The Arist’s Way Criticism: Your Magic Wand Toolkit

Here we go again. More “Artist’s Way.”

THE BASIC TOOLS

Julia Cameron uses this chapter to explain, basically, how “The Artist’s Way” works. I feel like you could read this chapter and get everything you need out of the program, basically. There’s other nuggets of wisdom in the book, but this chapter actually outlines … the program. And if you read just this chapter, you can do the program without the “spiritual awakening” parts of the book. Because Cameron’s aim is not to wean you off her program but to get you deeply involved in the cult. She doesn’t teach you, at the end of the book, how to have a daily routine and walk away from her book and never look back and be successful. She teaches you a loose set of tools with a lot of fluff.

 Here’s the tools.

THE MORNING PAGES

The morning pages are, basically, a daily writing exercise that you do first thing. Wake up, write three page. Of anything. Stream of consciousness, “I don’t want to do this” over and over for 3 pages … Cameron is very clear that these first three pages are anything you want them to be.

While I don’t, admittedly, practice this exercise myself, I really appreciate it. I write for a living, but what I write about is news, and I actually find myself fried most of the time, at the end of the day when I’ve just barely pumped out three articles. On my “weekends” (whenever that happens – I actually work 6 or 7 days a week just to keep up with the news), I barely feel like writing.

And yet, I find that because I write for a living, it is habit to sit in front of my laptop and want to write. The question naturally becomes, write what?

I won’t say that I’ve written more fiction or essays than ever before, but I have the habit. It is becoming ingrained to write for at least a few hours every day. That is the point of the morning pages, to get into a routine of writing.

Cameron does add, however, that you should not go back over your morning pages or show them to anyone. They’re not a record of your growth, but a way of jump-starting your brain to get into creativity mode. I appreciate where she’s going with this, but I do know that some Artist’s Way classes use the morning pages more as a journal. They may or may not assign subjects – that part I’m not clear of – but it is supposed to be a record, sort of, of your progress.

Let’s get down to what she says about the morning pages.

Ginny, a writer-producer […]

Oh, god, it’s another made-up testimonial about an already-successful member of the 1%.

Moving ooooon…

They might also, more ingloriously, be called brain drain, since that is one of their main functions.

Ok. I appreciate this, for sure. But I think it might, potentially, incline the reader to use the morning pages – and the program in general – as therapy. On the other hand, brain drain might just be what most of us need.

As blocked artists, we tend to criticize ourselves mercilessly. Even if we look like functioning artists to the world, we feel we never do enough and what we do isn’t right. We are victims of our own internalized perfectionist, a nasty internal and eternal critic, the Censor, who resides in our (left) brain and keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks that are often disguised as the truth. The Censor says wonderful things like: “You call that writing? What a joke. You can’t even punctuate. If you haven’t done it by now you never will. You can’t even spell. What makes you think you can be creative?” And on and on.

Oh lawdy, left brain v. right brain. Since I’m not a neuroscientist – I just like science a whole lot – I will let Mo over at Neurophilosophy (formerly on Scienceblogs, but now hosted by The Guardian) explain why this dichotomy is false.

Also, this is some serious beating up of The Censor. And blaming it on just artists. Here’s the deal: everyone has an inner censor. We live in a culture that encourages us to beat ourselves up because we’re not perfect enough for one reason or another, so I think most of us suffer from self-consciousness or insecurity. It is, I agree, very important to find a healthy way to get over this, and I suspect a writing our journaling regimen would do a lot of us good (isn’t that why journaling/blogging is so popular with Those Damn Kids? They have a lot of steam to blow off).

Also, this is one of those passages that says a lot more about Julia Cameron and her insecurities than it does about the rest of us. I’ve had moments when writing or researching my own stuff when I was like, “God! I’m brilliant!” And then I have lows. And then I have highs again. Getting my work out and having other people critique it actually helps me a lot. I think better advice than “Silence your inner critic!” is “Learn who your real support network is – who will give you genuine constructive criticism and really in-depth support – and lean on them when you need to.”

There’s a huge chunk coming up that I have to reproduce all of in order to give you the full effect.

