Adventures in Self-Help
Can you read your way out of a creative lull?
When a member of my monthly writing group recommended The Artist’s Way, I hummed politely and dragged another baby carrot through the communal pool of hummus. A few days later, while waiting for the B train to pull into my station, I overheard another Artist’s Way endorsement, this one from a beetle of a man, with ear gauges and thick, tattooed forearms. I hummed again, this time a little more naturally.
It turned out that The Artist’s Way and I had more than just the power of coincidence to thank for our intersection. Early in the book, author Julia Cameron gives a few examples of the life-altering turnabouts experienced by the “blocked creatives” who follow her twelve-step program. (My favorite of these cases is that of the businessman who had been writing secretly on the side, and after deciding to seek an honest opinion of his work from a willing professional author, went to a pool hall, where he met a successful author who became his mentor, and then his co-author of a series of best-selling books!) “It’s my experience that we’re much more afraid that there might be a God than we are that there might not be,” Cameron writes. “Incidents like those above happen to us, and yet we dismiss them as sheer coincidence.” Just as each and every one of the other two million plus people (includingPosh Spice and Eva Longoria) who have bought her book were fated to come into Cameron’s orbit, The Artist’s Way and I were Meant To Be.
I recently finished a draft of a novel that I had been working on for three years. The book was harder to write than any of my previous six novels. This was partly because of life changes. (I was about to launch into the challenge of writing while balancing a newborn on my lap when I looked down and saw my toddler son grinning up at me with concealer caked all over his left ear.)
Surely the difficulty of writing the book also had to do with the nature of the story itself. It’s dark and steamy, with two elaborate underworlds and a centuries-long history of their entanglement. Don’t get me wrong — if I didn’t love working on it, I wouldn’t have bothered. But a funny thing happened when I sent the pages off to my favorite reader: I didn’t want to go and dance on top of a table. I didn’t even tweet-brag. The worry was too heavy. What was I was supposed to do with myself now? Write something else, I supposed. But the prospect of starting a new Word document and typing the words “Chapter One” seemed about as realistic as holding my breath for an hour — even with the help of this crafty writers’ aid.
Though it’s primarily writers who use it, Cameron’s book is meant for creative people of all ilks. She doesn’t offer plot ideas or advice about querying agents. Her approach aims to shake up the reader and rouse her inner spirit. Then the art will follow. Everyone is a great artist, she insists. But almost everyone is out of touch with herself. “Making our art, we make artful lives. Making our art, we meet firsthand the art of our Creator,” she writes.
“Fledgling artists may be encouraged to be art teachers or to specialize in crafts with the handicapped,” writes Cameron, who goes on to suggest that many should-be fiction writers wimp out and work at newspapers and should-be filmmakers instead become critics. (Cameron, who has had articles in Rolling Stone, has written screenplays herself and was married briefly to Martin Scorsese.)
Cameron tells us she is a recovering alcoholic who sobered up at age thirty. In addition to modeling her twelve-week program for artists and writers after the famous twelve steps we’ve all seen in Elisabeth Shue movies, she repurposes the “one day at a time” mantra by urging her readers to take their recovering creativity one page (well, three pages) at a time.
The cornerstone of her program is “The Morning Pages,” a daily ritual of writing three pages of whatever comes to mind. These jottings are not meant to be read by others, or even reviewed by their creator (or even, I’d wager, by The Creator). This stream-of-consciousness exercise is to exorcise whatever demons have been poisoning your mind with self-doubt. “You are creatively blocked. Just as doing Hatha Yoga stretches alters consciousness when all you are doing is stretching, doing the exercises in this book alters consciousness when ‘all’ you are doing is writing and playing,” she writes. “Wipe the mirror, swipe at the blur you have kept between you and your real self.”
It’s not hard to see why people keep coming her way. Her manner is fascinating. She is the charming lunatic you end up seated next to at a dinner party. Cameron constantly challenges whatever judgment I’ve just made about her: Is this woman who was allergic to electricity a drip — or is she a genius? She peppers her sage-at-the-lectern rhetoric with whimsical poetry. “Creativity is an act of faith, and we must be faithful to that faith, willing to share it to help others, and to be helped in return. Outside my window, out over the Hudson, a very large bird is soaring. I have seen this bird for days now, sailing, sailing on the fierce winds that are the slipstream around the island.”
When she brought up the mandatory weekly “Artist’s Date” — two hours a week “committed to nurturing your inner artist” — I was ready to be forced to whip up a brilliant short story. It turned out that the Artist’s Date is a two-hour period during which you take yourself on a walk through an unfamiliar neighborhood or go to a puppeteering class. By treating ourselves to new experiences, she argues, we get to know ourselves, and discover our self-worth.
There are a few other exercises that come closer to something you might encounter in writing class. “Pick a color and write a few sentences describing yourself in the first person. ‘I am silver, high-tech and ethereal, the color of dreams and accomplishment, the color of half-light and in-between, I feel serene.’ Or: ‘I am red. I am passion, sunset, anger, blood, wine and roses, armies, murder, lust and apples.’ ” Another: “List five things you are not allowed to do: kill your boss, scream in church, go outside naked, make a scene, quit your job. Now do that thing on paper.” I suppose this might lead to New Yorker-accepted material? Ultimately, though, her book is a guide to living like an artist, not creating like one.
Upon finishing Cameron’s book, I wasn’t sure what to feel. I still hadn’t written a first chapter — or, for that matter, a first word — but I did set up a babysitter and take myself to the movies. On the subway ride home, I started to toy with a new idea, and feel that twitch of excitement that makes all the craziness worth it.
I even have a working title: “I am turquoise.”