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Review of The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron

Returning to The Artist's Way

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When I picked up The Artist’s Way as a graduate student seven years ago, I very much resembled the skeptics Julia Cameron describes in her opening chapter. And like them, I found that despite my cynicism, her technique worked, helping me unpack the life experiences that led to that particular moment of writer’s block and build new habits to overcome it. Now, years later, blocked once again, I thought I’d revisit her methods and see how I respond to them as an older person and a more experienced writer.

Methods of The Artist's Way

A recovering alcoholic, Cameron provides a 12-step program to help readers through a process of “creative recovery.” Readers study one chapter a week and then respond to questions such as “Time Travel: List three old enemies of your creative self-worth. . . . Your historic monsters are the building blocks of your core negative beliefs.” In addition, the 12-week course supplies readers with daily and weekly assignments — morning pages, artist dates, and exercises — that help them to develop creative habits.

One Long-Term Experience of the Methods

Several components of the book have stayed with me over the years. For instance, seven years ago I was particularly struck by the sections on “filling the well.” Cameron instructs readers to take a week off reading to force them to observe the world. I will still periodically take days or weeks off to give myself the opportunity to look around, listen to other people’s conversations, or interact with people I might not usually talk to. Her "morning pages," which refer to the habit of writing three pages first thing in the morning, had also stuck with me.

On the other hand, the weekly artist date had fallen by the wayside. As a working stiff, it had just seemed self-indulgent. Yet when I took an afternoon off to go to an art museum, I couldn't help but notice how good it felt to be there, just wandering around looking at art. I started remembering all the things I used to do to nurture my creativity that I don’t do anymore. The next day, I pulled The Artist’s Way off the shelf. I wanted to find out why I had stopped making time to be creative and how that related to my current block.

Impressions of The Artist's Way Seven Years Later

Overall, my perceptions of the book have not changed. If anything, I am less patient with the tone, which I find somewhat hokey, and with the profiles. However, if my critical mind has grown sharper in the intervening years, my ego has shrunk. I dove right into the exercises and almost immediately found myself thinking, “This is good. This is going to work again.” In my morning pages, I began reflecting on the reasons for my block, why I thought being creative was self-indulgent, who had told me that, and why. I started to think of myself as a creative person again — and to believe that as a creative person, I could devote time to creative activities without feeling guilty.

The great thing about a program like Cameron’s is that the reader doesn’t have to buy into all of it, or any of it, for it to work. Despite the subtitle, it's more like jogging than like a religion. Whether you believe in jogging or not, it will get you into shape if you do it every day. It’s just a fact. That’s the most powerful thing about The Artist’s Way. It may employ some New Age and self-help jargon, but it’s a practical, hands-on program to get you working creatively again. There is a good reason the book has become a classic in the genre: it works.

To get more of an idea of what Julia Cameron is all about, see a review of The Right to Write and do a writing exercise inspired by one in the book.

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