A word is in order here about logic brain and artist brain. Logic brain is our brain of choice in the Western Hemisphere. It is the categorical brain. It thinks in a neat, linear fashion. As a rule, logic brain perceives the world according to known categories. A horse is a certain combination of animal parts that makes up a horse. A fall forest is viewed as a series of colors that add up to “fall forest.” It looks at a fall forest and notes: red, orange, yellow, green, gold.

Logic brain was and is our survival brain. It works on known principles. Anything unknown is perceived as wrong and possibly dangerous. Logic brain likes things to be neat little soldiers marching in a straight line. Logic brain is the brain we usually listen to, especially when we are telling ourselves to be sensible.

Logic brain is our Censor, our second (and third and fourth) thoughts. Faced with an original sentence, phrase, paint squiggle, it says, “What the hell is that? That’s not right!”

Artist brain is our inventor, our child, our very own personal absent-minded professor. Artist brain says, “Hey! That is so neat!” It puts odd things together (boat equals wave and walker). It likes calling a speeding GTO a wild animal: “The black howling wolf pulled into the drive-in …”

Artist brain is our creative, holistic brain. It thinks in patterns and shadings. It sees a fall forest and thinks: Wow! Leaf bouquet! Pretty! Gold-gilt-shimmery-earthskin-king’s-carpet! Artist brain is associative and freewheeling. It makes new connections, yoking together images to invoke meaning: like the Norse myths calling a boat “wave-horse.” In Star Wars, the name Skywalker is a lovely artist-brain flash.

Ok, first off, I’m sorry, I know that was a lot.

Second: she clearly doesn’t like logic, science, or evolution. She focuses really hard on the wishy-washy, spiritual, “holistic” as she says. She is again telling the reader, subliminally, to eschew “process and results” oriented thinking in favor of spiritual hedonism. Don’t focus on doing things that produce the results you want, but wallow in rainbows and puppies and ice cream and ignore reality.

That’s not how professional artists work. Professional artists sit down every day – with days off, sometimes – and work. It’s not pretty, but it produces good results.

Third: to Cameron, Logic = cruelty. This is a theme repeated over and over in our culture (I’m thinking in particular of the constant push of Kirk to make Spock feel things, as though feeling things makes everything better). I have a history of depression, and I have occasional anxiety attacks, and I am in general a major stress case, so I have to strongly disagree. I am at my weakest and least able to work when I’m emotional, even if I’m happy (manic), because I don’t want to do anything else but wallow in the emotional experience, spinning my wheels over and over. When I’m content, feeling balanced, neither too logical nor too emotional, then I am best able to get creative. When I am able to focus but not feeling creative, I do research for projects. I use that time wisely.

Fourth: Since when has logic brain been survival brain? I mean, yes, recognizing patterns is generally considered logical and that was part of our evolution, but we’re also social animals and expressing emotion is part of how we communicate. We wouldn’t have an “artist brain” if there was no evolutionary advantage to it, so there’s a survival aspect to it as well.

She somehow also manages to equate survival to something negative, which is very “First World Problems.” If you do not question your every day survival, then you have the mental luxury to focus on how you aren’t living up to your full creative potential.

Fifth: She credits the “artist brain” with thinking in patterns. She blames the “logic brain” for thinking in terms of categories. I think these are similar cognitive processes, so why is one good and the other bad?

She seriously needs to stop judging the value of every little thing. Most of the world just … is. Life just happens, and sometimes there’s a reason for it, and sometimes that reason is related to you, and sometimes you causing something is good. Sometimes it’s bad, and sometimes there’s no reason for things to happen and it has nothing to do with you. Get over it.

Listen to your Censor and it will tell you that everything original is wrong/dangerous/rotten

Maybe I just don’t have an inner Censor (maybe that’s why I think my opinion is valuable enough to be published publically on a blog). But I do have a very strong Inner Critic, and I have trained this Critic to do things I want, like critique things constructively. Sometimes, it’s not perfect.

We move from logic brain to artist brain and from fast to slow, shallow to deep.

False cognate.

