A little open mindedness, a lot of good

It was about 15 years ago that the first of many writer friends suggested I consider doing Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. And it was just the first of many times that my reaction was: “What? That hippie shit? Not a chance.” Because I’m just naturally open-minded like that. For those of you unfamiliar with Cameron’s work – which has given her vaulted status in creative-self-help circles – it’s a 12 week program for those who consider themselves “blocked” creatively. The idea is to take a fearless look at old beliefs, excuses and self-criticism that is holding us back from achieving our creative goals – and to start practicing being “honoring” our creative selves on a daily basis.

I know. A lot of hooey, right?

I should also mention that the subtitle of The Artist’s Way is: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. At the time my friend suggested I try this program, I was brand-spankin’ new in sobriety. I was having a terrible time going from agnostic-with-atheist leanings to someone who could find a place in a 12-step recovery program that asked me to embrace the concept of a higher power. One spiritual struggle was enough. I wasn’t anywhere near ready – or open enough – to consider The Artist’s Way.

As you can probably guess by the tenor of this post – which, I confess, I am writing despite lingering feelings of sheepishness – I have recently had a mind-shift about this hooey. And if you’re as astute as I think you are, then you’ve already guessed that it’s because I’m in the process of finishing up The Artist’s Way, and I have found it – much to the chagrin of my inner judgmental, stubborn self – revolutionary.

First, let me say that I am a firm believer that everyone has to be completely ready to undertake any sort of self-help endeavor and that we all come to these places in our own time, if ever. That is, I may be copping to having sipped some Kool Aid, but I want to be clear I’m not in the business of converting others.

I just want to stick with my intention of being more honest than ever in this blog, of trying to write without fear (or despite fear) about things that I’m, well, afraid to talk about. And right there next to “pain,” which I wrote about recently, is “writing about writing.” Or, more specifically, my fears about writing and my own ability to do so.

Nothing has brought these fears closer to the forefront than my decision a few years back to try my hand at writing a novel. When I first embarked upon this project, I was incredibly rusty at writing fiction, only recently having returned from a 15-year hiatus. But I was fueled by the rediscovery of my passion for fiction and I received some terrific encouragement to continue from very generous mentors. And so I did.

At the time I was writing the first draft, I found it to be a mind-bogglingly frustrating experience. I had no idea what I was doing, but I had an idea and I would just bang away for hours at the keyboard just to get all of it out of my head. Of course, in retrospect, as I flounder in the world of rewrites, those now seem like halcyon days. It actually helped that I was unaware then of just how little I knew; I could propel forward on enthusiasm alone.

The last two years, as I have continued revising my novel (with long intervals in between efforts), attendance at workshops has also taught me just how much work I still need to do to get where a good book needs to be. Ironically, it was after a particularly invigorating and encouraging workshop last July at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival that I found myself hitting a wall, and hard.

I had in my hands some very useful, very helpful input – practically a road map for what needed fixed. Yet when I got back to the solitude of my own cave, I had a very strange experience. I felt absolutely unequal to the task before me. I would open the damn file up and stare for hours. A tsunami of self-doubt – far greater than I knew I possessed – came rushing in. I became absolutely convinced that I couldn’t possibly do this.  I spent the next few months telling people I was “struggling” with the rewrite – which was code for “avoiding.”

And that - of course, crazy universe - is when another friend suggested The Artist’s Way. While I’d been extremely fast to poo-poo the idea in the past, I was at a particularly low place, creatively-speaking. It was painful to feel so…useless. To question whether or not I had been foolishly pursuing an endeavor that I simply lacked the talent for.

Before I could give it too much thought, I picked up a copy of The Artist’s Way and, surprising even myself, I dove right in. You know what they say about desperate times. I figured if I committed myself to a 12-week artistic “recovery” program, then at least I could buy myself 12 weeks of excuses why I wasn’t writing. I can’t write and recover, man.

I’ll be the first to say that it was tough to slog through some of the earlier pages in the book, especially those that hinged on the notion that creativity is a gift from God. You know, God. The Creator. Fortunately, my 12-step background had given me loads of experience with figuring out how to take what works for me and leave the rest, and I was able to do that (mostly) successfully here.

What I didn’t expect, going in, was how difficult and painful and absolutely essential it was to do the tasks aimed at helping me identify what exactly my inner critic is rattling on about – and the source(s) of all that negative thinking. It’s one thing to know you have self-doubts. It’s another to write each and every one of them out on paper and try to trace its origin.

However, I believe that hard work is required to do our biggest growing. That’s been my experience in 15 years of sobriety, and in the past 15 weeks of doing The Artist’s Way. (Yeah, I know it’s a 12-week program, but I’ve fallen behind a few times and had to push the reset button.) Until I identified all that horrible critical noise in my head, it was impossible for me to counter it, to separate it from reality. That alone has been life-changing for me.

I really needed to be told to stop using outside validation to define whether or not I’m a creative being. I needed to stop pinning that definition on how much I’d been published or how much money I earn with my creative pursuits. How refreshing just to know that you’re a creative being just because you are. No other justification needed. Really.

It has also helped me immensely to commit to writing morning pages – a few hand-written, stream-of-consciousness pages every day, aimed at clearing your mind and jump-starting each morning with a creative nudge. My morning ramblings haven’t consistently revealed anything mind-blowing, although a few genuine moments of epiphany emerged as I was busy writing about how stupid the assignments were. What’s actually been most useful to me is to look back at the morning pages I’ve written so far and it’s a stack. A stack. I didn’t realize how much it helped to know that I can be prolific, even if it’s not with anything I’d ever want others to lay eyes on. I can produce work.

I dragged my feet and rolled my eyes heartily, too, at the instruction to take myself on an Artist Date every week. Something the focuses on or informs my artistic self, by myself, for at least one hour. I’ve done a little creative tap-dancing around what qualifies – watching a documentary or making a pie, for example – but I can also say that merely acknowledging that the creative side of me requires and deserves attention – has had very tangible side effects. I’ve become a better baker. I’m reading more for pleasure than I have in years. I re-dedicated myself to learning about photography and on January 1, started a project on my Tumblr photo blog, Learning Curve, where I try to take and post one photo a day in 2012. I’m not nearly as worried about what other people think of my photos as I once was. That’s kind of amazing for me.

The Artist’s Way and my Artist Dates are also directly responsible for my re-starting this blog, because even though I still feel very uncertain and often overwhelmed in the world of novel-writing, I realized that I needed to get back to doing the kind of writing that comes easily to me – even if it doesn’t garner a lot of readers. That’s not really the point. The point is I need to remind myself not only that I’m someone who can write, but that I’m someone who does write.

Is that, technically, artistic recovery? Who knows? And who really cares? All I know is that, for the first time in years, I’m feeling a greater sense of possibility than insecurity regarding my creative life.  I’m recognizing and prioritizing how crucial it is for me to be a creative being. It feels pretty great. And if that ain’t worth the cover price, what is?