Everything I learned from (finally) completing The Artist’s Way
Words by Madeleine Dore
Maybe you’ve heard people referring to the morning pages or talking about going on an artist date. Maybe you’ve just started reading the first few chapters, or adopted some of its core practices into your daily routine. Maybe you’ve abandoned it halfway through, or dipped in and out, or even completed the entire twelve-week course.
For those not familiar, The Artist’s Way is a seminal text for creative unblocking and was published in 1992 by Julia Cameron. It has sold over five million copies and has helped demystify the creative process and transform countless lives, from philosophers to illustrators and authors.
In many of the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with creatives, I’ve asked or been asked the question, “Have you read The Artist’s Way?” The answer that follows is often some iteration of, “I enjoyed some of the exercises, but have never finished the book,” or “it’s been sitting on my shelf for years.”
Five years ago, while on a break after finishing studies I bought the Kindle version and began the week by week tasks with gusto, filling three pages with stream-of-consciousness writing each morning and taking myself on artist dates. By week three it came to an abrupt stop.
It’s difficult to determine why I didn’t keep stumbling through – perhaps it was feeling daunted by the “homework” or the religious undertones that didn’t resonate. In the proceeding years, I would stop and start the habit of the morning pages, what Julia Cameron describes as the ‘primary tool for creative recovery’.
With a particularly rocky start to the year, I had decided to be more diligent with filling three pages of brain drain each morning, but hadn’t yet picked up the text I put down five years ago. It wasn’t until an afternoon spent reading by the pool with a dear friend that I spotted her copy of The Artist’s Way and began to flip through the pages again. Snippets like “get out of the way, let it work through you” and “you have to stop telling yourself it’s too late” were a balm for this particular period of stuckness I was experiencing.
It was time. I moved into a new sublet in Melbourne and with the new environment came a clean slate to create new habits. I found a copy in a second-hand bookstore, the owner tapping on the cover saying “now this, this will change your life” while she put it through the cash register. Later that evening, I began from the beginning, the homework now viewed as a bedrock for a new routine, and the religious undertones swapped out for words like ‘flow’ and ‘energy’.
Twelve weeks, a dozen artist dates and three Moleksine journals filled with morning pages later, I closed the final page of The Artist’s Way and find myself in New York City.
I’m completely changed, and simultaneously unchanged. That, to me, is the wonderful thing about it – change is imperfect, it’s two steps forward and one step back, and often vice versa. When it's lasting, it's almost undetectable as your new self and your old self merge and stroll and stumble together.
I learned what can only be learned through going inward, even if that means looking like you’re doing nothing from the outside.
Here are my week by week notes and learnings – from listening to yourself to reframing lost opportunities – from the book I encourage any individual feeling blocked to dip into.
Lessons from making it all the way through The Artist’s Way
Week 1: Progress not perfection
The first time I began The Artist’s Way it helped spark the idea for my labour of love, Extraordinary Routines. This second attempt is exactly five year’s after the first interview was published in 2014.
So many of this week’s lessons resonate with what I’ve unearthed in the conversations I’ve had with creatives and own personal principles – creativity’s chief need is support and the key is to keep trying and experimenting.
I’m stuck by the description of ‘shadow artists’ – those that are drawn to other artists, but are blocked artists themselves and “caught between the dream of action and the feature of failure.”
I’ve spent been five years of inspecting how other people are creative and yet I haven’t written that book I wanted to write, or launched that podcast I wanted to launch. I can’t linger on that point for too long without spiralling.
“Very often audacity, not talent, makes one person an artist and another a shadow artist – hiding in the shadows, afraid to step out and expose the dream to the light, fearful that it will disintegrate to the torch.
While I’ve possessed audacity in some areas – launching an event series and my freelance writing for example – I can see how a lack of it has let certain projects languish.
I haven’t been audacious enough – I have failed. This is a belief, not a fact. “We are the thinker of the thoughts, not the thoughts,” as Julia writes.
We can get trapped in either/or thinking instead of taking things gently and slowly, and moving towards being unblocked. “Nurturing is key. To recover, we need solitude, self-nurturing, self-intimacy.”
I take myself to Readings bookshop, to relish in the solitude and the self-intimacy of walking and thinking and looking and flicking through pages and ideas.
Taking note of Julia’s words ‘progress not perfection’, I make a list of my project timeline for the podcast and do a callout for test listeners on Instagram. Beginning feels good.
