INTRODUCTION TO THE TENTH ANNIVERSARY EDITION OF THE ARTIST’S WAY

One big problem I have with Cameron is her constant promotion of consumerism as spiritual healing. In this version’s introduction, she starts that right away in the first full paragraph:

Difficult as it is to remember, it is our work that creates the market, not the market that creates the work. Art is an act of faith, and we practice practicing it.

How American is this sentiment? She has used “market” and “faith” and “practice” all in the same general thought about artistry. Believe in yourself and you can sell yourself. Faith in one’s ideas leads to marketable innovation. Your spiritual will can pull you up by your bootstraps into the financial stratosphere and with god as your witness, you’ll never go hungry again.

The implications are insulting. It’s insulting to imply that artists can create a market for any work, for example. I think Van Gogh would have a thing or two to say about that. Most artists never succeed to wealth and fame, and it is not merely because they did not work hard enough, or click their heels together hard enough.

I had not yet learned that we do tend to practice what we preach, that in unblocking others I would unblock myself, and that, like all artists, I would thrive more easily with some companionship, with kindred souls making kindred leaps of faith.

Yes, who would have thought, looking at how humans evolved, that social creatures require social support. We live in a culture that has stereotyped artists as lone wolves, among other nasty creatures, and that is in large part what leads to pathology when one is trying to practice art professionally. You need the support of like-minded people, whether it’s in a writer’s group, or an informal group of friends who all do different things. Also, being around people leads to mental stimulation and new information so yes, I’m sure she became unblocked not just because she was focused on self-examination, but because she had an influx of new ideas, and support and encouragement in carrying those out.

Good! Useful advice, if convoluted with words like “preach” and “unblock.”

Artists helping other artists proliferated.

Again, this is good. This is one of the few things I will promote about The Artist’s Way, is that it is a way for artists to break through their jealousy of each other and work together. That’s good, it creates a much healthier ecosystem, and I think this is hugely important for artists who work in collaborative fields – writers for stage and screen, directors, actors, dancers.

However, it is a mistake to link this to something outside oneself. If you do that, you will never develop your own agency, and you could end up sitting around, waiting for a miracle to happen, rather than searching for opportunities for help, education, and collaboration.

Like AA, Artist’s Way clusters have often gathered in church basements and healing centers, as well as in a thatched hut in Central America, and in a python-surrounded shack in Australia.

This statement belies an intolerable amount of white privilege. The stereotype of the thatched hut and the dangerous shack in countries outside of the United States and Western Europe is incredibly offensive. Yes, I think the Artist’s Way techniques have been used in non-Western cultures, including Central and South America, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, various African nations, etc etc. But why not say, instead, that the practice has traveled to New South Wales, Australia, and Mexico City, Mexico? Or another populated area? Why did she not continue the reference to churches, and continue that theme into a variety of countries (Christians are everywhere, after all). There are so many more interesting, more inspiring, more creative, and less offensive ways of phrasing this that ultimately leaves no one out, and most importantly, makes no one culture seem less civilized than a metropolis in the US that hosts a writer’s group in a church basement.

If artists all over the world find inspiration from this practice, fine. But then it should clearly be people all over the world, not tokens from the “little people” finding civilization. This makes me think Cameron is so condescending that she cannot truly understand the people she might be helping.

Creativity is an act of faith […]

I disagree. Creativity is a practice. I talked about this earlier, but to say something is “an act of faith,” to me means “insert your own definition of what I’m talking about here.” Which does not help the reader develop a sustainable creative practice, but instead reinforces vague personal beliefs which could in turn reinforce bad habits that, again do not lend themselves to a sustainable creative practice.

We must trust our process, look beyond “results.”

Um, no. If your process does not produce results, you should try something else. Why continue a process that is not serving what you ultimately want? – to write a novel, produce a play, compose an aria. These are measurable, tangible results of a process called “creativity.” You will have good days and bad days with this process, but if, for the most part, you are working toward your goal, then that is a measurable result.

The problem with promoting something like “results” when you’re writing woo like Cameron’s is that such a process would mean artists could fully stand on their own, find the support they need outside your products, and not need to return to your franchise again. Why buy the second installment of The Artist’s Way Series of you don’t need Cameron’s guidance anymore?

We have a monk’s devotion to our work – and, like monks, some of us will be visited by visions and others will toil out our days knowing glory only at a distance, kneeling in the chapel but never receiving the visitation of a Tony, an Oscar, a National Book Award.

Sure, ok, and I’m not aiming for these things with my creative career so that’s fine. But I do want some kind of recognition for creating good work, whether that is a good review, publication, the appreciation of my peers … something. I get the feeling this is really her disclaimer to say, “If the mumbo-jumbo in this book doesn’t work for you, that ain’t my fault!” So it’s borderline victim-blaming.

Hey, some of us are born rich in creative excellence, and some of us are born serfs. What Cameron doesn’t mention is the leech-like middle class that she represents.

Honor will visit all who work.

