An Artist’s Bookshelf – “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron
This is the third book in an ongoing series where we’ll be talking about a small collection of books that deal with art and the creative process. These particular books were chosen because they have dramatically changed my own perspective as both a writer and as a human being
I really believe that any of the books in this series would be relevant for any type of artist including writers, musicians, visual artists, photographers, or anyone else who’s work is creatively inspired.
I hope that you will enjoy them as much as I have . . .
“The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron
237 pages Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam
Available at your local bookstore and at Amazon.com
If the book “Art & Fear” is intended to get your head on straight about creating your art, and “The Creative Habit” is intended to give you the work habits and self-discipline that you’ll need to succeed, Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” will offer to give you the courage and confidence to live your art in our often overly materialistic society.
This was the book.
This was the book that first validated for me the inherent value of the individual artist/writer in a culture that seemed to value safety, security, and conformity above all. This was the book that allowed me to diverge from the expectations that had been handed down to me, and gave me the courage to pursue my own path.
Like many struggling writers, I was first drawn to Julia Cameron’s book almost 15 years ago looking for answers to the most basic questions about the nature creativity and how to harness its power consistently. At the time, I was desperately looking for reasons not to abandon my writing completely as I began a new teaching career, a new marriage, and the prospect of starting a new family.
As I faced the grim prospect of college graduation, I was led to believe that it was time to let go of my foolish childhood dreams and “grow up” as I begin my career as a responsible adult. While no one actually said any of this out loud, the expectations were clear — It was time to move on. . .
This is not necessarily a book for those who are already on the creative path. This is a book for those who are on the edge of giving up, for those who may be consumed with fears and doubts of their creative ability, or for those who have already let go of their artistic dreams long ago. This is not a book about the creative process, but a book about “creativity recovery”. It was written for those of us who have temporarily lost our way, or those who have somehow buried that creative spark that lives deep within us.
It’s not surprising then that the content of this book was modeled after a traditional 12-step recovery program.
Remember , your artist is a child. Find and protect that child. Learning to let yourself create is like learning to walk. The artist child must begin by crawling. Baby steps will follow and there will be falls. ~Julia Cameron
Critics often complain that this book is sometimes a bit “hokey” and filled with vague feel-good exercises, quotes, and sentiments that really don’t teach you anything about how-to be a creative artist. I have no doubt that this book might seem simplistic and perhaps a bit naïve to someone who has been on their creative journey for some time. Then again, maybe they’ve simply forgotten what it was like for them in the beginning.
Somehow they have forgotten all of the fears and doubts that haunt every new creative soul starting off on this path. And although I believe that this book has something to offer every creative writer or visual artist no matter what their current level of experience may be, this book is primarily intended for those of us who may be either starting from the beginning or simply starting over.
In other words, these are the first tentative steps of a journey that never ends. . .
Here are just a few of the themes and excerpts from this amazing book:
What went wrong. . .
“Many of us wish we were more creative. Many of us sense we are more creative, but unable to effectively tap that creativity. Our dreams elude us. Our lives feel somehow flat. Often, we have great ideas, wonderful dreams, but are unable to actualize them for ourselves. Sometimes we have specific creative longings we would love to be able to fulfill — learning to play the piano, painting, taking an acting class, or writing. Sometimes our goal is more diffuse. We hunger for what might be called creative living — an expanded sense of creativity in our business lives, in sharing with our children, our spouse, our friends.”
“Many of us find that we have squandered our own creative energies by investing disproportionately in the lives, hopes, dreams, and plans of others. Their lives have obscured and detoured our own.”
“We begin to excavate our buried dreams. . . We mourn the self we abandoned. We greet this self as we might greet a lover at the end of a long and costly war.”
“Do you tell yourself that if only you took your creative potential seriously, you might:
- Stop telling yourself, “It’s too late.”
- Stop waiting until you make enough money to do something you’d really love.
- Stop telling yoursel, “It’s just my ego” whenever you yearn for a more creative life.
- Stop telling yourself that dreams don’t matter, that they are oinly dreams and that you should be more sensible
- Stop fearing that your family and friends would think you crazy
- Stop telling yourself that creativity is a luxury and that you should be grateful for what you’ve got.”
Artistic growing pains. . .
