Friday, June 21, 2019

The Artist's Way Program: Week 1


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 1, Recovering a Sense of Safety

This is a series of blog posts following my experiences doing Julia Cameron’s 12-week Artist’s Way program. If this series is new to you, feel free to read the original book review first.

Each week has a particular theme (although I would argue the themes are mostly arbitrary; every week is about self-reflecting on your creativity). Our first week focuses on “recovering a sense of safety.” Cameron starts each week with a short chapter written around the week’s theme, followed up by some relevant assignments.

Week 1’s chapter talks a lot about common experiences that shut down creativity: early parental criticism or concern, negative feedback from others (friends, classmates, co-workers, strangers), our own self-doubt. Throughout this program, Cameron makes the convincing point that our society perpetrates a perception that people either are or are not artists. And if you want to be creative but have been told you are not an artist, that’s difficult to overcome.

Along these lines, Cameron discusses and lists some common “core negative beliefs” about what will happen if we indulge our creative selves. These include: “I will hurt my family and friends,” “I will do bad work and not know it and look like a fool,” and “It’s too late.” As a means of investigating our own core negative beliefs, Cameron asks that you pick an affirmation for yourself (such as “I am a talented painter”; whatever you want and don’t overthink it). Write down this affirmation ten times. Now for most people, myself included, writing an affirmation triggers your inner critic. Some part of your brain responds with, “No, you’re not. You don’t spend enough time at it. You never studied art in school. Your work is too derivative.” Cameron calls these negative responses to an affirmation “blurts.” Write down your blurts, too, and, as the final step, craft each of those blurts into a new affirmation. “I don’t paint enough” can become “I need only paint if and when I want to.” You will read these affirmations to yourself at the start of each day. If any additional “blurts” come up, write them down and add new affirmations to the list. As for my own experience, I have never worked with affirmations before. Truth be told, I considered them the kind of cheesy, over-indulgent positivity that clashes with my cynical, intellectual side. Having actually tried them now, I want to change my answer. The affirmations empowered me far more than I expected, and I also realized my own flawed logic in treating my creativity and intellect as warring opponents.

Week 1 also introduces two tasks that will be with us throughout the program and, Cameron bets you, even longer: morning pages and artist dates. For morning pages, you start every day by writing three handwritten pages of whatever: anything that’s on your mind from mundane errand lists to a bigger conflict to creative inspirations. Do not overthink nor judge your pages; do not reread them or share them with anyone else. For the artist date, once a week you set aside about two hours for “creative exploration.” The idea is to do something, alone (the date is between yourself and your own creativity), that intrigues you, ideally something you normally don’t make time for, perhaps even a “time waster.”

I didn’t find the morning pages that helpful. I’ve never been someone who journals. I’ve tried multiple times, mostly at the urging of other writers, but I always end up irritated at the pettiness of my own thoughts, resenting that they’re now preserved in paper and ink, and tossing the whole journal. Also I already wake at five am most days and promptly start writing. Morning pages only postpone my “actual” writing. However, I believe you can’t say something doesn’t work until you try it, so I will continue to do the pages throughout the program. But I don’t expect I’ll have any interest in continuing them afterwards, as Cameron claims most of her students do.

I did, however, immediately like the artist date idea. With one caveat. None of Cameron’s suggestions sounded that appealing to me. For starters, I am an introverted homebody and the majority of her ideas are all about going somewhere. I have plenty of creative things I never make time for, but they’re still mostly at-home projects. I believe a big part of getting the most from anything new is being flexible and adapting it to you. Once I accepted that there isn’t a right or wrong way to do artist dates, that the whole idea is to do what I want, I loved the concept. I made a looooong list of ideas that excite me. Then, for my first ever artist date, I did something I have literally been “meaning to do” for almost a decade: started my inspirational poster. An author’s journey is filled with rejection and requires exceptional grit. A long time back, I had the idea to collect quotes that inspire and motivate me, lay them out all aesthetically pretty and colorful like scrapbook pages, and cover the wall around my writing desk with them. Then I can look up anytime from my keyboard and be surrounded by the insights that drive me.

Some of the other exercises this week included: writing up a “contract” for yourself committing to this program, listing three creative enemies and three creative champions from your past, and quickly—without overthinking—listing five alternate lives for yourself. I found the contract a bit silly and unnecessary; however, I am appreciating how much more you get from handwriting rather than typing or just reading. There’s a noticeably different mind connection when your hand forms out these thoughts letter by letter.

