Friday, December 27, 2019

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 10

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 10, Recovering a Sense of Self-Protection

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.

Week 10 discusses “recovering a sense of self-protection” by taking a look at common creative perils and asking us to acknowledge our own toxic patterns. The chapter breaks these perils down into four common ones: workaholism, drought, fame, and competition. I think they’re all pretty self-explanatory. (Drought refers to creative dry spells.)

According to Cameron’s workaholism quiz, I’m definitely a workaholic, which I find both surprising and not. I know I work and push myself very hard and that I tend to define myself by how much work I do, but on the other hand my work is my passion (writing) and I’m good about making time for others (if not myself). Actually, this program has helped me make huge strides on pampering myself, too. So I think that I have a workaholic nature, but I feel I’m managing and balancing it pretty well lately.

One of this week’s assignments is to write “workaholism is a block, not a building block” on a piece of paper and hang it somewhere prominent. It was a very effective, necessary mantra for me. To emphasize that, my partner laughed the first time he saw it, confused by a phrase that seemed so contrary to everything he’s seen from me over the years.

As for other exercises, I particularly enjoyed the touchstones and deadlies tasks. For touchstones, you simply list things that make you happy and place that list in view, like the above mantra. I agree that it’s very uplifting to glance over at a list of happiness “touchstones.” (Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens and all that.)

For the deadlies assignment, you write the following each on a small strip of paper: alcohol, drugs, sex, work, money, food, family/friends. Fold and place in an envelope or hat. Select one and then list five ways that it has had a negative impact on your life. Place it back and select again six more times, for a total of seven. Yes, the fact that you’re putting them back means you’ll likely do some multiple times and others not at all, but Cameron argues that sometimes returning to the same one brings up more, possibly deeper issues. I found this very therapeutic and would be tempted to return to it another time, especially since I drew “work” three times and “drugs” twice. I didn’t write about sex, food, or family/friends at all.

Only two weeks left in the program and it feels like a natural part of my routine, something I look forward to each week. Despite my reluctance over trying this at all, I expect I will miss the program once I finish it. However, I know there will be carryover life lessons and activities.

Friday, December 20, 2019



In May 2018, I discovered the source of various, and worsening, health issues throughout my entire first thirty years of life: Celiac disease. Since then, it’s been a fun—and often frustrating—challenge rethinking everything to do with food and eating. A significant part of this has been teaching myself gluten-free cooking.

I like to try several recipes from a cookbook before reviewing it, so this review is coming at least a year after a friend first gave me this cookbook. Honestly, the book overwhelmed me at first: by making gluten-free cooking sound very difficult and complicated. However, once I actually started making the recipes, I found them, without exception, easy and delicious; the difficulty was much over-hyped. (Perhaps because perfecting the recipes took the creators so many experimental attempts…but now it’s perfected!) And not only do I love the recipes, but my gluten-eating friends adore them as well, often saying they would never know the difference. So far this remains my absolute favorite gluten-free cookbook.

This cookbook comes from America’s Test Kitchen. What does that mean? Every recipe has literally come about from dozens to hundreds of test variations until numerous professional chefs and amateur home-cooks agree it’s close to perfection. I have tried several gluten-free cookbooks since my diagnosis. I’m still trying others and still hopeful, but so far every gluten-free cookbook but this one has been, well, gross. I try a handful of recipes that all taste so unappealing they wind up in the trash before I finally chuck the entire cookbook in, too. My point here is that this cookbook, the first one I tried, makes gluten-free cooking seem easy, even though it’s apparently not for everyone!

I planned to list the recipes I most liked, but I’ve loved every single thing I’ve made so much it’s hard to choose. I’m drawn to the comfort foods section where I discovered delicious: shepherd’s pie (especially relieved, because I’m part British and giving up my family’s shepherd’s pie recipe was a big loss), both meat and spinach lasagnas, chicken pot pie, and quiche Lorraine. From other sections, I also loved the basil pesto pasta (made several times, because it’s just as delicious cold as hot), buttermilk pancakes, sausage cornbread stuffing, banana bread, and English muffins. The only things I didn’t like clearly come down to taste. The mac and cheese is a little too creamy and cheesy for me, but everyone else at the table raved about it. The drunken noodles and tamale pie are a little too spicy, but those with a stronger tolerance loved both dishes and even I, with my British palate, like them with the spice turned down.