“As you learn to recognize, nurture, and protect your inner artist, you will be able to move beyond pain and creative constriction. You will learn ways to recognize and resolve fear, remove emotional scar tissue, and strengthen your confidence.”
“Making a piece of art may feel a lot like telling a family secret. Secret telling, by its very nature, involves shame and fear. It asks the question, “What will they think of me once they know this?”
“Working with this process, I see a certain amount of defiance and giddiness in the first few weeks. This entry stage is followed closely by explosive anger in the course’s midsection. The anger is followed by grief, then alternating waves of resistance and hope. This peaks-and-valleys phase of growth becomes a series of expansions and contractions, a birthing process in which students experience intense elation and defensive skepticism.
“It is my experience both as an artist and as a teacher that when we move out on faith into the act of creation, the universe is able to advance. It is a little like opening the gate at the top of a field irrigation system. Once we remove the blocks, the flow moves in.”
The importance of restocking the creative well . . .
“Art is an image-using system. In order to create, we draw from our inner well. This inner well, an artistic reservoir, is ideally like a well-stocked trout pond. We’ve got big fish, fat fish, skinny fish–an abundance of artistic fish to fry. As artists, we much realize that we have to maintain this artistic ecosystem. If we don’t give some attention to upkeep, our well is apt to become depleted, stagnant, or blocked. . . As artists, we must learn to be self-nourishing. We must become alert enough to consciously replenishing our creative resources as we draw on them. . . Filling the well involves the active pursuit of images to refresh our artistic reservoirs. Art is born in attention. Its mid-wife is detail.”
“In order to function in the language of art, we must learn to live in it comfortably. The language of art is image and symbol. It is a wordless language even when our very art is to chase it with words. The artist’s language is a sensual one, a language of felt experience. We we work at our art, we dip into the well of our experience and scoop out images. Because we do this, we need to learn how to put images back.”
“The artist brain is the sensory brain: sight and sound, smell and taste, touch. These are the elements of magic, and magic is the elemental stuff of art. In filling the well, think magic. Think delight. Think fun. Do not think duty. Do not do what you should do–spiritual sit-ups like reading a dull but recommended critical text. Do what intrigues you, explore what interests you; think mystery, not mastery.”
Avoiding toxic playmates . . .
“One of our chief needs as creative beings is support. Unfortunately, this can be hard to come by. Ideally, we would be nurtured and encourages first by our nuclear family and then by ever-widening circles of friends, teachers, well-wishers. As young artists, we need and want to be acknowledged for our attempts and efforts as well as for our achievements and triumphs. Unfortunately, many artists never receive this critical early encouragement. As a result, they may not know they are artists at all.”
“A rare family, faced with the myth of the starving artist, tell its children to go right ahead and try for a career in the arts. Instead, if encouraged at all, the children are urged into thinking of the arts as hobbies, creative fluff around the edges of real life.”
“Artists love other artists. Shadow artists are gravitating to their rightful tribe but cannot yet claim their birthright. Very often audacity, not talent, makes one person an artist and another a shadow artist–hiding in the shadows, afraid to step out and expose the dream to the light, fearful that it will disintegrate to the touch.”
“Judging your early artistic efforts is artist abuse. . . Remember that in order to recover as an artist, you must be willing to be a bad artist. Give yourself permission to be a beginner. By being willing to be a bad artist, you have a chance to be an artist, and perhaps, over time, a very good one”
“Creativity flourishes when we have a sense of safety and self-acceptance. . . we must learn to place our [inner] artist with safe companions. Toxic playmates can capsize our artist’s growth. Not surprisingly, the most poisonous playmates for us as recovering creatives are people whose creativity is still blocked. Our recovery threatens them.”
“Anger is fuel. We feel it and we want to do something. Hit someone, break something, throw a fit, smash a fist into the wall, tell those bastards. But we are nice people , and what we do with our anger is stuff it, deny it, bury it, block it, hide it, lie about it, medicate it, muffle it, and ignore it. We do everything but listen to it. Anger is meant to be listened to. . . Because anger is a map. Anger shows us what our boundaries are. Anger shows us where we want to go. . . Anger is not the action itself. It is action’s invitation.”
Money is not a reason to create, or not to create, your art . . .
