The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity
The Artist’s Way
Week One: Recovering a Sense of Safety
Is my singular definition of myself as a novelist useful to me?
Before reading this chapter, I had understood my creative past to be intact.
Week Two: Recovering a Sense of Identity
Oh. Just as I have singularly defined myself as a novelist, I have singularly devoted myself to work and exercise at the expense of all the other aspects of existence.
Is this my real life? Because it looks like a bummer.
Week Three: Recovering a Sense of Power
Week Four: Recovering a Sense of Integrity
andGet away from me!
Week Five: Recovering a Sense of Possibility
A quote I highlighted in this chapter:
“Expect your every need to be met, expect the answer to every problem, expect abundance on every level, expect to grow spiritually.”(Eileen Caddy)
In week five, we get into scarcity, which is a popular fixation. Do you think that your good luck is about to end? Do you think that your bad luck will go on forever?
The antidote to scarcity thinking is, of course, a greater reliance on God, but that doesn’t mean you can just sit back and loaf and expect magic. You have to work too. Or, as Julia puts it: “Pray to catch the bus, then run as fast as you can.”
The assumption that the world doesn’t have enough for us: This is usually what we’re talking about when we talk about scarcity. In this chapter, Julia specifies scarcity thinking as it relates to the process of making art. “We are stingy with ourselves,” she writes. Sometimes, we set aside our art to be good mothers or good friends or good whatevers, and while this may look good from afar, it’s actually not. According to Julia, it’s called the Virtue Trap. In this trap, procrastination is confused for martyrdom. We could also go further and say that the procrastination is self-sabotage, which of course it is.
What Julia suggests we do in the tasks for week five is get granular about how we’re self-sabotaging. What are the ways in which we’re mean to ourselves? I answered as follows: “When I’m not 110 percent, I guess I feel like I’m on the brink of becoming a burger flipper.”
Week Six: Recovering a Sense of Abundance
“Listening to the siren song of more, we are deaf to the still small voice waiting in our soul to whisper, ‘You’re enough.’”
Next to this, I wrote, “OMFG this sentence.”
In this chapter, Julia continues the scarcity conversation by talking about it in reverse. Abundance! Luxury! Yes, we are stingy with ourselves. And that is why, as Julia writes, “luxury is a learned practice.” Can we buy ourselves a candle? Carve out a nook in the house for our books? Take a ten-minute minibath? (Yes, minibath as one word is another coined term, and I award Julia forty points for it.)
My luxuries in week six: I bought a very expensive candle. I also spent an entire day painting a portrait of my bouncy ball. (Please see the header to this essay.)
An unexpected suggestion from Julia in this chapter is to keep a log of all your expenses. Money is energy. Where is yours going?
At least seven hundred people (self-help gurus, money experts, anyone with common sense) have told me to keep a money log.
But I never did it.
What this leads me to believe: I trust Julia Cameron more than I trust other people.
Chapter Seven: Recovering a Sense of Connection
Miles Davis said, “Don’t fear mistakes. There are none.”
I mean, how nice would it feel to really internalize that?
In this chapter, Julia invites us to think about the things we’d do if we didn’t have to do them perfectly. She lists a bunch of options. My favorite? Flying a trapeze.
More interesting: Julia’s Jealousy Map, an exercise in which we are asked to write down all the people we’re jealous of (column one) and explain why (column two). I wrote down the names of people who are shinier than me. Column three is called Action Antidote. Translation: What are you going to do about it? Next to every name, I wrote, “Keep working.” This is how jealousy becomes a map. It shows you what direction to take.
Side note: Green is the color of jealousy and also of hope. (I didn’t know this.)
My favorite Task this week: Listen to music and doodle. (Julia recommends listening to one side of an album. This is one of the many cute relics from the nineties that appears in the book.)
Returning to the question I posed in week one—Is my singular definition of myself as a novelist useful to me?—I knew before starting the book that the answer was no. What this exercise and Julia in general encouraged me to do was double down on my no. No, I don’t have to only write novels, and no, I don’t have to feel bad about spending my time making technically imperfect doodles. Since I have zero training as a visual artist, I’m not supposed to be good at it. My doodles are supposed to be imperfect. Making things with no expectations attached? Offers the same freedom that I imagine trapeze flyers must feel.
Week Eight: Recovering a Sense of Strength
This chapter is about how to survive the artistic journey. Because there will be setbacks. In week eight, I was prompted to recall all the many setbacks I’ve had in my career so far, such as all those novels I wrote that are still on my computer and nowhere else.
Julia’s consideration of the full arc of the artist’s life—or of the full mountain range of peaks and valleys—was helpful to read about. I felt like, Oh, that’s right, things will keep changing. It reminded me of a thing my friend Liz says sometimes: “It’s about the long game. We just have to stay in the game.”
Many of us, Julia writes, “get stuck within shouting distance of [our] dreams.” And then we get mad about it and possibly become disgruntled academics instead of the artists we intended to become.
Julia advises that we (A) don’t give up on our original dreams, and (B) take baby steps to attaining them. The goal should not be fame. It should be to write a sentence. Julia calls this “filling the form.” When we take small actions, our dreams slowly fill the form like water fills a glass.
One of the tasks in week eight is to write about yourself as a color. I wrote, “I am green, the color of jealousy and of hope.”
Week Nine: Recovering a Sense of Compassion
Super interesting in this chapter: the concept of Creative U-Turns.
