The Artist’s Way Criticism: Hunkering Down Into Week One

The title of Week One is “Recovering a Sense of Safety.” It’s true, it is important to feel safe practicing art. Classes can help with this, but classes also force you to practice. Ironically, reading a book about art does not force you to practice that art.

In general, the chapter encourages readers to overcome “difficult” childhoods and ignore current criticism. This is not necessarily for the best. First, if you suffer from depression or another mental disorder, it is important to address the issue with a trained therapist, and potentially with medication. This first step toward healing will help greatly with forging forward and doing the things you love. Yes, you probably had hardships in your childhood, but if it is stifling you so badly that you cannot create anything, you should address that pathology.

Again, it is irresponsible for Julia Cameron to encourage readers to get over a potentially serious mood disorder by themselves. By pointing at childhood trauma, Cameron actually encourages reliance on a new excuse – rather than beating himself up, the reader will beat up the memory of his parents and his childhood. Transferring blame does nothing to overcome trauma.

It is also irresponsible to encourage artists to outright ignore criticism. I’ll let the article “An American Horror Story” explain why for me.

Now, let’s dig into this chapter and see what it’s got.

Cameron begins the chapter talking about support – how artists need support, moreso than the average person. She then goes to blame bad parenting for the problem, allowing the reader to, as mentioned, transfer blame from the self to the parent, and then allowing the reader to forgive themselves for not having support. Even though we all need friends.

And then, she goes into some of her patented fake stories, about “clients” that she’s helped – Edwin the Miserable Millionaire Trader; Erin, a children’s therapist who cannot release her own inner child; Jerry, a blocked artist until he met freelance artist Lisa. She calls these blocked artists, just for this chapter, “Shadow Artists.”

Shadow artists often choose shadow careers – those close to the desired art, even parallel to it, but not the art itself.

This would, I think, be true of many artists who do not yet make a living at their art. “Real” artists don’t just work in restaurants to make ends meet.

As a rule of thumb, shadow artists judge themselves harshly, beating themselves for years over the fact that they have not acted on their dreams.

Again, I think this is true of everyone. If you have specific career ambitions or dreams, whether artistic or not, it is probably easy to feel like you haven’t succeeded if you are not immediately where you want to be. “5 Ways We Ruined the Occupy Wall Street Generation” has some interesting points along these lines.

Judging your early artistic efforts is artistic abuse. This happens in any number of ways: beginning work is measured against the masterworks of other artists; beginning work is exposed to premature criticism, shown to overly critical friends. 

Yes, judging a draft of a work is a touchy process. Having your work judged before you’re ready to receive criticism can be damaging, too. When you’re just starting out, it is important to give yourself safe space and time to work as you want to work. However, artwork is not complete unless it has an audience, which means that, someday, your work will need to be judged by the general public, and at that time, you will have to deal with a lot of crap.

Don’t compare yourself to a level of technique you do not have yet. However, keep practicing and you will have that technique. And it is important to remember that you can shrug off criticism you don’t want. There’s value in critics, but if what they say to you does not suit what you aim for, then you can discard it. That’s ok, it’s your art.

This is more useful advice than, “You should feel sorry for yourself because of what your parents did to you, and you should baby yourself while you create.”

Several pages of generic BS later …

Another fake client story. Paul had always wanted to be a writer. And yet, after a brief flurry of college creativity, he stopped showing his writing to anyone. Instead of the short stories he dreamed of, he kept journal after journal, each following the last into a dark drawer far from prying eyes. 

I wouldn’t have a problem with this story in general, because the placement uses it for an earlier point about affirmations (which can actually work to turn a negative inner voice around, I just happen to dislike that particular method). However, I feel like it comes close to negating a step Cameron promotes, which is the Morning Pages.

Morning Pages are three pages of anything in your head that you sit down and write in the morning. It’s supposed to unblock your creativity, and I’m actually a fan of this idea, particularly because I’m a writer (at times). The hardest part of being an artist is getting started. You don’t have a set task list for yourself when you get to “work” in the morning (or whenever). You can make one, but it is something you do for yourself, it’s not like you have a project due for your boss on a certain day. Anyway, my point is, it’s actually a pretty good start. The catch is, the Morning Pages are just pure bullshit. They might lead you to a story, but they don’t have to, that’s not their purpose. And you should never, ever show them to anyone.

So here’s the thing. Cameron uses Paul’s private journalling as an example of a bad habit, but then she goes on to encourage the reader to write Morning Pages – structured journalling, basically – and never, ever show the pages to anyone ever. I mean, the ultimate point of the Paul story was that he wasn’t doing what he wanted to be doing with himself, but journalling was not the problem. He was still writing, the problem was his pathology.

It just seems hypocritical.

Cameron sets the reader to a series of tasks. In sum:

1. Morning pages
2. Artist date
3. Time travel (list three enemies, as specifically as possible)
4. Time travel again (write a horror story about one of the people on your enemy list)
5. Write a letter to the editor in your defense
6. Time travel – your crystals must be getting exhausted! (three old champions of your work, this time)
7. More time travel! (write a happy piece of encouragement with the help of one of your champions)
8. Imaginary Lives (invent five alternate lives and write them)
9. Do affirmations and blurts, and keep track of monsters for your enemy list as they come to you (not champions though, apparently)
10. Go for a brisk, 20-minute walk with your “artist”

Cameron is basically giving the reader psychological writing prompts. This is fine, except for the slightly more intense focus on the bad guys in your life, instead of the good guys. I would say, focus more on the champions in your life, and not so much on the negative people. I do fully agree with the last bit about exercise, although I’d say that you could also bike, do yoga, dance, or do something else that makes you feel good and stimulates a different part of your brain. Exercise releases endorphins – yes, you get naturally high from exercise. So do the stuff you like and don’t force yourself to do the stuff you don’t. Walking in particular can get you some mental stimulation because of a change of scenery, so it’s a good thing to do as well.

The thing is, if you’re going to write to unblock, you can pick any set of writing prompts you want. When I took the solo performance class, we received writing prompts for lists and paragraphs, and we were timed. This meant that we could not sit down and go on and on, which encouraged us subtly to give our stories and lists structure, because we didn’t want to leave them hanging. Writing prompts are a great place to start, and there’s a huge variety of them.

My point is, you don’t have to dig deep into your psyche just to start the creative recovery process. And definitely starting out by shifting blame for your “inability” is not the way to go. Get a good therapist, and find a class to help launch your creativity. If artists need support, then reach out to your community and find support. Cameron’s method still leaves you relying on yourself, which is still not healthy.

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