One of the reasons why I blew off The Artist's Way ten years ago was because I was a college senior. And I was used to doing writing assignments.
I could crank them out, no problem.
The reason for doing all that writing came from outside of me. Sure, I'd decide the direction that I would take each assignment.
But let's face it: the words I wrote for my English major and writing minor weren't coming from a place of listening deeply to the quiet murmurings of my inner artist self.
It was a lot more like me roaring through one paper after another. Taking my best option for a topic and running with it.
Which is probably why some of Julia Cameron's suggestions seemed pointless to me at the time.
But I've changed a lot since then. I've had enough time to run into problems. To realize that I can't always hear or see my imagination clearly. (Yikes.)
And to burn out, wipe out, and fall flat on my face often enough that I had to ask: isn't there a better way to do this? With a bit less bruising, perhaps?
Which is why her suggestions now make total sense.
And actually, why they seem like the only sane option for those of us who want a healthy, sustainable, and even happy writing life.
Here are three of her strategies, each of which is fundamental in her book. They're simple, straightforward, and extremely rewarding.
Bonus: each of these are things that you can do right now. Today. They don't take a lot of prep, just a little thought and a little time.
And they're so worth it.
So let's dive in.
1. Write your three morning pages.
If you've been a writer for a while, you've probably heard this bit of advice again and again.
Julia Cameron stresses that all creatives (and not just writers!) should begin their day by writing three pages, longhand. She says that this is key to unlocking creativity.
So when I first read her book ten years ago, I took her up on it. More creativity? Sounds great. I found a gorgeous leather journal and a fountain pen. Darn it, I was going to do it right.
I wrote three pages every morning for two weeks. I waited and waited for a sense of uplifted creativity, for brilliance, for my three pages to blossom into beautiful poems and metaphors.
Instead, I was disgusted. And deeply disappointed.
Because nothing "happened," nothing changed.
And when I went back to reread my pages? YIKES. My words were all teeny tiny with the worst possible penmanship. And all I did was whine:
It's too early, what was I thinking, why did I stay up so late, I'm really dreading that thing that's happening tomorrow, why haven't I done this or that or the next thing, oh my gosh my eyes are so tired that they're actually crossing, why do three pages take so long to write ...
So I gave it up. And every time after that when I heard people saying we should all write three pages in the morning, I rolled my eyes. Or I'd say, "that just doesn't work for me."
So when I picked up her book again this spring, I laughed when I saw the three-morning-pages advice. Pfft. Sheesh.
Then I read her explanations very carefully. ... And I kept laughing. But now I was laughing at myself. At how totally, completely, and hideously I had misunderstood the entire point of these pages before.
They are MEANT to be a whine. A rant.
They're meant to sound complainy, if complaints are what you wake up with.
They're meant to exorcise every ridiculous, self-centered, nit-picky thought from your head when you wake up.
So that you don't have to keep carrying that garbage around.
You get your whining done on paper. You do the pages, she says, to get them done.
This isn't meant to be unfiltered brilliance. It's meant to be sheer brain dump.
So I tried them again. All through this crazy summer, whenever I could, I'd start my day with three pages. And if I couldn't do it first thing, I'd do it whenever I got to my desk.
I ranted, I threw tantrums on paper, I complained. I tried to figure out my motivations behind things, and other people's motivations too. I got as nitpicky as I felt like I wanted to be. I let loose.
And you know what?
I felt lighter. I left some of that stuff on the page and didn't keep thinking about it. The other stuff, well, I was at least a bit closer to processing it.
I didn't use a fancy-pants journal this time, either. I got a bunch of cheap little Greenroom journals from Target. Bright and fun and lightweight, they reminded me that this isn't meant to be a serious writing endeavor.
I took to heart Cameron's caution that we writers will have the hardest time doing these pages. Because, she says, we'll try to write them. We'll try to make them pretty. We'll think too hard about what we say and how we say it.
Don't do that.
My pages went best when I reminded myself, this is a dump. That's all it is. A total thought dump. Stream of consciousness.
Keep your hand moving, keep the words coming. Don't think about it. Just let loose.
It's now become a key part of my writing day. And if I've missed it for a few days, I can feel all those thoughts running around and chittering in my head. I need to grab that notebook and just get all the clutter out.
Think of it like that: It's decluttering. Don't try to write them.
Just haul your thoughts and complaints and worries out of your head, and by doing that, make room for your writing.
2. Establish a practice of filling the well.
When my writing is going smoothly, this is a practice that I'm doing without even thinking about it, without really noticing.
But when my writing is off the tracks, this practice has usually gone by the wayside, and, again, without my noticing. Or, if I do notice, I don't understand how important it is. How vital.
That's why, even though this can sound reeeeeally basic, really obvious, I'm still gonna explain it.