What is a Creative U-Turn? It’s when you almost attain a goal and then walk away from it. Or, as Julia explains, it’s when you’re used to getting your needs met by being unhappy, so you keep yourself unhappy. (Next to this, I wrote, “Whoa.”)
Why do we take Creative U-Turns? Because most of us don’t really fear failure. We fear success.
My first reaction to this concept was, No, I don’t do that. After some reflection, I realized that actually, yes I do. I have dreams of writing in new forms (TV, nonfiction), so I write drafts of pilots and essays—and then I set them aside to work on the thing I’m supposed to be good at: the novel. Novels are easy for me. Writing this nonfiction essay is less easy. But look at me! Here I am! Right now! Working through my fears! How meta!
I just flipped to the end of the book to look at Julia’s author photo. Her hand is resting on her cheek and her hair is a feathered, buoyant clump that reminds me of the show DesigningWomen. Even though her mouth is closed, I can hear her whispering, “You go, girl.”
I trust Julia Cameron more than I trust other people.
Week Ten: Recovering a Sense of Self-Protection
What are the toxic patterns we cling to that block our creative flow?
Julia devotes a lot of time to workaholism, which I appreciate because this is an area of opportunity for me. As evidenced by my lopsided Life Pie in week one, I tend to work at the expense of play. Incrementally, by week ten, I was getting better at playing (“Went rollerblading in Santa Monica!” I wrote in my notes), but, you know, change is a process.
In this chapter, Julia reminds us of what she suggested we write on a Post-it Note a few weeks earlier: “Treating myself like a precious object will make me strong.”
This Post-it is stuck above my desk as we speak. Every time I see it, I think, Oh yeah, I am not a soldier. I am a precious object.
Like a lot of suggestions in The Artist’s Way, this one seemed silly. And then I did it. And it was a revelation.
Week Eleven: Recovering a Sense of Autonomy
This week, we learn that there is no there there. Right when you get the thing you wanted, there is something else to want. The goal of attaining success, then, is always present, because the definition of success is always changing.
Success, according to Julia, has nothing to do with money, which strikes me as a problematically utopian point of view. “To be an artist is to risk admitting that much of what is money, property, and prestige strikes you as just a little silly.” Next to this sentence, I wrote, “Disagree.” Separating money from art is a nice idea, but because we live in the now as opposed to the hunter-gatherer era, I don’t think it’s realistic, at least not for full-time artists.
One of the tasks in week eleven is to write down the ways in which we’ve changed in recovery. I wrote, “I now categorize joy as productivity, I’ve gotten rid of things I never thought I’d part with, I feel new freedom in my work, I’m totally clear on where all my money is going, and I have a painting of my ball.”
Week Twelve: Recovering a Sense of Faith
Instead of trusting God’s will for us, Julia explains, “we have bought the message of our culture: this world is a vale of tears and we are meant to be dutiful and then die.”
Next to this, I wrote, “Holy shit, Julia.”
In this final chapter, we take another look at where spirituality meets art making. The basic memo is: You are not in control even though you very much want to be. “By trusting,” Julia writes, “we learn to trust.” I wrote this on a Post-it even though Julia didn’t tell me to, and I stuck it right next to the one about treating myself as a precious object.
At the end of the book, Julia cautions us about what may lay ahead. The Artist’s Way is about forging a new path. Often, just as we are about to excitedly set off on that new path, a Test appears. The Test, essentially, is a thing that wants to keep us stuck. Example: You decide to fire your editor, but then your editor gives you nice compliments so you don’t fire them.
Settling for good enough: Who doesn’t relate to this? A large part of my journey through The Artist’s Way consisted of me observing the elements of my life that I’d considered to be status quo and asking, Could this be better?
I didn’t expect this book to cut so deep, nor did I expect it to veer off into so many territories of my life. I didn’t expect Julia to ask me to keep a money log, or to reassess my relationships, or to collect five rocks and five leaves from outside (I forgot to mention this earlier, but wow, it was so fun). I didn’t expect her jaw-drop-inducing turns of phrase (“this world is a vale of tears”) or the revealing tidbits about her life (“recently, I bought myself a horse”). Basically, I expected not very much from Julia, and what she ended up giving me was a lot.
The Artist’s Way broadened my narrow horizons—both in terms of how I define myself as an artist and in terms of how I weave art making into my life. I’d been wanting to work in new forms anyway. After holding Julia’s hand for twelve weeks, I felt more license to do that, and less inclined to label myself as a capital-N Novelist. My day-to-day goals shifted from “work all the time” to “work most of the time but don’t forget to play with your ball.” In short, Julia put me back in touch with my inner child, which might sound kind of woo-woo to you, but if you think about it longer, it makes complete sense. What is adulthood if not the process of forgetting and then trying to remember who you were to begin with?
To begin with, I was a kid in glasses who wrote everything down because it pleased her. To begin with, Rocket Woman was possibly making yarn items.
Where is Rocket Woman now?
I don’t know, but Rocket Woman, I’m sorry for judging you. And Julia Cameron, I’m sorry for judging you too. Your way is better than my way.
Swan Huntley is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her novels include Getting Clean With Stevie Green, The Goddesses, and We Could Be Beautiful. She earned her MFA at Columbia University and has received fellowships from MacDowell and Yaddo. Her essays have appeared on Salon, The Rumpus, and Autostraddle, among others.