As for the creative enemies, two didn’t surprise me in the least but the third came as a big surprise. I wrote down the name of a childhood friend. I’ll be vague for privacy, but we met in elementary school and only now can I see it was always a one-way friendship. I really liked her and wanted to be her friend. However, she treated friendship with me more as a power position for taking revenge. For what? Well, over the years, from elementary school to high school, she and I were often put up for the same accolades…and I always won. Every time she would tell me how unfair it was, that I didn’t deserve to win. She would belittle my accomplishments and claim I won for wrong reasons. I always assumed this was normal venting over her loss, so I nodded along and apologized for winning until we moved back towards the friendship dynamic I actually liked. This person’s name popping up on my creative enemy list also surprised me because the accolades in question had nothing to do with creativity. Most were academic. But I realized the emotions around having your accomplishments dismissed are transferable. This false friend had contributed to a broader imposter syndrome that even when I do receive recognition I don’t truly deserve it.

As for the creative champions, I warmed at the memory of my favorite author pulling me aside at my first ever writing conference and giving me advice. She gave me so much of her time and was patient with all my very beginner publishing questions, but more than the exact advice she shared her greatest gift was that she took me seriously. I said I wanted to be writer and she didn’t waste any time with doomsdayer discouragement or patronizing prove-yourself questions, but instead took me aside, professional to professional, and said, “Right, here’s what you do.”

The alternate lives task also turned out to be a big deal for me. Without giving myself time to second guess, I wrote down: dancer, teacher, dog trainer, actress, and therapist. Next Cameron asks you to pick one of those alternate lives and allow yourself to pursue it a little. I chose dancer. I injured my knees playing soccer in high school and dancing is likely too high impact for me. However, two years ago I had been getting into aerial silks. I stopped after a serious injury (tearing both my hamstrings), but it had been two years since my last class, long past when my physical therapist cleared me to return. I told myself it was too expensive, but in truth I felt ashamed for the injury (I had definitely caused it by pushing myself too hard) and fearful about reinjury. My partner remembers silks making me extremely happy and was incredibly supportive about me returning despite the extra expense. Then a quick email to the instructors reassured me that they will keep my injury in mind and respect if I take my sweet time learning new moves slowly and carefully. I also reframed this as an opportunity for personal growth. Scared about injuring myself again? Don’t push so hard this time! There’s really no reason to overwork myself doing something that’s intended to be fun. 

While I definitely gained some insights and pushed myself into new things this week, I’m still hesitant about the program. A lot of the exercises, morning pages especially, felt like stewing to me. I’m cultivating a more mindful approach to life and the morning pages sometimes felt counterproductive to that. Where mindfulness suggests letting go of toxic thoughts, this program has you write them down, think hard about them, and dig deeper. There’s definitely something a little cathartic about physically writing things down as well as taking some time for myself in the morning (I normally go straight to my keyboard at five am, bleary eyed and yawning). However, thinking far into the past about who hurt you and how strikes me more as dwelling. I definitely felt this week dredged up all my insecurities. While the theme is creating a safe space, I felt in less of a safe space by the end than where I had started.

That said, I want to insert a disclaimer. My doctor had put me on a new allergy medication this week that caused such extreme agitation (near paranoia and as jittery as if I’d tossed back several espresso shots) that we had to take me off it. My emotional state probably affected my perception of the program. (It certainly affected everything else in my life!)

So far I’m finding about what I expected: some insights and exercises I consider silly time wasters and others that surprise me with how much I enjoy or gain out of them. I look forward to seeing how my perception develops over eleven more weeks of this, especially off that allergy medication!
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Friday, June 14, 2019

ANIMAL!


Review of ANIMAL!: THE ANIMAL KINGDOM AS YOU’VE NEVER SEEN IT BEFORE by JOHN WOODWARD
(a DK SMITHSONIAN KNOWLEDGE ENCYCLOPEDIA)

I’ve recently read several animal encyclopedias for research. While I doubt any average reader will take on more than one, I’ve narrowed down the encyclopedias I read to a few worthy of reviews. Of those, I think ANIMAL! might be my number one favorite.

For starters, this encyclopedia is very generous with the photos. I especially appreciate that fact given the subject matter. I would much rather see a photo of an animal I’ve never heard of before than read a description about its physical attributes. (Yes, with some other encyclopedias I found myself very curious about a specific animal’s appearance based on text description—and often running a Google search to satisfy that curiosity—but frustrated about the lack of photos in the encyclopedia itself.) Not only does ANIMAL! provide at least a small photo for almost every creature mentioned, but every few pages display a much larger photo with an additional focus on that particular animal.  

I love how many animals are included in this encyclopedia. For some creatures, such as penguins and alligators, I was familiar with the most well-known sub-species but had no idea how many variations exist. The text blurb for each animal is short but sweet, providing the most important information along with a unique or interesting characteristic or two.

Packed with stunning photos and fascinating information, I would recommend ANIMAL! to anyone looking to know a little more about all the other living things sharing our planet. For that matter, the next time I want a broad knowledge of a complex subject, I’m looking for another DK encyclopedia first!

Friday, June 7, 2019

BELLADONNA


Review of BELLADONNA by ANNE BISHOP
(second in the EPHEMERA series)

I love Anne Bishop. One of my all-time favorite authors.

I’m afraid I don’t have a lot to add for my review of BELLADONNA that I didn’t already say with SEBASTIAN, the first book in this series. BELLADONNA reads like more of the same, in the best possible way.

But to make a little effort (and not set a record for shortest, least helpful review), BELLADONNA focuses on said title character’s preparations for the final showdown with the Eater of the World. The book also introduces a new character, Michael, whose admirable powers are feared rather than appreciated in his landscape. Fate brings him to Belladonna, but fate may also tear them back away from each other.

Aforementioned final showdown will likely feel familiar to readers of Bishop’s BLACK JEWELS series. As I’ve claimed before, Bishop follows a definite formula: one all her own, thoroughly satisfying, and always fleshed out with intriguing characters and magic system details. However, it’s easy to draw numerous parallels between the heroines, the villains, and the sacrifice said heroines make to defeat said villains. In BELLADONNA, I particularly liked the details about how this specific sacrifice affects the Eater of the World, more nuanced than simple destruction.

Everything I read by Anne Bishop, BELLADONNA included, ranks among my favorites. I would recommend her work to everyone, although more realistically to those whose tastes align with the following three descriptors: dark fantasy romance.
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Friday, May 31, 2019

THE ARTIST'S WAY


Review of THE ARTIST’S WAY by JULIA CAMERON

Lately, I’ve read several books about writing, including many classics such as this one. As soon as I began reading THE ARTIST’S WAY, it became apparent that it’s different than its peers. For anyone unware, THE ARTIST’S WAY is less a collection of advice and thoughts about writing as it is a more structured, reader-participation-required 12-week program. The idea behind the program is that many of us are “blocked” creatively. This doesn’t refer only to writers, or professional creatives. Cameron makes the very valid point that our society tends to project a message that one either is or isn’t a creative person. She argues that everyone is creative, but some have “blocked” this impulse, because of negative feedback. The idea behind this program is to explore those demons, work through our blocks, and release our natural creativity.

So as for my bias, I am not a particularly spiritual person, but I have lately been coming around to all the benefits spirituality, especially mindfulness, has to offer. On a superficial level, this book seems cheesy to me. There are a lot of invented terms to summarize complex ideas as well as corny statements that have me fighting an eye roll impulse. I’m very intrigued by psychology, but this reads like pseudo-psychology: insightful observations of the human condition delivered in layman, fanciful vocabulary rather than accurate psychological terms. While wise, some statements still irk me by neglecting relevant research and treating the human mind more like magic than science.

That said, I do find Cameron’s take on creativity very insightful. And, as my years of reviews demonstrate, I’m a big believer in being a critical thinker, a critical reader. Some people act like you either like a book or you don’t, but I prefer to break books down into their parts and discuss both what I loved and what didn’t work for me. Anyway, my longwinded point is that I suspected, if I could set aside my cynicism, I could gain something from doing this program.

It’s worth mentioning that I never considered myself blocked, which means I’m not exactly Cameron’s target audience. Nevertheless, I related to her introductory claim that we all have untapped creativity that we ignore for all the wrong reasons. I wanted to give her program a sincere effort, but I went into it skeptical that I would gain anything.

Boy, was I wrong. To boil the program down to an overly simplistic summary, at the core of all twelve weeks of reading and various exercises Cameron has you consider, again and again and from numerous different angles: what you wish you were doing, why you’re not doing it, and whether that why is truly valid. It didn’t take long for me to discover that I was blocked in ways I didn’t expect. I think of myself as a writer. I am comfortable claiming that identity and I write regularly without allowing any doubts or insecurities to slow me down. I didn’t expect this program to help much with my writing, and I was correct. (Okay, correct-ish.) What I didn’t realize is how many other creative pursuits I have given up, for all the wrong reasons. You know, the wrong reasons Cameron cites. For one example, I used to paint and sketch. Then pursuing writing professionally made me turn my critical, editorial eye to my artwork. My art is underwhelmingly decent in technical skill and pretty unremarkable in terms of innovation. While I think (and hope) my books might earn me money one day, I never expect my sketches or paintings to do so. Despite that, I still love painting and sketching. I find the process meditatively soothing and I experience a sense of pride for the end result regardless of how it might rank on some grander scale. I also love surrounding myself by my own artwork; instead of some stranger’s painting on my wall, I can look up and think, “I did that.” This program made me realize I stopped doing something that brings me happiness simply because I didn’t think I was good enough to justify the time commitment or expense of materials. Now I’m painting and sketching again, after almost a decade away from those activities, and thrilled to be reunited with those hobbies.

Aside from specific activities that I’m now doing but I wasn’t before I started the program (and I could list many more), THE ARTIST’S WAY has helped my developing interest in mindfulness and finding balance. We all know the world bombards us with cruel and inaccurate messages, but sorting them is easier said than done. This program teaches invaluable emotional tools for self-therapy, self-assessment, self-care, and self-compassion. I was writing plenty before this program, but I feel emotionally healthier about my writing (and everything else) now. Happier. More relaxed. Cameron definitely helped me root out some of my “negative core beliefs” and replace them with more positive affirmations.

I will also mention that when I was waffling on whether or not to try the program, a friend offered to do it with me. I would really encourage this to anyone already a little skeptical. My friend and I are both people who believe when you open yourself up to new experiences, you can gain something, even if not everything promised. While I would indeed rave about this book and program now, there are still plenty of small specifics that I found cheesy, trite, or pointless. I enjoyed having a friend with whom to compare reactions to said specifics. Especially because it demonstrated how much everyone brings their unique perspective to everything they do. Even though we both started the program hesitant about learning anything, we often differed on exactly what we found astute versus silly. It all had to do with what struck a chord with our own distinct experiences.

If you’re a scientific-minded person like myself, you’ll likely balk at some of the invented, sentimental lingo Cameron uses, but I would nevertheless urge anyone interested to give this program a sincere try. (Sometimes with syrupy words,) Cameron presents a genuinely helpful and insightful perspective on creativity and pursing what makes us happy.

As this book isn’t “like the others,” this review won’t be like my others. Since THE ARTIST’S WAY introduces a 12-week creativity program, I intend to follow this review with a post for each week of the program. (Note: I’ve already completed the program, and the posts will be staggered with my other reviews, not one every week, so this isn’t a “live” posting series.) In addition to a friend offering to join me, another thing that convinced me to try the program was reading other such blog posts. Cameron originally designed her program as a class, and when she realized how effective her students found it she published the program in book form to share with more people. However, I do see the benefit of going through the experience with others. If you don't have that option, blogs can help you feel more connected to different perspectives.

In summary, I would describe THE ARTIST’S WAY as guided self-therapy focused on creativity. Cameron provides the tools, but you do the work; you will get out of it what you put into it. Be prepared for plenty of self-reflection and surprising insights.
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Friday, May 24, 2019

THE SCARECROW QUEEN


Review of THE SCARECROW QUEEN by MELINDA SALISBURY
(third in THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER trilogy)

My adoration of this series grew exponentially with each book. This concluding novel broke my heart, but also amazed me for it for its capacity to affect my emotions. I adored this series and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a YA fantasy trilogy that stands out in the crowd.

First, let me warn that this review contains some spoilers for the first two books.

THE SCARECROW QUEEN opens with all of our main characters in precarious positions and the author isn’t any kinder to them throughout the book. Errin is being held prisoner by Aurek, as Leif secured her safety (or rather her life more than her well-being) by promising her hand in marriage to the Sleeping Prince. However, Aurek is beyond understanding any kind of love or affection (total psychopath) and really sees Errin as little more than an interesting toy. Which means disposable if no longer pleasing. Meanwhile, Twylla flees for her life, well aware that she might be the best and only shot for destroying Aurek. With this in mind, she tries to launch a rebellion, a seemingly impossible undertaking.

I have entirely mixed feelings about Leif’s role in this story, but cannot deny that Salisbury made me FEEL and feel intensely. His character isn’t at all who I thought him to be, and at times I felt frustrated by that, but on the other hand he’s not at all who Twylla thought him to be and I related so strongly with how she must feel about that. Unfortunately, Leif’s complicated character overshadowed the rest of the story for me. I skimmed a lot, hoping for more satisfying explanations regarding his motivations.

The book didn’t provide nearly as much closure as I wanted, and I both love and hate it for that. The hate part is more obvious; I feel tortured by the unanswered questions the author has left me to brood over. As for the love part, I also feel the open-ended nature taps into a genuine aspect of real life; sometimes we don’t ever get to understand why that person did what they did. Also, regardless of any yearning for anything more, I am impressed at how strongly Salisbury made me feel. There are several standout, dramatic scenes in this novel that I not only pictured so clearly as I read them, but continue to play over in my mind.

Friday, May 17, 2019

SPINNING SILVER


Review of SPINNING SILVER by NAOMI NOVIK

Miryem is the daughter of the local moneyleader, but her sweet, compassionate father never follows through on actually collecting the debts owed him. As they slide into crippling poverty, Miryem takes over, earning herself a reputation as a hardhearted woman who practically turns silver into gold. Unfortunately, the fairy king hears these rumors and takes them literally. He comes to Miryem with high demands, which in turn carry high rewards for success…and high prices for failure.

Then there’s Wanda, who comes to help Miryem’s increasingly well-off household with chores and, in so doing, earns herself a little peace from her abusive father. Our last heroine is Irina, whose father intends to marry her to a cruel tsar. Only Irina knows that the tsar is possessed by some kind of demon, and that their marriage will mean her death. Each of these women work alone, and sometimes together, to craft their own destiny.

I love all three heroines. They’re all strong and smart, but in their own unique ways. However, the story switches between their perspectives…all in first person. It was definitely confusing and sometimes took me several sentences of a new chapter to piece together whose viewpoint we’re in now.

SPINNING SILVER finds that sweet spot between fairy tale retelling and original story. It has that wonderful combination of familiar and fresh, not to mention that beautiful haunting sense of mysterious old magic. Even Novik’s name for the fey—Staryk—sounds so recognizable that I thought it must be from something I read before. Well, if it is, I can’t track it down now. I think she just nailed the balance of innovative familiarity. I would recommend this book even to those who claim to have already met their fairy tale retelling limit. SPINNING SILVER doesn’t read like any story you’ve read before.

Friday, May 10, 2019

THE LAST ANNIVERSARY


Review of THE LAST ANNIVERSARY by LIANE MORIARTY

First let me say that I liked this book. I like (often love, sometimes adore) all of Moriarty’s work. However, interestingly enough THE LAST ANNIVERSARY is both my least favorite so far as well as the one that best handled my pet peeve about her writing.

That pet peeve is that she always plants a piece of mystery bait early in the story to keep the reader hooked out of a desire for answers. I find this tension technique overdone and unnecessary, especially in Moriarty’s case since she writes such strong and intriguing characters. The withheld mystery in THE LAST ANNIVERSARY is regarding a local legend. A baby was discovered abandoned, the parents mysteriously gone with no explanation. However, it’s clear from an opening chapter that at least some people know the true story behind this mystery and, as is standard for a Moriarty novel, those secrets will not be revealed until the dramatic ending.

The withheld mystery didn’t bother me as much in this novel as it has in others, I suspect because Sophie doesn’t know either. While the book dips into other perspectives, I viewed Sophie as our protagonist and felt comfortable watching secrets unfold along with her. I think it frustrates me more when a character already knows something, but only ever thinks about it with vague, veiled wording meant to intrigue without explaining. Or even when someone else knows, but all it would take is simply asking them.

Moving away from my pet peeve point, though, what I adore about Moriarty’s writing is the nuanced characters and how all the relationships pop with believable chemistry. Yet I experienced that the least in this book so far. The characters felt a little flatter, less developed. I didn’t buy them as people I might meet, like I normally do with her characters. I struggled keeping track of everyone, as well as their relations to each other.

Having established that this one is opposite to my usual Mortiarty impressions, let me back up and explain the premise a bit more. Sophie is single when her one-that-got-away, and now married, ex approaches her with a bizarre situation. His aunt has passed away…and left her house to Sophie, much to the fury of other family members. Sophie loved that house, probably part of why the aunt left it to her. It’s on a small island infamous for the unsolved mystery. Generations back, the aunt’s family found that abandoned baby in a house they rented, with absolutely no sign of what happened to the parents.

Aside from the underdeveloped characters, I do have a few more criticisms with this one than I normally do with this author. I’m afraid I called almost every single twist in the entire book, including the main one about the original Munro Baby mystery. My frustration over this is lessened by the fact that there was one small twist near the end that I didn’t see coming and I was pleased to be taken by surprise by that one. 

Unfortunately, I will also say that the final explanation for the big Munro Baby mystery didn’t fully satisfy me. I have to suspend my disbelief far too much to be convinced, especially in proportion to how long that information is dramatically withheld. The explanation seems to rest entirely on the incompetency of others.

Honestly, I think this is fantastic book that fell a little short of the high bar I set for Moriarty’s work. The short chapters make it a fast read, and, as ever, Moriarty infuses everything with suspense and complicated relationships.