But you just said it might not in the previous bit. This is also feeding into the classic American “bootstraps” myth, that if you just work hard enough you will succeed at your goal. And if you don’t succeed then you are clearly not working hard enough. And no, there’s nothing in your way like racism, classism, sexism, ableism … That’s liberal propaganda.

INTRODUCTION

Phew. So that was just the intro to the version I own, and it’s already riddled with problems. Let’s move on to the original introduction. Feel free to go take a water break or something. I know my blood pressure just spiked.

So, she spends a little time in this first page to talk about her concept of god, which is a completely self-made touchy-feely concept that makes her feel better when she fails. She encourages the reader to pick up this wibbly “god” concept as well, even if you’re a skeptic (like I am).

Think of it as an exercise in open-mindedness. Just think, “Okay, Great Creator, whatever that is,” and keep reading. Allow yourself to experiment with the idea there might be a Great Creator and you might get some kind of use from it in freeing your own creativity.

“Some kind of use”? Like what? Can you give me an example? What if I’m an atheist and imagining any kind of deity, divinity, spirituality, or supernatural thingie does not work for me?

There’s no real “opt out” of this, as Cameron continually mentions this throughout her book, encouraging you to rely on some kind of omnipotent or omnipresent niceness that buoys you up when you need it, and that always believes in you regardless of how crappy your finished product is. The perfect cosmic mother? I couldn’t tell you exactly what she wants you to imagine, because it’s so loosely suggested that it could be anything. Again, this reinforces your own personal beliefs, which does not help you critique your own work and your own process to improve upon what you’re doing. It just gives you an omnipresent teddy bear to sooth your hurt feelings.

Remind yourself that to succeed in this course, no god concept is necessary.

Great, fine, thank you for the acknowledgement, but this is the only time in the book she gives that a nod. Otherwise, the wibbly god concept she promotes is deeply engrained into anything that involves accepting yourself.

The point is not what you name it. The point is that you try using it. For many of us, thinking of it as a form of spiritual electricity has been a very useful jumping off place.

By the simple, scientific approach of experimentation and observation, a workable connection with the flow of good orderly direction can easily be established. It is not the intent of these pages to engage in explaining, debating, or defining that flow. You do not need to understand electricity to use it.

Oh this is a big one.

No, you do not need to understand electricity to use it, but most of us probably know enough about electricity to know that we should not stick a fork in a wall socket. That’s because metal is conductive – copper especially – and our bodies do not do well when a surge of electricity moves through it.

Now, it is important to understand enough about yourself – your mood swings, how much company and attention you need from other people, if you’re a morning person or a night person, etc – to know how to work with your creativity effectively. “Flow” of ideas and the “flow” of electricity are not the same thing.

Also, the “simple, scientific approach” to establishing a connection to yourself sounds pretty darn good, actually. It’s simple, and while “scientific” might imply a lot of negative things, ultimately it should just mean that you’re following a repeatable process to get measurable results. In art, you can place a value judgment on those results later (do you like that painting, or is it not at all what you were going for?).

I really, truly do not understand how Cameron can suggest that experimentation and observation – tools used by everyone including artists to develop ideas – are bad. The first sentence and the last two sentences in that chunk suggest that understanding what happens to you when you create is unimportant, and therefore implies that a “simple, scientific approach” would be detrimental.

Really, though, why is it better to be ignorant?

Do not call it God unless that is comfortable for you. There seems to be no need to name it unless that name is a useful shorthand for what you experience. Do not pretend to believe when you do not. If you remain forever an atheist, agnostic – so be it. You will still be able to experience an altered life through working with these principles.

First, she continues to equate faith and work. Believe hard enough and you will receive a reward.

Second, this paragraph is pretty condescending. She is still foisting this wibbly god onto the reader, now by calling it a “useful shorthand.” It’s not a useful shorthand for my experience – words like “imagination” and “creativity” are that useful shorthand, namely because those are the proper words for what is going on.

Moving on a little further, we get into “testimonials” – stories in which Cameron uses only the first name, or the job title, of the person she’s talking about, so there’s no way to trace their authenticity. The stories feel very made-up to me. I’m not entirely sure why she included them in this particular way. It would be more effective and believable if she asked permission to use full names and samples of letters she received, something like that. Instead, what the reader gets is stories filtered through Cameron’s lens. Here’s an example:

One fifty-year-old student who “always wanted to write” used these tools and emerged as a prize-winning playwright. A judge used these tools to fulfill his lifelong dreams of sculpting.

See what I mean? If the playwright won a prize, which prize was it? What was their name? The name of the play? Why do we not get this basic information?

Through my own experience – and that of countless others that I have shared – I have come to believe that creativity is our true nature, that blocks are an unnatural thwarting of a process at once as normal and as miraculous as the blossoming of a flower at the end of a slender green stem. I have found this process of making spiritual contact to be both simple and straightforward.