Yes, we will alter our brain hemisphere, lower our stress, discover an inner contact with a creative source, and have many creative insights. Yes, for any one of these reasons, the pursuit is a worthy one. Even taken in combination, however, they are still intellectual constructs for what is primarily an experience of wholeness, rightness, and power.

Are we also going to tone our abs and lose 20 lbs?

Insight in and of itself is an intellectual comfort. Power in and of itself is a blind force that can destroy as easily as build. It is only when we consciously learn to link power and light that we begin to feel our rightful identities as creative beings.

It is very difficult to complain about a situation morning after morning, month after month, without being moves to constructive action.

Well, sort of, but since she’s talking about the morning pages, I actually kind of agree. And, HEY! It reminds me of a story. Not a personal one, but one that I heard from someone else.

This person was a serious journal-er. She wrote page after page every day, and saved every notebook that she filled up. Recently, she bought a house and had to move all of her crap, and finally questioned why she had kept several boxes of journals for years, since she had stopped journaling as frequently. So she went back and read them (finally). After reading through everything she’d written, she saw patterns in herself that she had never noticed before. She resolved to change. She enacted said change. She also burned all her journals.

So, morning pages can, yes, help with self-reflection. That said, you have to actually go back over them later in order for that to work. You have to *gasp* find the pattern. Logic brain, oh noes!

I had never heard of anybody doing them. I just got the insistent, inner sense that I should do them and so I did.

The “them” she’s talking about is the morning pages. I don’t see how she can take credit for this when writing in journals, writing letters, etc has been with us nearly as long as written language existed.

If anything, writers, who have a regrettable desire to write morning pages instead of just do them, may have the hardest time seeing their impact. What they’re likely to see is that their other writing seems to suddenly be far more free and expansive and somehow easy to do.

It’s this quality of the brain called “neoplasticity.” Here’s an article about it.

In fact, hating the morning pages is a very good sign. Loving them is a good sign, too, if you keep writing even when you suddenly don’t. A neutral attitude is the third position, but it’s really just a defensive strategy to mask boredom.

She then goes on to claim that “boredom” is just fear in disguise. Sometimes, sure. Sometimes it’s frustration with a stupid exercise that doesn’t help anything. But apparently any other strong reaction is good, regardless of what it is?

THE ARTIST’S DATE

The other tool that Cameron proposes is the “Artist’s Date,” a chunk of time once a week in which you treat yourself to something to stimulate your creativity.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I think a variety of artistic stimulation is really important. If I hadn’t surrounded myself by knowledgeable science geeks that I like to spend time with, I never would have learned about 3-D printers, which inspired a sizeable chunk of the solo performance I’m working on. I’m really interested in maker spaces and open hardware, and how this can tie into urban agriculture, and promote an overall self-sustainability and sharing community mentality and even education, which can potentially tear down economic totalitarianism.

So yeah, I see how Artist’s Dates are super-important. I’m a fan of research, too, so giving myself time to sit down and just research a topic I’m interested in is a beautiful experience.

However, the way that Cameron talks about the Artist’s Dates later in the book focuses heavily on spending money and indulging yourself for … no reason, really, other than hedonism. This only promotes economic slavery (go ahead, charge it to your credit card, you’re worth it!) for a group of people (artists) who really can’t afford that. Despite her talk of spirituality or holistic philosophy, she rarely promotes just enjoying the simple beauty of a cherry tree in spring, or enjoying a conversation with a friend, and drawing inspiration from that. She more often encourages the “artist” who is reading to buy accessories, create altars (made of stuff), and somehow draw inspiration from owning things.

I like buying new clothes as much as the next Sex and the City fan, but it is by far NOT the only thing that feeds me.

Here’s a selection of Cameron’s words about the Artist’s Date:

In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers.

I like this idea but again, her capitalist leanings later in the book bother me.

Yes, your artist needs to be taken out, pampered, and listened to.

The spending spree begins! That whole “pampered” thing reminds me of spas and the self-indulgent culture that surrounds them. Relaxing is good, but it is not the only thing you need to do.