I have a big sweet tooth and found plenty more mouth-watering recipes to satisfy dessert: coffee cake, raspberry streusel bars, (a gorgeous-looking) plum torte, shortbread, carrot cake, gingerbread cake, and lemon pound cake. I also want to call specific mention to the chocolate cake as well as the lemon bars and lemon tart. The first, because I’m a chocolate addict and this chocolate cake not only met with my approval but is right up there with the best chocolate cakes I’ve ever had. I’ll make this one for my birthday this year and it won’t feel in any way a compromise. As for the latter, the lemon bars (and the tart that is basically one giant lemon bar) have proved so popular that I’ve made them well over a dozen times already.

As I mentioned earlier, I think this cookbook possibly makes some recipes sound harder than they are, mostly by discussing how many attempts went into this final result. I sometimes skip steps and find everything still comes out delicious. The most prominent example is that the book recommends creating your own gluten-free flour blend by buying lots of different flours and mixing the right ratios together yourself. I know a lot of Celiacs do this, but for me that seems crazy time consuming and I would love to avoid it. I used Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Flour, the one with the xanthum gum included, in every recipe and loved all the results. The cookbook will tell you that Bob’s Red Mill has a slight bean taste. I have no idea what they’re talking about. None of the people who eat my food have any idea what they’re talking about. From my experience, I think Bob’s Red Mill is a fantastic time-saver. However, I do vastly appreciate all the extra content helping the reader to understand the science and techniques behind gluten-free cooking. After building my confidence with this cookbook, I’m now using those techniques to master other gluten recipe conversions myself.

Most importantly about this cookbook, if I don’t tell people the recipes are gluten-free, they can’t tell. I’m lucky and grateful that this was the first gluten-free cookbook I tried. When I did start trying others, I mostly found the results inedible. I imagine trying any of those cookbooks first and think how discouraged I would have been about gluten-free cooking. Thank goodness a thoughtful friend sent me this one the week of my diagnosis! Without caveats, people have told me the recipes I make from this cookbook are some of the best food they’ve ever eaten.

Friday, December 13, 2019



As will continue coming up in my reviews here and there, in May 2018 I was diagnosed with Celiac disease. I could fill post upon post with my experiences before and after the diagnosis, but for the purposes of this review let me say that I have always had a weird relationship with food. However, once I pinpointed that an undiagnosed autoimmune disease triggered by gluten explained all my health issues and what I simply thought of as “weird eating habits,” I wanted to teach myself something that some people master as young children while others spend a lifetime never mastering: how to eat healthy. And I do not mean what to eat. I indeed mean how to eat.

I loved this book. It feels odd raving about a book that discusses, of all things, eating, but the content was truly, and no exaggeration here, life-changing for me. I have always hated diets. As Albers acknowledges in this book, diets are about guilt, shame, and restriction. They also don’t work. Even if the dieter feels great on the specific diet or loses weight, if that was the ultimate goal, the restriction is like a tightening rubber band and eventually it springs back; the dieter either binges or falls back more gradually into unhealthy but familiar habits. I want to genuinely adjust my long-term relationship with food rather than force myself to eat how I think I “should” until I snap back to bad habits that I never really “fixed.”

I found this small book chockful of useful information, especially in terms of specific exercises and mantras. While I have maintained a food journal for short periods throughout my life for health reasons, I’ve never approached it with Albers’ emotional, mindful element. Don’t simply write what you ate, but how you ate. Were you hungry or just bored? Did you feel satisfied or overfull afterwards? Were you multitasking or really savoring the food? Note when eating or not eating, or what or how much you eat, triggers a particular emotion. You may think you know yourself, but a journal like this can be an excellent self-awareness technique for observing and tracking trends.

Among other suggestions, I like that Albers suggests putting away the scale. She’s hardly the first nutritionist to recommend this, and their similar reasoning makes sense. The scale encourages obsessive fixation with a number that doesn’t even represent your overall health and well-being. Many people already emotionally attached to their scale fear their weight will promptly balloon out of control without that accountability, but Albers and others make the point that you can tell whether your clothes are tightening or loosening and you can see if you’re looking slimmer or heavier in the mirror. The scale merely perpetrates a guilt-driven attachment to a misleading number. For anyone wondering how mindful eating affects weight loss, it’s a little bit of a circular logic. Many people eating mindfully do lose weight. However, if you treat it like a diet and begin the process with the goal of losing weight, you’re not really eating mindfully and you probably won’t lose weight. The idea is to learn to accept yourself (and that includes your body) as you are, honest not feigned acceptance, and learn to eat what you need, rather than eating for emotional reasons.

