Let me just start by saying: I'm totally blushing.
Why? Because when I first read this book ten years ago, I blew it off.
I thought it was "nice." Had some okay advice. But I didn't really take it to heart.
I completely disregarded this book. For ten years!!
I am here today to set things straight.
To declare my deep, deep love of this book. To celebrate its profound impact on my view of writing this summer.
And to report that it's basically changing my life and rearranging my heart and all kinds of good, important, radical stuff.
It's a big deal.
Whew. Deep breath.
But oh my goodness. I don't even know how to start talking about this book and how much it's helped me.
Let's rewind. Here's what happened ten years ago.
I was a mostly terrified and somewhat cocky college senior, a few months away from graduating, when I first read this book.
At the time, I felt fairly well supported. I was a student/writer who lived among students, who was praised by professors, who wrote a lot, who aced her assignments, and who could absolutely prioritize between School and All That Was Not School.
The writing life? Pfft. My main concern was how do I produce fast enough? And, you know, make a wad of cash and meet Oprah?
(Pardon me while I laugh a whole bunch and wipe away a few tears. Ahem.)
What I didn't know at the time was that, at my core, I have a maniacal perfectionist bias.
Which means that, when it comes down to it, I'm convinced that I should work five times harder, five times longer, and make flawless things on the regular. (While being irreproachable in every area of my life as well.)
I might have suspected that I had a slight perfectionism problem.
But if you'd asked me, I'd say that really, perfectionism is helpful, right? I mean, who wants to read crappy stuff? I'm all for excellence.
I had no idea how much of a block perfectionism is. How many awful messages are wrapped up in it, and how they've been trickling poison into my writing life.
Yeah. Turns out, perfectionism is 100% toxic to a healthy writing life. (Whoops.)
I also didn't understand how my childhood (yep, I just went there) radically affected how comfortable I am at trying difficult things. Taking risks. Being seen. And maybe failing at them.
I didn't realize that I have some really deep, persistent, gnarled roots of shame and frustration and anxiety that are all around the act of making something and presenting it to people.
As in, writing a novel, and, you know, publishing the thing.
Turns out, those kinds of scars, when not dealt with, will absolutely sabotage this kind of work. (Whoops again.)
But ten years ago, when I shrugged off this book, I didn't know that. I read all these same words, but I didn't really hear them. I definitely didn't see myself in what she was saying.
I just wanted some zippy advice for writing fast novels, perfect novels.
Heal and grow and take time to nurture myself? Nah. I want perfect novels, please, written at a blistering rate. Phone Oprah for me, okay?
Well. Fast forward about ten years later, to January 2016.
I was feeling some creative restlessness.
No, it was more than that. I was getting really uncomfortable and anxious about this pattern that I kept seeing in my writing.
I could barrel along though a first draft and a second and maybe even a third, but then something would happen that would make me feel like my entire novel was broken. Beyond repair.
No editor, no amount of redrafting could save this manuscript.
So I'd chuck it and learn a bunch (characterization! structure!) and go on to the next thing.
Basically, in a nutshell: My progress toward publication kept getting derailed. It was uncanny. And I was getting really tired of it.
Something kept tripping me up, and though it had always seemed external, lately I'd started to wonder if it was partly ME, sabotaging myself.
And I felt this kind of nudge to go check out The Artist's Way again.
I was half rolling my eyes at myself. This book? How was this loopy, silly book going to help me?
So I dragged my feet about reading it. I ignored it, not really looking at where it sat on my nightstand.
Until finally, in the spring, I began reading.
And reading. And reading.
And—I'm not kidding—I felt like every single paragraph was written about me.
How did she know these things? She was describing everything I'd been wondering and feeling lately.
She talked about how artists can self-sabotage without even realizing it.
She described the idea of a shadow career: one of the ways that artists try to skip being artists, or dodge what they're really meant to do.
How we can hide behind things that are like our main art while not actually doing our art.