“We cling to our financial concerns as a way to avoid not only our art but also our spiritual growth. Our faith is in the dollar. ‘I have to keep a roof over my head,’ we say. ‘Nobody’s going to pay me to be more creative.’ We are awfully sure about that. Most of us harbor a secret belief that work has to be work and not play, and that anything we really want to do—like write, act, dance—must be considered frivolous and be placed a distant second. This is not true.”
“What we really want to do is what we are really meant to do. When we do what we are meant to do, money comes to us, doors open for us, we feel useful, and the work we do feels like play to us.”
Perfectionism is a creativity killer. . .
“Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right. It has nothing to do with fixing things. It has nothing to do with standards. Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move forward. It is a loop—an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or making and to lose sight of the whole.”
“The perfectionist writes, paints, creates with one eye on her audience. Instead of enjoying the process, the perfectionist is constantly grading the results.
“To the perfectionist, there is always room for improvement. The perfectionist calls this humility. In reality, it is egotism. It is pride that makes us want to write a perfect script, paint a perfect painting, perform a perfect audience monologue.”
” ‘A painting is never finished. It simply stops in interesting places,’ said Paul Gardner. A book is never finished, but at a certain point you stop writing it and go on to the next thing. A film is never cut perfectly, but at a certain point you let go and call it done. That is a normal part of creativity—letting go.”
Finding the time (and courage) to create. . .
“Blocked creatives like to think they are looking at changing their whole life in one fell swoop. This form of grandiosity is very often its own undoing. By setting the jumps too high and making the price tag too great, the recovering artist sets defeat in motion. . . Creative people are dramatic, and we use negative drama to scare ourselves out of our creativity with this notion of wholesale and often destructive change. Fantasizing about pursuing our art full-time, we fail to pursue it part-time—or at all.”
“Creativity requires activity, and this is not good news for most of us. It makes us responsible, and we tend to hate that. . . And most of us hate to do something when we can obsess about something else instead.”
“The need to be a great artist makes it hard to be an artist. The need to produce a great work of art makes it hard to produce any art at all. . . Fear is what blocks an artist. The fear of not being good enough. The fear of not finishing. The fear of failure and of success. The fear of beginning at all.”
“Think of your talent as a young and skittish horse that you are bringing along. This horse is very talented but it is also young, nervous, and inexperienced. It will make mistakes, be frightened by obstacles it hasn’t seen before. It may even bolt, try to throw you off, feign lameness. Your job, as the creative jockey, is to keep your horse moving forward and to coax it into finishing the course.”
Fame is not the same as success. . .
“Fame is addictive and it always leaves us hungry. Fame is a spiritual drug. It is often a by-product of our artistic work, but like nuclear wast, it can be very dangerous by-product. Fame, the desire to attain it, the desire to hold on to it, can produce the ‘How am I doing?’ syndrome. This question is not ‘Is the work going well?’ This question is ‘How does it look to them?’ The point of the work is the work. Fame interferes with that perception”
“Focusing on fame–on whether we are getting enough–creates a continual felling of lack. There is never enough of the fame drug. Wanting more will always snap at our heels, discredit our accomplishments, erode our joy at another’s accomplishment. . . The only cure for the fame drug is creative endeavor. Only when we are being joyfully creative can we release this obsession with others and how they are doing.”
“Creativity is a spiritual practice. It is not something that can be perfected, finished, and set aside. . . This unfinished quality, this restless appetite for further exploration, tests us. We are asked to expand in order that we not contract. . . As artists we are spiritual sharks. The ruthless truth is that if we don’t keep moving, we sink to the bottom and die. . . The stringent requirement of a sustained creative life is the humility to start again, to being anew.”
What do you think about “The Artist’s Way”?
Even if you haven’t read this book yet, based on what you’ve read here. . .
- Do you think Julia Cameron is right when she says that the biggest obstacle in our path as artists is fear and not lack of creative talent?
- Do you agree with the idea that what we really want to do is what we are really meant to do?
- Have you managed to clear out all of the “toxic playmates” in your creative life? Where are you able to find the support you need to continue on the creative path?
- Do you agree that perfectionism is not about fixing or getting it right, but is an excuse to keep you from moving forward?
- How do you restock your “creative well”?
About the Author
Writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist community. His book "Getting Creative: Developing Creative Habits that Work" is all about finding the time (and energy) to live a more creative life.