Although The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron has similarities to the books about the writing process that I’ve reviewed so far, it also has significant differences. For Cameron, as well as Anne Lamott and Natalie Goldberg writing is process of becoming conscious. None of them tell you how to create the perfect plot that will propel you to fame and fortune, because for them that’s not what writing it about. They write, and I write, because it brings satisfaction in itself, for the sheer joy of putting words on paper and wondering where they came from.
In Bird by Bird, Lamott does touch on her Christian faith but it definitely does not dominate the book. In Writing Down the Bones, Goldberg often mentions Zen Buddhism and relates developing a practice of writing to developing a meditation practice. But again, while this shapes her perspective, it does not dominate. The Artist’s Way is much more -in-your-face when it comes to God. This puts some people off. I once ran a creative writing class where we worked with many of the ideas in The Artist’s Way, and several people said that they had tried to read the book before but dropped it the moment they read the word God, even though Cameron says, “When the word God is used in these pages, you may substitute the thought good orderly direction or flow. …Do not call it God unless that is comfortable to you.”
Another difference between The Artist’s Way and the other two books is that it is about creativity in general, rather writing in particular. Cameron’s view is that everyone can be creative, and that if we aren’t it is because something is blocking our creativity. I do pretty much agree with her – both as an art teacher and a creative writing tutor I’ve had opportunities to observe the ways that fear of not being good enough can stifle our creativity. (And of course I’ve seen it in myself.) Cameron says she teaches people “to let themselves be creative.”
Cameron writes a lot about creative “recovery.” She says that recovery takes time and is not a quick fix, but that it is a “teachable, trackable spiritual process.” Given this, it’s probably not surprising that The Artist’s Way is more prescriptive than Bird by Bird or Writing Down the Bones. It prescribes a twelve week course, and the two key components of that are: “The Morning Pages” and “The Artist Date.”
The Morning Pages
The Morning Pages are thee pages of writing that Cameron recommends all artists do first thing every day. You get up half an hour earlier than you normally would to write these pages. The reason for writing at this time is that our thought waves are closer to the unconscious mind than at other times of day. (In the 1930s, Dorothea Brande also advised writers to write in this way and at this time.) Cameron says that as you write you will notice “The Censor” – the self-punishing thought patterns. She also says: “Always remember that your Censor’s negative opinions are not the truth.” She suggests that you could write them down. I agree! Writing those thoughts down robs them of their power. Cameron says that you should not reread anything that you have written for the first eight weeks of the course, and don’t let anyone else read them either. Since this writing is for everyone, no matter what creative discipline they follow, the aim is not to produce great writing, but to remove creative blocks. In week 9 you read the pages and observe the patterns that appear – who have you whined about? How have you changed?
The Artist Date
The Artist Date is time you spend in solitude, nurturing the creative part of you. It could be a walk on a beach, in the country, at a concert – whatever and wherever you go, it should be enjoyable – and you should give the creative part of you full attention. Cameron says we should do this for about two hours once a week.
I am a big fan of morning pages, but I confess I have not been inclined to take my inner child on a weekly date. Now on re-reading The Artist’s Way for this review I wonder if perhaps I should. Although I do often take time to walk in nature, or by the sea (my favourite) I don’t schedule time every week and sometimes I can let life get too busy. So maybe it’s time to change that.
There are many other exercises in The Artist’s Way. Each of the twelve weeks has a different focus: for instance, in week one it is recovering a sense of safety, with exercises to uncover negative beliefs you hold about allowing yourself to be fully creative. These are the things we fear would happen if we allowed our creativity full expression, and they are what block us. Camerons suggests ways to uncover the roots of these blocks, which are almost always in childhood.
In week two, Cameron looks at how other people can fear our creativity, and suggests ways to deal with this. Week three focuses on recovering a sense of power, and in it exercises include looking at your habits and listing friends who nurture you – and then making contact with one of those.
You can probably see by now that The Artist’s Way isn’t for the faint-hearted. It requires a deep commitment to one’s own growth and indeed Cameron says she asks her students to commit to the work required. She asks: “Can you give yourself that gift?” Can you?