Again with the victim-blaming! If this process is simple and straightforward, and if creativity is natural (I think it is too, but for different reasons, I’m sure) then why do blocks happen? This is like asking why there is evil in the world, which is a loaded question for any spiritual path. But suggesting that blocks are unnatural suggests that there’s something wrong with you, that you may be able to clear the blocks but if you have them, you should panic. Rather than being part of the creative process, this is a tumor to remove. Rather than forgiving yourself for having a bad day, you should lose your mind and do everything you can to overcome a disease that may, in fact, be self-inflicted because you did not believe hard enough.

Just as doing Hatha Yoga stretches alters consciousness when all you are doing is stretching, doing the exercises in this book alters consciousness when “all” you are doing is writing and playing.

So, yes and no. “Altering consciousness” is something that actually happens a lot more than we think it does. Physical exercise releases endorphins, which put you in a better mood. Similarly, when we work on developing new skills, that creates new neural pathways. So yes, both of these things DO alter consciousness, but not in the wishy-washy-woo way. It’s not a divine thingamajigger that alters consciousness, it’s a process (yoga is exercise, writing is exercise) that changes your brain chemistry and shape. This will affect how you see the world. This is good, but I think it is really, really important to understand that this is a physical process that occurs in the brain as a direct result of your mortal, human intervention, which means you can keep doing it, repeatedly. If you fall off the bandwagon, you can get back on, you have the neural pathways now to pick it back up and keep going! See how awesome you are?

It’s not “god,” it’s you. Just you making yourself better.

I’m going to skip the subchapter called “MY OWN JOURNEY” because, well, it’s her personal story. While I don’t think she gives herself enough credit for allowing all the pieces to fall into place – she credits fate with sending her down the teachers’ path, rather than her own experiences and knowledge – I simply can’t argue with her narrative. It’s far from perfect, but it does give insight into how she thinks. What I’m critiquing is the advice she gives, not her journey from alcoholic to guru.

I’m also going to leave it there for now. There’s two more introductory chapters in which she kind of, but not really, defines her terms and explains how the book should be used. I will leave them for the next blog entry, and then focus on the 12 chapters that correspond to the 12 weeks of the course.

4 thoughts on “The Artist’s Way Criticism: The Two Introductory Chapters for the 10th Anniversary Edition

  1. Dear Nicol Cabe
    I would like to say thank you . Thank you for writing what you have written here.
    I have tried using the Artist’s Way, thinking that within it lay an approach to get me more motivated with my work. I have hardly ever been able to pass chapter one. The most I got through was chapter 5.I like the idea of morning pages, but most mornings, i really do prefer to just get on with my work and not bother with them. Whether I am blocked or not. Putting pencil to paper or paint to paper – once you lay down your first mark, things begin to happen.

    But I digress. What I really wanted to say here was, that I found the Artist’s Way more of a distraction to getting down to doing the work, by the number of different tasks she puts forward that you should do before your ‘weekly check in’. I got annoyed with this because I thought to myself I could use my time more wisely and to my benefit if I just got down to the work. I found that all these tasks were actually sidetracking me. I tried to see their benefit but to be honest, all they did was remove me from my place of work into an idea of doing the work, rather than actually doing anything and as a result I wasn’t applying myself. More and more, I found myself going away from my work rather than towards it because of the amount of time it took to do all the tasks.

    I really dislike the way she encourages people to ‘buy’ themselves a treat – as if this should satisfy some urge. As though retail therapy is part of the answer. Going out on an artist date when your artist date is with you in your studio or your dance space and making the step that leads to the next and the next and the next step and suddenly you have colour and you have the beginnings of a new choreography underway.

    I agree with so many of your points!

    I love what you say here:
    ” So yes, both of these things DO alter consciousness, but not in the wishy-washy-woo way. It’s not a divine thingamajigger that alters consciousness, it’s a process (yoga is exercise, writing is exercise) that changes your brain chemistry and shape. This will affect how you see the world. This is good, but I think it is really, really important to understand that this is a physical process that occurs in the brain as a direct result of your mortal, human intervention, which means you can keep doing it, repeatedly. If you fall off the bandwagon, you can get back on, you have the neural pathways now to pick it back up and keep going”

    Many thanks for writing all this, Nicol, and taking the time to do so.
    I have lost interest in using the artists way as a tool for the very reasons you have mentioned here. I’m going to leave it. I don’t like Cameron’s faith business; her exploitation of vulnerable people in order to make money from her preachings leaves a bitter pill in my gut and a very sour taste in my mouth.

  2. Hi Rebecca! Thank you for this comment, and I’m glad there are other like-minded people out there. I find the artists’s dates and morning pages potentially valuable exercises, but you’re right – just getting to the work, overcoming your mental blocks and forcing yourself to write/paint/dance, etc, is more valuable than the ridiculous process Cameron lays out. I think Stephen King gave the most valuable advice for any artist when he mentioned that, regardless of what’s going on, he writes at least 2,000 words a day. That’s about the length of “morning pages,” I expect.

    Thanks again!

  3. I agree with you wholeheartedly about her constant use of god… it’s a big distraction when it’s there

  4. She definitely could have found a more creative way to say “God,” I think, and it detracts from her book that she doesn’t. Thank you for your comment!

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