When Cameron talks about our need to fill the well (and restock the pond—the other metaphor she uses), she's talking about a way of nourishing our imaginations.
As we do our work, we're drawing from this internal source, right? The imagery, character ideas, ways of interpreting our own memories, all that good stuff we talked about in Idea Camp.
What she's pointing out is, if we don't take the precaution of pouring back into ourselves, we'll run out. We'll run dry. We'll get blocked.
As Cameron puts it:
Any extended period or piece of work draws heavily on our artistic well. Overtapping the well, like overfishing the pond, leaves us with diminished resources. We fish in vain for the images we require. Our work dries up and we wonder why, "just when it was going so well." The truth is that work can dry up because it was going so well.
I don't know about you, but that perfectly describes something I've run into over, and over, and over again.
Cameron describes two ways of restocking our imaginations.
First, there's mystery. Play. Curiosity. Little changes in routine. Little sensory adventures of music and exploration and image.
It doesn't have to be big and dramatic, she says. But we absolutely need to make time for it.
The other way to restock is by doing simple tasks. Even somewhat mindless things that don't require much from us.
And in those spaces, those tasks, our imaginations start to stretch a bit. Cameron says, "Filling the well needn't be all novelty. ... Any regular, repetitive action primes the well."
She includes tasks like driving. Going for a walk. Taking a shower. Cooking. Doing needlepoint. Gardening.
If you've ever scribbled away in a coloring book: That's perfect for this.
I think the real key is, these are the small little things that can feel like we're wasting time.
And it's crucial to realize: we're not wasting anything. We're making space and refilling essential parts of ourselves, in ways we might not totally understand.
Turns out, these little simple activities might be the very stuff that we can't afford to neglect.
3. Shower yourself in authentic luxuries.
One of the essays that most amazed me in The Artist's Way comes right at the center of the program. It's simply titled "Luxury."
Ha, I thought. I don't do well with the idea of luxury. I'm basically broke, all the time, and while I'll pin all the pretty things on Pinterest, that doesn't mean I can afford any of them.
So I basically thought this wouldn't apply to me, until I read the first sentence of the essay:
For those of us who have become artistically anorectic—yearning to be creative and refusing to feed that hunger in ourselves so that we become more and more focused on our deprivation—a little authentic luxury can go a long way.
Artistically anorectic. That phrase and her definition of it just stopped me in my tracks.
Does that describe me? I wrestled with it for a while, but then thought of all the times when I say no to play, to pleasure, to curiosity, to fun, to frivolity, all of which are apparently connected to a healthy artist life...
And okay. Yeah. Yes. The phrase applies.
So I gripped the book a bit tighter, and read everything she had to say about luxury.
By which, she doesn't mean Champagne and fur coats and private jets.
By which she means: little things that delight you. That delight the artist in you. That feel like pampering.
Not the stuff that you necessarily feel like you should get, not the pricey stuff or things that are luxurious to other people but not maybe to you.
She's talking more like: fresh flowers. Or a toy you always wanted as a kid. Watercolor paints.
Maybe it's a paperweight that makes you happy. A candle that smells like the beach. Sidewalk chalk or a paint-by-number kit. A kite.
When you think luxury, don't think "tons of money!"
Think instead of the thing that is so easy to deny giving yourself. What you might shrug off and say, "I don't need it."
Aim for what delights.
I'm still learning how to best do this. One night, my answer to "luxury" was to splash some (very cheap) white wine into a jam jar and slip outside. I sat on the back deck and watched the sky turn from twilight to night, catching sight of the neighborhood bat, noticing which stars showed up first.
It was such a simple moment. So ignorable. Skippable.
But it felt like total delight to me, like a luxurious thing to do.
So now I'm brainstorming: where else can I invite that kind of luxury in?
To do some digging in this area, just start asking yourself: What delighted you as a kid? What kinds of things still sound fun or interesting or just cool?
What kind of natural view fills you up? Where would you love to spend more time? What hobbies did you used to love? What scents and sounds make you happy?
If it seems small or silly or like something that of course you could just do without... then you're probably on the right track.
After reading this book, I'm pretty convinced: if we want to be original in our work, but we deny the little things that make up who we are and what we love, then we're going to struggle.
And not just struggle to keep working, but to be as unique and brilliant as we're meant to be.
Not great news for our work, right?
So let's listen to our delights.
Let's fill notebooks with our morning brain dumps, and clear our systems for work.
Let's fill up our inner wells, our reservoirs of image and idea and metaphor.
And then let's celebrate the things that make us happy, the things that pamper us, even if they're small.
These three small practices just might be some of the most important pieces of our writing lives.
As Cameron writes,
Creativity lives in paradox:
serious art is born from serious play.
So, my friends: Let's play.