(Which of course bears NO resemblance to my own path of working in two bookstores, working for two publishing companies, nearly becoming an editor, and now sometimes hiding behind a bunch of blog posts while neglecting a novel project. Doesn't sound like me at ALL, does it.)
... Did I mention I'm blushing?
And then, yes, she looks back at the messages we received in childhood. Which I wanted to shrug off ... but which turned out to be one of the most vital parts of the book for me.
I was reading and rereading as I went. I kept circling back and finding even more insights. Which is part of why it's taken me so long to get to the end of it.
It's set up as a twelve-week course. (Which is marvelous for those of you who, like me, still love thinking in school terms.)
Each "week" has a theme, and each theme is based around Cameron's idea of artistic recovery. So, for example, Week 1 is "Recovering a Sense of Safety," and Week 4 is "Recovering a Sense of Integrity," and Week 8 is "Recovering a Sense of Strength."
(Doesn't that just sound gorgeous? Sigh. I'm definitely about to launch into a re-read.)
In each week, there are a few essays about that theme, and then some really amazing and helpful tasks at the end, followed by a weekly check-in. I loved the structure, and both the essays and tasks were massively helpful.
But the biggest and most healing thing for me is her constant, persistent, unflinching sense of support and love for the artist.
For you, my writing friend. And for me.
She keeps having the reader acknowledge the fear and pain and artistic mistakes from the past, through a variety of helpful prompts and exercises. And then we work on healing it, by nurturing our artistic selves.
How do we do that?
Oh. This gets really fun. (And terrifying, if you're like me and have a hard time with this kind of thing.)
We nurture ourselves with play. With joy. With little luxuries.
By doing silly things. By indulging. By spoiling ourselves.
(And yes, that death rattle noise is my inner perfectionist, who is hiding under a blanket. Because this goes against everything she stands for. How can being silly help make me a better artist? Indulging yourself?!? Where will it all end? Gasp, cough, wheeze, choke.)
But basically, Cameron trains you to pamper and love and spoil and listen and treat yourself (and your work and your creativity), with utmost care and respect and kindness.
In other words, this book will help retrain all of us to stop beating ourselves up.
To stop starving parts of our creativity.
To stop submitting to the scars of the past and letting them destroy the future.
In fact, one of the mantras she recommends (which I both adore and really struggle with) is this:
Treating myself like a precious object
will make me strong.
I mean... sit with that for a bit. Let it mess with you.
Where have you been believing that it's by beating yourself up, by being really harsh (and calling it accountability), by being inflexible and refusing to reward yourself, by nitpicking and sniping at yourself, by staring at your mistakes until you want to hide...
Where has that spirit of self-abuse been ruling your writing life?
And do you, like me, feel like if you treated yourself super kindly—like you are in fact a precious Ming vase or an exquisite artwork—that if you do that, you'll just screw everything up, you won't be disciplined, you'll just get lazy, nothing will ever be done...
See, that's the argument that starts up in my head too. But Cameron calmly reasons it out of me.
In a nutshell, she proves very conclusively that when our artistic lives are full of delight, excitement, and kindness, we are drawn to our work, we are truer to our own voices, and we write from a place of well-nourished strength.
Are freakin' spectacular.
So, lean in to that.
Whoever you are, wherever you are at in your writing. Try to pamper your writing self.
Skip being harsh, skip self-punishment, skip all the nasty things we do to "keep ourselves in line."
And try a softer, kinder, more intuitive way.
... You'll be hearing more about this book in the next couple of weeks, as I share some of the biggest lessons I've learned from it. Because this was just the tip of the iceberg, my friends.
But seriously, don't wait for me. You owe it to yourself to borrow The Artist's Way from a library, or grab your own copy and start underlining.
Dive in with an open mind and an open heart.
Commit to trying all her exercises. And get ready to discover yourself (and appreciate your instincts and your amazing writer's heart) in a deeper way than ever before.
This book will challenge and prompt and prod and hug you.
I'm seriously going to reread mine, immediately, from front to back. Like, today. Right now.
Because it's changing everything.
And I'm convinced that it's absolutely essential to being the kind of writer I most want to be.