I picked up a copy of The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity because I could relate all too well to author Julia Cameron’s description of writer’s block: “Creative, yes, but in spurts, like blood from a severed carotid artery. A decade of writing and all I knew was how to make these headlong dashes and hurl myself, against all odds, at the wall of whatever I was writing.”
My own Muse had been on strike for several months, and attempts at negotiation had utterly failed to coax her out of hiding. A prolonged siege of work-related stress had left me feeling emotionally exhausted, with no creative energy whatsoever. I was ready to try almost anything.
Cameron calls The Artist’s Way a blueprint for “creative recovery” – in fact, 12-Step recovery movement lingo is sprinkled liberally throughout the book. She encourages us to nurture and protect our inner artist and to build healthy artist habits one day at a time. While we may relapse into unhealthy patterns from time to time, we seek progress, not perfection. If we faithfully use the tools she outlines in the book, we will experience a creative awakening.
Why the 12-Step model? “On a societal level, blocked creative energy manifests itself as self-destructive behavior,” Cameron says. “Many people who are engaged in self-defeating behaviors, such as [addictions to] alcohol, drugs, sex, or work, are really in the hands of this shadow side of the creative force. As we become more creative, these negative expressions of the creative force often abate.”
Cameron also invokes spiritual themes extensively. “Those who speak in spiritual terms routinely refer to God as the Creator but seldom see creator as the literal term for artist,” she says. “I am suggesting you take the term creator quite literally. You are seeking to forge a creative alliance, artist-to-artist with the Great Creator. … We are, ourselves, creations. And we, in turn, are meant to continue creativity by being creative ourselves.”
How it works
The Artist’s Way, which has become a classic since its publication in 1992, offers two basic tools for creative recovery – the Morning Pages and the Artist Date.
The Morning Pages are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness, done first thing in the morning. “Three pages of whatever crosses your mind – that’s all there is to it,” Cameron says. “If you can’t think of anything to write, then write, ‘I can’t think of anything to write.’ Do this until you have filled three pages. Do anything until you have filled three pages. … Just write three pages … and write three more pages the next day.”
We should think of the Morning Pages not as “art” but as an active form of meditation for Westerners, she says. “In the Morning Pages we declare to the world – and ourselves – what we like, what we dislike, what we wish, what we hope, what we regret, and what we plan.”
“In a sense Morning Pages are prayer,” Cameron told Publishers Weekly. In her book The Right to Write, she elaborates: “Writing gives us a place to welcome more than the rational. It opens the door to inspiration. It opens the door to God or, if you would, to ‘Good Orderly Direction.’ Writing is a spiritual housekeeper.”
The Artist Date is “a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist,” Cameron says. The Artist Date can be devoted to any pleasurable activity – a concert, a visit to an ice cream shop or a walk in the park – but we must do it alone. Bringing along kids or a significant other is strictly against the rules. We are to make time for an Artist Date at least once a week.
The Artist’s Way also offers a series of exercises. For example: List twenty things you enjoy doing. … List ten changes you’d like to make for yourself. … List five favorite childhood foods. … Describe yourself at eighty. … Complete this sentence: “My payoff for staying blocked is …”
Some of the exercises seem to have little to do with writing, drawing or other creative activity: Open your closet. Throw out – or donate – one low-self-worth outfit. (You know the outfit.) … Mend something. … Repot any pinched and languishing plants. … Bake something. So why does Cameron include them? “Creativity does not have to always involve capital-A art,” she says. “Very often, the act of cooking something can help you cook something up in another creative mode.”
All of these activities – the Morning Pages, the Artist’s Date and the exercises – are designed to get us past The Censor, “a nasty internal and eternal critic” who “keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks that are often disguised as the truth.” (You call that writing? What a joke. You can’t even punctuate. … What makes you think you can be creative?) “Think of your Censor as a cartoon serpent, slithering around your creative Eden, hissing vile things to keep you off guard,” she says. “As blocked artists, we tend to criticize ourselves mercilessly.”
After Cameron finishes explaining how The Artist’s Way works, she makes a bold promise: “If the basic tools of Morning Pages and the Artist Date are kept carefully in place, you can expect to experience large life shifts.”
Yes, whining is allowed
I first decided to give The Artist’s Way a try about 15 years ago. What did I have to lose? Since I was a veteran of 12-Step groups, the book’s recovery focus was familiar to me.
The Morning Pages turned out to be fairly easy. I had no trouble meeting my three-page quota most days. At first the writing amounted to little more than a daily To-Do list. Need to do laundry today. … Need to get some grocery shopping done. … Need to get some gas in the car.
Then I began writing about areas of my life that felt unmanageable. This house is full of piles and piles of junk and boxes and boxes of stuff that needs sorting. … I spend too much time getting tangled up in political intrigues at work and not enough time nurturing personal relationships. … I seem to spend all my time juggling and juggling and making to-do lists and doing more juggling and making more intricate to-do lists and I still can’t seem to get caught up. … I’m overweight and out of shape. I need to adopt a healthier way of living.