A visit to a great junk store, a solo trip to the beach, an old movie seen alone together, a visit to an aquarium or an art gallery – these cost time, not money.

I do really love art galleries and antique stores, but frankly, most of this costs money or involves money somehow.

The morning pages acquaint us with what we think and what we think we need. We identify problem areas and concerns. We complain, enumerate, identify, isolate, fret. This is step one, analogous to prayer. In the course of the release engendered by our artist date, step two, we begin to hear solutions. Perhaps equally important, we begin to fund the creative reserves we will draw on in fulfilling our artistry.

I don’t see how prayer is analogous to fretting and complaining. But otherwise, while she doesn’t say it the way I would say it, I mostly agree. Artist Dates exist to find inspiration, and morning pages exist to get you past the wall that goes up every time we think of sitting down and focusing on our art.

FILLING THE WELL, STOCKING THE POND

So the practical section is over and we’re back to the wishy-washy.

In filling the well, think magic. Think delight. Think fun. Do not think duty. Do not do what you should do – spiritual sit-ups like reading a dull but recommended critical text. Do what intrigues you, explore what interests you; think mystery, not mastery.

Again, I agree with the general sentiment of this but I simply hate the way she phrases it. And again, she encourages the reader to eschew focus and discipline, which, sometimes, is necessary when art is your job. You must experience a lot and allow it to inspire you, but you also have t o do the “sit-ups” to make the muse come back.

Also, setting aside time for yourself is a duty, even if it’s playtime. She says that the morning pages and the artist’s date are non-negotiable, so how is that not a duty?

”Why do I get my best ideas in the shower?” an exasperated Einstein is said to have remarked. Brain research now tells us that this is because showering is an artist-brain activity.

Cameron tries to explain that this works because repetitive exercises take less cognitive space. I think this is true, but it also means you are not taking control of your creative process, and it reminds me of a story about Tom Waits that I would like to quote here.

In a recent RadioLab podcast on the Creative Block ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ author Elizabeth Gilbert tells a great story about Tom Waits, who she interviewed whilst working for GQ magazine. For Gilbert it was the first time she saw creativity as an ‘it’; something that you could distance yourself from and negotiate with. You see, according to Waits every song has a distinctive identity that it comes into the world with: there are songs that you have to sneak up on like a rare bird, there are songs that come fully formed like a dream taken through a straw, there are songs like bits of chewing gums you scrape off the bottom of a chair that you have to put together, and there are songs that need to be bullied into shape.
The day that Waits finally took control of his own creative anxiety was one in which he was driving down the eight lane freeway in LA when suddenly a melody came into his head. Because he was driving he had no pen or paper, no recorder, no way of capturing this tiny, beautiful bit of music that had magically appeared. His frustration and disappointment at his inability to capture the music brought to the fore the kind of artistic insecurities we all go through from time to time. But then, all of a sudden, he looked up at the sky and said ‘Excuse me. Can you not see that I’m driving? If you’re serious about wanting to exist then I spend eight hours a day in the studio. You’re welcome to come and visit me when I’m sitting at my piano. Otherwise, leave me alone and go bother Leonard Cohen’.

The conversation Waits had was simply a case of his leftside finally taking control of his rightside’s creative urge and negotiating for some sort of process. For such a heavily weighted right brain thinker this is an incredible moment of artistic liberation that offers hope for anyone struggling with their own creative process. The ability to create dialogue between both sides of the brain is a great starting point for anyone considering their own creative process. Once you accept the differences in how the both sides of the brain work and are prepared to listen to both side’s needs then being creative becomes a whole lot easier. As a right brainer you may have to fine tune your listening skills for left side demands, and vice versa for left brainers, but like Tom, it will come with practice.

[From Hugh Gary: It’s Better Than Digging A Hole”]

Art is the imagination at play in the field of time.

… what?

Buy a nice notebook for your pages; hire your babysitter ahead of time for the weekly artist dates.

Oh yes, spend your money to go spend money on yourself. Way to go, Cameron.

On that capitalist note, I’m done. Next time is actually the First Week, so it’ll be a doozy.

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