A few other concrete tips include seeking out non-edible stress soothers as well as eating with your non-dominant hand; this forces you to slow down and think about the process and the food a bit more.

As for mantras, I filled near two pages worth with those that inspire me, some food related but many others more general mindfulness. I’ll share a few:

Acknowledge food for what it is, rather than categorizing it as good or bad.
Name and then accept my emotions, whether positive or negative.
I can eat anything and everything I want; just ensure I actually want it.
Don’t defer “trying harder” to a later date, with food or anything else.
Life is about progress, not perfection.

I literally have dozens more of those. As someone who has struggled with stress, anxiety, and overthinking my entire life, I’ve recently discovered and embraced mindfulness. Mindful eating is really one aspect from an entire way of life focused on slowing down and living in the present, but it can be a great introductory starting point. Change the way you eat; change the way you think.

Friday, December 6, 2019

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 9

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 9, Recovering a Sense of Compassion

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.

Week 9 focuses on “recovering a sense of compassion,” or healing past shame. In this week’s chapter, Cameron discusses how failure can make us give up and introduces her concept of “creative u-turns.” A creative u-turn is when you let a great opportunity slip away, usually out of fear. Cameron’s examples include: a screenwriter has an agent offering representation if the writer only makes a few minor changes and the writer never makes those changes or a painter is accepted into a group show only to pick a petty fight with the owner and be kicked out.

Cameron insists everyone suffers creative u-turns, so I feel self-conscious admitting that I don’t think I do. At least, I can’t think of any. But her concept fixates on self-sabotaging an opportunity. In contract, I know I definitely have given up after failures. As I mentioned before, I never felt “blocked” with writing, and, no surprise then, I don’t do this with writing. I always—proudly, sometimes painfully—power through with writing. However, I have given up after a failure with other creative pursuits. A serious injury made me give up aerial silks, even after my physical therapist cleared me to return. Being rejected from an art program is what made me stop painting and sketching. I keep calling Cameron’s program self-therapy and this week triggered some interesting self-analysis for me: I realized I push through failure with writing because I’m pursuing it professionally while with creative hobbies I tend to bail at the first big problem. In other words, I don’t value creative pursuits enough to move past challenges unless I’m pursuing some financial gain from them. While Cameron does encourage those craving a creative career to follow that passion, her program also emphasizes that creativity is for everyone. Creative hobbies are as vital to our well-being, both as individuals and a society, as creative professions. (And, as a side note, I recall a convincing speaker at a writing conference urging that all creative professionals need creative hobbies as well, specifically ones that don’t earn any money and are simply creative outlets with no financial strings attached.)

I also really resonated with Cameron’s claim that fear of success is just a real as fear of failure. I definitely have both, but the former is much less understood. I’m well-networked in the publishing industry and, as eager as I am for a book contract, well-aware of the new stresses that each stage of my career will bring. In some ways, seeking an agent feels comfortable. If it’s an emotional rollercoaster, it’s one I’ve ridden so many times, I know exactly what to expect. I do want an agent and a book contract, but those are entirely new, unpredictable, and, therefore, scary coasters!

The biggest assignment this week is rereading all your morning pages. Cameron tells you to go at it with two different-colored highlighters. Use one color for insights and another for actions. Insights mean any of those wonderful or helpful revelations you may jot down while doing these pages. Actions are all the times you’re writing about things you want or need or feel you should do. I decided that every week, along with doing an artist date, I will pick one of my pages’ actions to do as well.

I had the exact same experience with the visualizing exercise as the first time I did affirmations. Cameron has you write out all the “juicy details” that would indicate meeting your dream goal. I approached the task with skepticism, convinced this cheesy assignment wouldn’t do anything for me. However, like affirmations, I found myself surprised by how empowering visualization can be. Cameron is definitely convincing me that daydreaming plays a vital role in creative motivation.

While I don’t feel creative u-turns are a big issue for me, I can certainly relate to creative setbacks and those moments, usually failures, that tempt you to give up. I’m a broken record with the way I harp on about mindfulness in these posts, but I think creativity should be more about the process than the product. Focus on the present, not the future nor the past.