Week 2: People can be blocks
This week I’m confronted by feelings of envy, self-doubt and feeling like I’ve missed certain opportunities.
“Erratic is part of getting unstuck,” Julia writes. “Do not let self-doubt turn into self-sabotage.”
Unblocking also comes with big changes, and we see how our personal lives might contain traces of being stuck. We can attach ourselves to what Julia refers to as ‘crazymakers’, or people who we choose (perhaps subconsciously) to act as blocks for ourselves and our creative desires. It’s easier to obsess about someone who broke your heart or annoys you at work than to think about your own creative potential.
This week, I opened the door to my ‘crazymaker’ who I had been caught thinking ‘what if, what if, what if’ for a few months while my book proposal gathered dust. The door was swiftly shut again later that week and this romantic obsession had come to a final end just when I was reading this very chapter. The book describes this as synchronicity and a sign of unblocking and the syncing between the chapters and my everyday life happened time and time again as I read the book.
The day after things ended between myself and my ‘crazymaker’ for the second time, I get a cold – what Julia describes as a Kriya, or “the bad case of the flu right after you’ve broken up with your love. It’s the rotten head cold and bronchial cough that announces you’ve abused your health to meet an unreachable work deadline.”
There is no longer a fantasy of what could, would or should be with this person, no longer an addiction to the fantasy.
It hurts, but the antidote to the pain of letting go is opening up to what delight there is in your life.
“The quality of life is in proportion, always to the capacity for delight,” writes Julia. “In the exact now, we are all, always, alright.”
I now have autonomy with my time and a capacity for paying attention to something else, something delightful, something that I feel truly connected to. Maybe even that book proposal.
Week 3: Anger and jealousy are a map
When you feel like you are sliding backwards, remember that growth occurs in spurts. We take one step forward and two steps back and that’s okay – we cannot change through judgement but self-love.
Emotions that might feel counterintuitive such as anger are actually a map. “It tells us we can’t get away with our old life any longer. It tells us that old life is dying,” writes Julia.
What angers us can also guide us if it is acted upon, it can help us say no, speak up, or create in response to something that has been stirred within us – anger is an invitation to take action.
It also points us towards what we want to do, and as Julia Cameron writes, “the how follows the what.”
We cannot obsess over how we will make something happen, we just need to say what we are doing, and take action.
“Action has magic so simply begin,” writes Julia.
This week, I record my first interview for the podcast and put together a pitch deck for a podcast producer.
Week 4: “If you want to work on your art, work on your life” – Anton Chekov
In order to shake a creative rut, we must puncture the denial and refuse to keep saying it’s okay that we haven’t attended to our most important work. It’s no longer okay that we have allowed for distraction, interruption, or being led by someone else’s agenda.
This week was about tossing out the old and unworkable, and noticing changes in tastes, judgments and personal identity. For me, I found myself leaving a talk I wasn’t enjoying when previously I would have continued to sit through out of politeness.
I found that I surprised myself with my actions or with my responses in conversations, which is a sign of starting to shake the habits and trappings that can keep us stuck.
“You are no longer stuck but you cannot tell where you are going,” writes Julia.
Week 5: open up to opportunity
Often we experience doubt because we do not take ourselves seriously enough, writes Julia, but I also find that taking myself too seriously or things too personally can present a block.
I can easily put things into the “impossible” category, but as this week explored, often something is impossible only because we are looking too ahead or too narrowly at the things we desire.
“Very often, when we cannot seem to find an adequate supply it is because we are insisting on a particular human source of supply,” writes Julia.
Tasked with asking myself what next steps I am evading, I realised I had to make decision about a trip to New York City I had talked about since the beginning of the year. Money, timing, and fear all got in the way, but the next step was to decide, so I booked the flight.
“Find the river and say yes to the flow,” writes Julia, and so the river will be NYC.
Just like the bends of a river, things don’t pay off in a linear fashion – there is no neat sequence of events once you’ve made a step, but the important thing is to become internally clear on dreams, desires and delights.
Working out my dreams, desires and delights is still a work in progress, but from this week’s readings I know I need time, space and quiet to become clear on those – and that often means saying no to others or to our own expectations and too-rigid plans.
It can difficult to say no, especially to people we love, but it’s an important practice. “Many recovering creatives sabotage themselves most frequently by making nice,” as Julia writes.
We need to protect our solitude and flow when we are unblocking. “We strive to be good, to be nice, to be helpful, to be un-selfish. We want to be generous, of service, of the world. But what we really want is to be left alone. When we can’t get others to leave us alone, we eventually abandon ourselves. To others, we may look like we’re there. We may act like we’re there. But our true self has gone to ground.”
Week 6: Money anxiety and wasted time
This week, I committed to writing a short article every day to test the idea of taking care of the quantity and letting an external force take care of the quality.
Each time I sat down to write I took note of an internal objections and negative beliefs the subconscious mind blurts out. One reoccurring blurt was “I should be working” – even though I was writing, it felt like I wasn’t work because it wasn’t paid work.
It didn’t feel like enough to simply write for my own sake, as if there has to be some other external recipient of the words rather than my own contentedness in writing them.
“What we really want to do is what we are meant to do,” writes Julia. Why do I so often deny myself the luxury to do what it is I want to do?
Often it’s my anxiety around money that presents a block – self-conscious about earning less than many of my peers means that even when I might have the time, space and quiet to write, there is a lingering shame or guilt in using that time when I really should be trying to make more money.
While I might earn comparatively less, what we need is entirely subjective and I’m privileged to be able to cover my living expenses. As Julia writes, we ‘deny ourselves the luxury of time’ – money anxiety is the excuse I use to erode my spare time.
Week 7: perfecting perfectionism
While I love lists, I can also be entrapped by them. “Art is about getting something down, not planning,” writes Julia.
Often planning for me is a symptom of perfectionism, which we can have false ideas about. “Perfectionism is not a quest for the best, but a pursuit of the worst in ourselves.”
This week, my artist date was to go to The Moth storytelling event solo, and I was in awe of how strangers got up on stage and told a story with no notes and full hearts. They were funny, touching, imperfect and the embodiment of the question in this chapter: “What would you do if you didn’t have to do it perfectly?”
Often we wait for the perfect time, the perfect condition, the perfect state because we think it will lead to a guaranteed success or some sense of safety and security, but as the book explains, “safety is a very expensive illusion.”
Waiting for perfect can lead to things like jealousy and envy, where we see others doing what we know we can but have kept a wish or pipe dream. As Julia Cameron, “Blocked artists deny success from ourselves and others.”
The antidote is to take a risk and focus on the doing. “A risk is worth taking simply for the sake of taking it.”
I open up the first test podcast and begin to stumble through the editing software I have no experience with. I judge it as bad, unworkable, and un-shareable – I still have a long way to go with my perfectionism it seems.
Week 8: Real change occurs in tiny increments
For me, this chapter was the most mind altering of all and I continue to return to it because the lesson that comes from this will take a long time to fully inhale.
As previously described, when commencing the twelve weeks, I internalised a lack of audacity as a personal failure, when perhaps more accurately, criticism pinches at our audacity reserves.
Throughout the creative process, Julia explains, artists face loss of hope, money and self-belief, and it is encouragement that can so often help pick us back up.
With encouragement – from others and importantly ourselves – we can begin to reframe any loss, rejection of criticism.
“Every loss must be framed as a potential gain, every end a beginning,” writes Julia.
This week, I get an email from my book agent to say that she is moving to a different company and can no longer represent me. The previous week, I received news that my regular newspaper will no longer run. Other freelancing ties seemed to be losing momentum – I felt like I had lost what I’d built over the last few years in one fell swoop.
This words could not have come at a better time: “Stop complaining about the lousy curves you get thrown and stretch, reach for what you really want,” writes Julia.
Instead of ‘why me’ I needed to ask what next. I needed to see the potential of these endings and what could be opened up in their place – a fresh start, a shake-up of my routine, and push from complacency.
“Creativity is in the doing, not the done,” writes Julia.
I often focus on the done – the book only when it gets the deal, the columns being published, the podcast being praised when it’s launched. I had ignored the doing, the writing, the recording and learning that all these dream projects contained. I’d skipped over process and progress, straight into perfection.
“Focused on process, our creative life creates a sense of adventure,” writes Julia.
Instead of thinking about the big end goal or outcome, I needed to focus on the next small step and swap ‘what’s the use’ for ‘what is next’.
“Most of the time, the next right thing to do is small: washing out your paintbrushes, stopping by the art-supply store and getting your clay, checking the local paper for a list of acting classes… as a rule of thumb, it is best to just admit that there is always one action you can take for your creativity daily. This daily-action commitment fills the form.”
But yet, here is where our minds can play tricks – instead of taking a small step, we become anxious over the big ones.
“One of our favourite things to do – instead of art – is to contemplate the odds,” writes Julia.
This is often called anxiety in the lieu of action. “Watch yourself for a week and notice the way you will pick up an anxious thought, almost like a joint, to blow off or at least delay, your next creative action.”
I do this incessantly – worry about the big project rather than pause my thoughts to take a smal step. I see with full clarity my addiction when I read Julia’s words: “Most blocked creatives have an active addiction to anxiety. We prefer the low-grade pain and occasional heart-stopping panic attack to the drudger of small and simply daily steps in the right direction.”
I logged my anxious thoughts for one day and it was helpful for staying focus on the task at hand – redoing my chapter outline for the book.
Work begets work and taking on small steps in action instead of indulging in the big questions can help us further along.
Week 9: Fear is not laziness
I often joke that I’m a lazy-overachiever, but after reading this week’s chapter I wasn’t sure if I was really either.
“Blocked artists are not lazy, they are blocked,” writes Julia.
We spend energy on self-doubt, self-hatred, regret, grief, jealousy and think in terms of great big scary impossible tasks.
My high expectations and lofty plans often mean that I want to leap over the small, incremental steps and dive straight into the impossible tasks. “The need to produce a great work of art makes it hard to produce at all,” she writes.
We can also fall into asking what’s the point and berating ourselves for only just starting, worrying that everyone is so much further ahead, we will never quite catch up.
When I don’t succeed or finish my to do list or meet my ideals, I call it laziness, ignoring the fact I set myself up to fail – perhaps out of self-protection or self-sabotage.
‘Do not call the inability to start laziness, call it fear,’ writes Julia.
This fear can often come in the form of a ‘Creative U-Turn’, and it’s best to reach out for someone who can help when you are stuck. “The glare of success can send the recovering artist scurrying back into the cave of self-defeat.”
To tackle fear, we need to use love – not pushing or hustling but rather leading from joy not duty.
When we start with joy, the discipline will follow. The question bubbles up again – what do I enjoy? What do I desire? Why does this continue to elude me? This week felt like a lot of question-asking and meetings, but no step taking. Does this mean I am searching for the joy?
Week 10: overwork v. zestful work
“When we are clear about who we are and what we are doing, the energy flows freely and we experience no strain,” writes Julia.
I still don’t feel clear on what I am doing – am I writing a book? Am I building on a freelance career? Am I making a podcast? Am I growing an event series? I spend a lot of time thinking about the doing in most of the aforementioned cases, but have no idea overall what I am doing. Do people actually know the answer to this?
I’ve removed blocks, in particular I have removed alcohol after seeing how it had a negative domino effect on my daily habits and haven’t had a drink for almost five months by this point in the book.
I take this as a clear sign of the beginning of my unblocking. “When we become unblocked, we will experience a withdrawal from our old life and what has kept us stuck – habits, workholism, relationships, addictions. We find that we are able to articulate our own boundaries and desires and become less malleability to the whims of others,” writes Julia.
Even without alcohol, there is still room for improvement in respect to how I’m using my time – which is often being the busy worker bee and feeling overwhelmed or worries about money rather than attending to important creative work.
As Julia writes, “It is more likely that you have the time and are misspending it.”
I don’t feel particularly busy, I feel overwhelmed by what feels like a lack of zestful work. I know what I need to do, but I still feel stuck, unable to move towards it. As Julia puts it, I am in a creative drought.
What do we do when we are in the drought? We stumble through because it is “the time in the desert brings us clarity.”
Sometimes it is our expectations that has created a drought. We have to watch for delusions such as fame and external validation which are often short-cut to self-approval. “The desire to be better than can choke off the desire to be,” writes Julia.
What we return to is the process of creating itself rather than the outcome, because “wanting more will always snap at our heels, erode our joy at ours or another’s accomplishments.”
Once again, it’s joy. “Only when we are being joyful creative can we release the obsession with others and how they are doing.”
Week 11: The true purpose of exercise
A resounding message throughout the chapters has been that it’s important to experiment with what works for you.
For me, that’s been experimenting with not drinking, it’s been doing the morning pages diligently, it’s been taking myself on artist dates, and it’s been running.
When starting out, I could run for less than five minutes on a treadmill. By week eight of the book, I hit my goal of running 5km without stopping. When you try something and keep trying, it might just work. I reached that goal, and I keep running, for clarity and focus and steadiness.