After that, a litany of complaints and resentments began to pour out onto my Morning Pages. I’m tired of all the childish games at work. … I’m tired of political campaigns that amount to six months of name-calling. … I’m tired of people who question my patriotism unless I vote for their candidate. … I’m tired of cleaning up the house every day, only to see it messed up again the following day. … I’m tired of all these half-finished tasks that never seem to get done.
Some days my Morning Pages consisted of three solid pages of ranting. Everything I try to do runs into some snarly little complicated snag. Why can’t anything be simple? Could one little thing go right? Just one thing? Just one little thing?! … I wish I didn’t have to work for a living. Actually, I’d do volunteer work, but I’d only work for people who treat me right and appreciate me. I want to do work that actually uses my skills and training. What a radical idea. … I want a clean house. I want a sane schedule. I want a full day off just for me, with no one yanking my chain. I want, I want, I want …
All this raging and whining was supposed to release creative energy?
The author of The Artist’s Way seemed to anticipate what my Morning Pages would sound like. She assures us that the Morning Pages “are often negative, frequently fragmented, often self-pitying, repetitive, stilted or babyish, angry or bland – even silly sounding. Good! … All that angry, whiny, petty stuff that you write down in the morning stands between you and your creativity.”
The Morning Pages “round up the usual suspects,” she says. “They mention the small hurts we prefer to ignore, the large successes we’ve failed to acknowledge. In short, the Morning Pages point the way to reality: This is how you’re feeling; what do you make of that? And what we make of that is art.”
Cameron predicted that the Artist Dates would be harder than the Morning Pages, especially for workaholics like me. She turned out to be right. But I managed to keep my dates most weeks. I went shopping and bought myself some pretty pajamas. I walked through my neighborhood park’s rose garden. I got a manicure and pedicure.
What happened next
To my surprise, things suddenly started to get done. I spoke up and asked my hairdresser to cut my hair a certain way and got exactly what I wanted. I confronted an electrician who overcharged me and saved $50. I ordered a new computer, something I had been meaning to do for a year. I bought a new freezer, something I’d been needing to do for several years, and cleaned out a place in the basement to make room for it. I got rid of an old washer that had been sitting in the basement ever since we bought the house – 18 years earlier. I baked bread for the first time in months. I planted a fall crop of spinach and salad greens for the first time ever. I cleaned out closets. I walked away from a job that had been driving me crazy and replaced it with a new job that paid twice as much.
According to Cameron, this all makes perfect sense. “It is very difficult to complain about a situation morning after morning, month after month, without being moved to constructive action,” she says. “One of the clearest signals that something healthy is afoot is the impulse to weed out, sort through, and discard old clothes, papers, and belongings.”
But what does all this have to do with writing and other creative pursuits?
After a long, long dry spell – during which I felt guilty even attending meetings of my writer’s group because it seemed like everyone but me had something to share – I finished my first short essay. More essays followed. I co-authored a “best practices” manual with a colleague in my field, and was invited to be a keynote speaker at a conference in Alaska. A couple years ago, I started this blog … and have been writing steadily ever since.
I’ll confess, I don’t do Morning Pages every single day. And I don’t always write three pages. But the Morning Pages continue to be part of my life.
For my Morning Pages ritual, I settle in my recliner in front of the fireplace with a cup of coffee by my side and a cat in my lap. Sometimes I get to enjoy music when my husband joins Oley Cat and me to serenade us with sacred songs and folk tunes on his dulcimer.
I journal about my priorities for the coming day. Or I write thoughts and insights generated by homework assignments my spiritual director gives me. Some mornings the writing consists largely of prayers of petition and intercession. Other times I make a gratitude list or offer prayers of thanksgiving.
Recently I’ve been recording my real feelings about my ongoing medical saga. I’m tired of doctors pushing pills. … I’m tired of bouncing from one specialist to the next like a human ping pong ball. … I’m tired of the feeling that I’m constantly at war with my own body. … I’m tired of symptoms that scare me. … I’m tired of being sick. … I’m sick of being tired. … I’m tired, I’m tired, I’m tired! The first time I wrote like that, tears were streaming down my face by the time I finished writing. But I felt better just getting it all on paper.
No matter what I choose to write about, my Morning Pages ritual continues to offer a great jumpstart to my day when I do it. And I’ve found this ritual to be a perfect form of prayer.
I’ve also continued to treat myself to occasional Artist Dates and expand my creativity in other ways. I may spend an hour or two walking around my backyard or the park snapping photos. Or I experiment with recipes. Or I play with Photoshop and design memes. Lately I’ve been teaching myself to use iMovie, a video editing software application that lets me create video clips.
In short, The Artist’s Way has given my creativity a significant boost over the years, and I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a way to coax their own Muse out of hiding.