chat that we swallow up. Like greasy food, it clogs our system. Too much of it and we feel, yes, fried.” And this was written in 1992, long before the mobile Internet and the smartphone colonized our lives and attention. Here’s what I learned from Reading Deprivation:
- I use reading as an “escape” when I don’t want to engage with people, particularly when I’m home with my kids. Not having that crutch for a week meant I could be more in the moment, whether building a sandcastle when I normally would’ve hidden behind a paperback, or playing a board game instead of reading news on my phone.
- I missed reading fiction before bed. Getting lost in a good novel is my favorite way to unwind and relax at the end of the day. I never stopped missing this over the week.
- I didn’t really miss the other types of reading I do, or at least I didn’t miss the way I was reading news and online articles—in unplanned, usually distraction-seeking bursts. Since then I try to follow a few good habits such as not reading my phone first thing in the morning, choosing one or two deliberate times a day to read the news, and printing the online articles I want to read instead of scrolling my phone and getting distracted.
These are the highlights of The Artist’s Way program; you could even incorporate them into your current life without doing the entire twelve weeks. However, as we face another stretch of weeks or months in partial-lockdown to mitigate the spread of Coronavirus, I can’t think of a better way to use your extra time at home than to get more in touch with yourself and your creativity by diving into The Artist’s Way.
About the photographer: Eric Sorensen is a medical student and artist who loves painting, drawing, and photography. After college he studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. The photograph is titled, “Bench.”
Thank you for this thorough review, Elizabeth. I have been contemplating purchasing this book for a while and think it is maybe what I need to re-ignite my lagging creativity! Kate
Hi Kate, thank you for reading! I would definitely recommend The Artist’s Way as a creativity re-igniter. If you do start it, feel free to reach out–I’d love to hear how it goes for you.
Hi Elizabeth, thank you! I have purchased a copy of the book this week, and have done my first morning pages this morning! I have just written a blog post about the book, mainly to keep me accountable to following it : ) I have linked in the post to your great essay here, hope that is ok. Kate