I rarely re-read books. That’s partly a space thing – I live in a small house – and and partly that there’s just too damn much out there I want to read to bother going back.
But this past week I’ve had the very odd experience of not just re-reading a book, but doing so immediately after putting it down. The book in question is Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way, a best-selling self-help book designed to help you unblock your creativity. Doing this three-month course has been one of the big projects I’ve tackled since being laid off from my job. And the reason I re-read it is that the very last task Cameron assigns her readers when they’ve completed their 12 weeks is to go back and re-read the book, before doing anything else.
It’s an amazing book and has been a transformative experience for me both creatively and personally (more on that another time). And yet, I was still skeptical, and considered whether I should ignore this task altogether. But I trust Cameron, so I gave it a shot.
Here are five things that really made sense to me only when I re-read the book for a second time:
a. Morning Pages Matter. These are the three pages of hand-written writing you do every day when you wake up. They are *the* most important element of the creative recovery. I was very open to this idea when she suggested it, but I thought it would serve merely as a way to dump all the anxiety out of my head that had accrued overnight while I was sleeping, so that I could put that aside before I started writing. (It does.) I never imagined the morning pages would also serve my writing directly . Since starting to journal first thing every morning, ideas have emerged that have been directly channeled into blog posts, personal essays, fiction and my book project itself. When I went back through the book and also re-read my morning pages, I could trace this evolution very clearly.
b. The Artist’s Date is a Date. The other pillar of Cameron’s exercises is a weekly (or more) “artist’s date” – what she describes as “a block of time set aside to nurture your creative consciousness.” It took me about four weeks until I realized that I’d gotten this concept entirely wrong. I thought the Artist’s Date was just about setting aside time to execute a creative project (e.g. writing). So I keep giving myself a pat on the back when I spent some time writing every day. “Heh,” I thought. “I’m doing an artist’s date every day – this is easy!” But that’s *not* what the Artist’s Date is. It’s about going out and doing something fun to fuel your creativity, not your creative project itself. So going for a walk and collecting leaves counts. Grabbing your guitar and singing a tune counts. I started taking an improvisation acting course – that’s my main artist’s date these days. I’m so glad I figured this out!
c. Affirmations: External vs. Internal. To jump-start the creative recovery process, Cameron suggests that you make a list of “affirmations”- i.e., specific pieces of praise you’ve gotten from other people that will make you feel more confident about undergoing your journey of creative self-discovery. My big realization when I read the book through for a second time was that while all of my affirmations when I started the course were external – i.e,. a letter of gratitude from a colleague, an inspiring comment from a reader of my blog – by the end of the course they were largely internal – i.e., me telling myself something positive about my writing/myself. Cameron never says that’s supposed to happen, but I am very happy that it did.
d. Images help imagine you into your future self. Cameron also advocates compiling an ongoing collection of images of things you like and/or signify your future self as a way to remind you about the tangible things that contribute to your creative happiness. At first, I was dubious. I’m not a terribly visual person and I didn’t feel like taking time out of my day to hunt for images of a typewriter on Google. But I did it (I’m an upholder, after all!), and soon I found myself making a list of images I wanted to collect – like making jewelry and reading on beaches and other aspects of the “ideal life” I’m composing for myself – and adding to that folder from time to time. Re-reading the book reminded me of my initial (misguided) reluctance to do the image homework.
e. Creativity and God. Cameron is very religious and she makes this very clear from the get-go, even though she doesn’t force you to buy into the concept. If you’re more comfortable talking about a “creative force,” so be it – all of her advice still applies. I’m deeply ambivalent about religion and so initially the whole God thing didn’t work for me. I was actually worried early on that it might put me off the whole process. But I hung in there and discovered that not only did Cameron’s vision of God work for me – (she likes to think of God as a generous, supportive force rather than a punitive, miserly one), I realized that sorting this out was absolutely fundamental to the creative catharsis I subsequently underwent.
If you’re thinking of a holiday gift for someone and you sense they may have an artist trapped deep inside them, I’d urge you to get them this book.
Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers!