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!-->