This Writer's Life

The Artist’s Way, Thirty Years Later

My mother gave me a copy of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron in 1992, the year it came out and the year I turned 32. It’s safe to say that Cameron’s book was a factor in my decision to quit my high-tech job in Silicon Valley and return to school. It took eleven years, but I finally earned a BA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing. I’m a writer and a teacher now, thanks in no small part to the wisdom I found in The Artist’s Way.

I’d come across Natalie Goldberg’s self-help classic, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, a few years earlier. Although I enjoyed the book, it didn’t have the same impact on me as The Artist’s Way. This is probably because I was younger when I read Goldberg’s book, and the year I read it, 1987, was a happy, distracting time for me. I got married and bought my first house that year, two milestones that absorbed all of my energy. I wrote in tiny bits of time stolen from my full-time job, scribbling poems and stories at night and on my lunch hours. The idea that this could become my main practice seemed highly implausible.

But in 1992, I was more than ready. When I opened The Artist’s Way and scanned the first few pages, lights came on in my brain. Cameron writes of “blocked artists” (this was the first time I’d heard of this condition), our internalized critic, a.k.a., “the Censor,” and the all-important Morning Pages, which I quickly recognized as another name for the freewriting I’d done in college ten years earlier.

When I first read The Artist’s Way, I didn’t grasp its connection to the modern recovery movement. Each chapter starts with the words “Recovering a Sense of.” Laid out in a twelve-week plan (I later learned that Cameron is a recovering alcoholic) the chapter titles end in positive, affirming words: “safety,” “identity,” “power,” “integrity,” “possibility,” “abundance,” “connection,” “strength,” “compassion,” “self-protection,” “autonomy,” and, finally, “faith.” My favorite parts of the book, however, were the sidebar quotes. From M. C. Richard: “Poetry often enters through the window of irrelevance;” from Jean Houston: “at the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities.” Read in order, these flashes of insight created their own text.

So how well does The Artist’s Way, and other books in this genre, hold up after thirty years? They are still worth reading, as long as readers understand that there is much more to an artist’s life than what they present. One of the glaring omissions in these books, which strikes me as odd since they’re mostly written by women, is a frank discussion of the obstacles that women face when they attempt to carve out some time for themselves in order to practice their art. Cameron touches on it in Chapter 5, but she muddies the water by toggling between hypotheticals: a man with an interest in photography vs. a woman who wants to take a pottery class. These are not equal entities, but Cameron treats them as such.

As we all know, wives, mothers, sisters, female servants, etc., traditionally did the domestic work, including raising children. This mostly unpaid labor provided male artists with the time and solitude they needed to be creative. As Toni Morrison states, as quoted in Chapter 5 of The Artist’s Way: “We are traditionally rather proud of ourselves for having slipped creative work in there between the domestic chores and obligations. I’m not sure we deserve such a big A-plus for that.”

Gradually, I outgrew The Artist’s Way, and its exhortation to unblock my creative potential. I’ve come to realize that Cameron’s book, as well as Goldberg’s and many others in the creativity genre, are as much autobiography as they are instructional manual. They tell a compelling story of recovery from a variety of things, whether substance abuse, low self-esteem, or a lack of faith; for that alone, they have value. 

There’s no doubt that these books, which created their own genre, have had a substantial impact on a lot of us, myself included. The books led to a marketing bonanza: workbooks, card decks, courses, appearances on all forms of media, support groups, etc. Bookstores had to make a new category for them, titled “Creativity.” These books were more than how-to manuals. They promised to remove the blocks from your life, allowing the creative person you were born to be to emerge, like a beautiful butterfly. I’m not sure they live up to this claim, but I felt the power in their message: you can do this, and here’s how.

Categories: This Writer's Life

1 reply »

  1. The Artist’s Way had a powerful impact on me as well and in a way I could say it led me to poetry at a time when I was receptive to it. Those “morning pages” helped me realize I could say something and might have something to say.
    Thanks for writing about this book and also noting its omissions.

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