The Artist’s Way

It took me a long while to get to it. I first looked at a friend’s copy years ago. He recommended it highly, though he hadn’t done the program, just dabbled in it. Same as a lot of other people i talked to over the next few years — people who owned the book, intended (some day) to follow through its 12 weeks, but hadn’t — yet.

I’ve been a blocked, underproducing artist for some years now, sinking slowly into frustration, bitterness and a general rut. My artistic life consisted of mostly attempts to finish up things begun months or years ago, a backlog of seemingly good ideas that i couldn’t let go of and really should finish up so i could move on to the new stuff. It wasn’t crippling — i have managed to throw together a quite a few good poems and pieces — but there’s no doubt the energy and the fun was draining out of my writing, and out of life too.

In Victoria last solstice season (Xmas for the Christianity-impaired) i met with Min, a writer and Tofino ex-pat, who reminded me once again about The Artist’s Way, a book by Julia Cameron. The subtitle is “A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity,” and the cover of the 10th anniversary edition proclaims it “a course in discovering and recovering your creative self.” Min had recently done the program, raved about it, said how it had jump-started her. Sounded good to me, and i was ready to try anything, pretty much, to shake me out of my malaise. What to lose?

I went to Russell Books, on Fort Street in Victoria. Unsurprisingly, they had over a dozen used copies — proof that many people bought the book because they thought they ought, and then never pursued it; they weren’t ready. I was ready. I bought a copy, brought it back to Toff town in January, and resolved to get into it … when i had the time. Because once you start looking into it, it requires a lot of time — ideally an hour a day, every day for the twelve weeks of the “course.”

But in February a poster appeared on the boards around town : “Artists Anonymous — an Artist’s Way group.” Serendipity #1! (Inside joke: serendipity is one of the ways, according to The Artist’s Way, that you can tell your creative recovery is working.) So i joined Harmony, the organizer, and about eight other people for the first meeting in February, and we began. Except not everybody was ready, i guess. Or they didn’t know the book, or couldnt’ get a copy. Unsurprisingly, they all dropped away except for Harmony and me. We pursued it, week by week, with lapses and delays as spring matured and life got busier. It’s taken us at least 12 weeks to get to week eight in the book, which i’ll finish up tonight. But as i wrote in my “morning pages” today (morning pages are a major component of the Artist Way), i feel like i’m on fire with creative energy these days. I’ve got so many ideas it’s scaring me, the thought of keeping up with them or bringing any of them to life.

I always go into these new-agey things with a high degree of suspicion. But i remember about week four thinking, “This woman knows what she’s talking about.” The seemingly random, disconnected series of exercises, thought experiments, jottings and tasks starts to gel, to interconnect. I began to realize just how dysfunctional, from a creative/artistic point of view, was my thinking, and how i’d structured my life, and how the whole culture around me was stacked against “filling the well,” or tending properly to the “artistic child.” I began to feel i was in good hands — a very welcome feeling — and to pour some real enthusiasm into the work of self-discovery and self-nurturing.

The point, of course, is to transform work (in the drudging, obligatory, unpleasant Protestant sense) into play — effortless, springing from not “me” as a limited, solitary, more-or-less heroic individual, but from some larger, universal source. As Julia points out (a gigantic obviousness that is generally ignored), the universe is a massively creative place; a constant churn of what we call ”change“ and cite as a bothersome given can more aptly be seen as creativity, on the world’s part, and it never ceases. We humans spend most of our energy striving for stability and control, for getting our lives to a place where we are reasonably content and then expending infinitely more effort to keep it that way … and in doing so we fly in the face of this crazy, unavoidable change.

So i’m seeing creativity is not just the narrow, artistic thing we (or at least i, in my habitual mind) was thinking — the production of some tangible work of art or entrepreneurial enterprise. It’s how one properly engages with the world, and with one’s own place in it. Julia gets into this spiritual angle early on, referring to it (somewhat apologetically) as “God,” which is offputting until one begins to grasp what she’s getting at. And when one, such as me, has fallen into the unthinking habit of denying Flow (my own rebranding of “God”) and living by rote, in fixed and known roles, places and ideas … well, one’s life gets mighty stale.

So now life has become, in intermittent bursts and stretches, un-stale. Yes, it’s a bit of a pain to find the time to do the stuff she demands — half an hour for morning pages, mandatory, and maybe half an hour during each day to read the chapters and ”do the work“ — tasks, exercises. I don’t always get it done, and during the past couple of weeks i’ve been particularly sloppy. But i’m on it still, enthusiastically. I realized this week while reading chapter eight, highlighter in hand, ejaculating cries of ”oh yes!“ and ”of course!“ — that i’ve never marked up a book so much as this one, not even textbooks back in school.

May it last! And if i keep ”filling the well,“ as she counsels, there’s really no reason it should not. It’s not about “work,” whatever you want to mean by than. Not about your relationship to the cobalt blue or the Underwood or the xylophone. It’s way, way bigger than that. It’s what the gurus like to make mysterious by calling it “spiritual.”

Heck, it’s not mysterious at all. It’s not about the art or the artist; it’s about life, and how one lives it. Do that with freedom and rutless thinking and the art will flow naturally, because that is how the universe is made, and we not just in that universe, we are it.

And there’s my “small and gentle goal” met for today.

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