“We learn by going where we have to go. Exercise is often the going that moves us from stagnation to inspiration, from problem to solution, from self-pity to self-respect. We learn we are stronger than we thought. We learn to look at things with a new perspective. We learn to solve our problems by tapping our own inner resources and listening for inspiration, not only from others but from ourselves. Seemingly without effort, our answers come while we swim or strike or ride or run. By definition, this is one of the fruits of exercise: the act of bringing into play or realising in action,” writes Julia.
Rather than a tool for vanity, exercise teaches us about the rewards of the process, not the outcome.
As Julia writes, “Any regular, repeatable action primes the well” and for me the seemingly non-creative act of running puts me into step with myself.
Each time I tell myself I will run and then I take action and do it, I am building self-respect, which comes from doing the work.
I’ve also learned that the goal is not the point, it’s the running. Once I reached 5km, the treadmill did not evaporate – opportunity to keep running, keep taking strides remained.
“When we get ‘there’, there disappears” writes Julia, so we may as well focus on the running, not the end.
Week 12: Letting go
It’s the final chapter of the book and I have arrived in New York City with the intention of setting aside three months to work on the personal projects that I have carried with me the last few months – the podcast and the book.
I expect to hit the ground running immediately, but I can hear a familiar voice inside my mind telling me this has been a mistake, that I can’t afford to be here financially, that I’ve taken a wrong turn and I should focus on finding a job, a real job.
“We throw up roadblocks to maintain a sense of control,” writes Julia.
Instead of trying to seize and grasp at this time, I need to get serious about taking myself more lightly, less seriously, writes Julia.
“To be creative is to be productive – but by cooperating with creating, not by forcing it.”
Gentleness, and trusting in the darkness, the unknown, is what I’m really here to learn. It’s what the twelve weeks have led me to and I change my phone background to say “let go.”
Cooperation with our creativity takes time, and we have to remember that we can often sense our own changing and experience a sense of grief for our old life. There’s something new opening up, I just don’t know what, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s extraordinary.
Where to from here? Notes on the elusiveness of delight and desire
It’s been three weeks since I finished The Artist’s Way. I have kept the habit of the morning pages, I take myself on artist dates in New York City, and I continue to explore what it is that delights and brings joy, because in truth I’m not quite sure – I often still feel like I’m in the creative desert, even though I’m in the most creatively vibrant city in the world.
I want to watch for what delights me, I want to be alive to joy, I want to pay attention, I want to experiment and see if Julia Cameron’s resounding message is true.
“The quality of life is in proportion, always to the capacity for delight.”
“Become internally clear on dreams, desires and delights.”
“When we are clear about who we are and what we are doing, the energy flows freely and we experience no strain.”
“What we really want to do is what we are meant to do”
“Expect the universe to support your dream and it will.”
“Only when we are being joyfully creative can we release the obsession with others and how they are doing.”
It’s interesting, to finish a book I’ve heard time and time again will change your life, and to not feel completely drastically changed. My book proposal is still being reworked, the podcast is still just in the pipeline, and I’m still unsure about what truly, deeply, delights me.
A difference is that I’m committed to being okay with what isn’t yet finished because things take time. I think that’s the beauty in finally being open to incremental change, to know that letting go of old habits and ways of thinking takes time, and that things don’t pay off in a linear fashion, and there is often a plateau after any big internal shift.
Julia Cameron describes creatives droughts as times in between dreams, listless, dry seasons. This drought has lasted much longer that I would have liked or predicted, but I am remaining upright and sitting with the listlessness because it’s teaching me something.
I can see how far I still have to go in my creative unblocking, but there is something within me that I had lost – a simmering, a curiosity, an opening. It’s always there, in the background, and I keep it alive by attending to my morning pages, by checking in with my mind, by admitting I don’t yet know, by allowing myself to stumble.
“Droughts end because we have kept writing our pages. They end because we have not collapsed to the floor of our despair and refused to move. We have doubted, yes, but we have stumbled on,” writes Julia.
Thank you Julia Cameron, for everything.
Top picks from The Artist’s Way:
Tasks and questions
· List areas you need guidance with before bed
· Replace no with ‘maybe’
· What would you do if you didn’t have to do it perfectly?
· Create a list of your resentments and areas of resistance so you can see fear on the page
· Create a jealousy map – the names of the people you envy and what they are doing that you wish you were
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