Welcome to Tuesdays with Chel.
“The grace to be a beginner is always the best prayer for an artist. The beginner’s humility and openness lead to exploration. Exploration leads to accomplishment. All of it begins at the beginning, with the first small and scary step.”
– Julia Cameron
Welcome to the Bliss Habits Book Club! For the next several weeks, we’ll be discussing and working our way through The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. This week we’re discussing Week/Chapter Eight.
Chapter/Week Eight of The Artist’s Way has two over-riding themes: recovery (from criticism, from different experiences, etc.) and process vs. product.
I got a tremendous amount out of Julia Cameron’s discussion of “SURVIVAL” as an artist. She writes:
“In order to move through loss and beyond it, we must acknowledge it and share it. Because artistic losses are seldom openly acknowledged or mourned, they become artistic scar tissue that blocks artistic growth. Deemed too painful, too silly, too humiliating to share and so to heal, they become, instead, secret losses.”
There are a few “artistic losses” that she writes about, but she specifically mentions “disappointing reception of a good piece of work” and “inability to move across into a different medium due to other people’s expectations”.
I can *so* relate to what she is saying. I think all creative people can give you scores of experiences in which something they invested their soul into, something they felt strongly about, something they gave their ALL to, something that felt like a shining pinnacle of who they wanted to be as an artist/writer/actor/creative in general was met with lukewarm reception or none at all. I mean, who among us that maintains a blog hasn’t written something that felt special or personal and then had no comments or response to it? It’s horrible.
Yet, we expect ourselves to just get up the next day and start fresh. That’s the brave thing to do, right? The best way to get back on track? Well, maybe not. Maybe we need to give ourselves a break. Take a little time. Feel upset and explore that. Maybe heading right back to our desks and a blank sheet of paper isn’t the right thing to do after all.
“We must remember that our artist is a child and that what we can handle intellectually far outstrips what we can handle emotionally. [The creative person] emerges shamed, feeling like a bad artist, or worse, a fool to try. We must be alert to flag and mourn our losses…. The unmourned disappointment becomes the barrier that separates us from future dreams.”
How on earth can we do good, true work if we are constantly feeling shame over our desire to create that work? We can’t. It’s not our job to prove these losses unimportant, or meaningless. It’s our job to protect our creative self and make sure it’s operating at full capacity. Being injured time and time again and not taking time to evaluate that and tend to it will just create a huge creative block for us, something that manifests itself in frustration, shame, maybe even boredom. “A fool to try…”
I’m going to take this a step further and put this out there: as creative people, a lot of emotional energy goes into our work. Have you ever worked on a project and found yourself pushing away from the table or the canvas or the computer screen hours later, completely exhausted and spent? We’re creating from a limited reservoir- our emotional energy not only has to power our creative work, but our everyday life as well. We are drawing from the *same* source of energy whether we are writing a story, painting, or tending to our kids or dealing with our co-workers.
Everyday situations can drain us. I think it’s important to honor this. I can’t think of all the time I have had a rough couple of days of just regular STUFF and then sat down in my art studio feeling resentful and exhausted. Sometimes good does come from those times when I push myself, but often it just turns into a mess.
I’m all for “showing up is 99% of the battle” because it is. But when you show up and every part of you is begging you for a break, some downtime, maybe a quiet half hour curled up with a book and a cup of tea- maybe you should give yourself a break and let yourself reenergize a bit. And then come back to the table rested and a little bit more focused, and start slow and quietly.
Cmeron calls this “return to the table” “FILLING THE FORM”- basically just making tiny, little creative steps in the right direction, one after the other, until the culmination of all those tiny steps turns into something big.
“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… Indulging ourselves in a frantic fantasy of what our life would look like if we were real artists, we fail to see the many small creative changes that we could make at this very moment. This kind of look-at-the-big-picture thinking ignores the fact that a creative life is grounded on many, many small steps and very, very few large leaps.” – Julia Cameron
I’m learning this RIGHT NOW. The holidays are SO draining, energy-wise. No matter how simple I try and make them, the bottom line is that if there’s some sort of holiday celebrating happening in my house, the preparation is going to make me anxious and stress. This is NOT the time for me to be taking out a fresh sheet of watercolor paper and doing some intricate work that I feel needs to come from a very pure place inside me.
Instead, this is the time I do art journaling- building up on a foundation, maintaining, adding to, taking away. Does that make sense? I find that if my energy is shot on “real world” stress, it’s best to focus on something less “complete” or “start to finish” in my creative world.
“Take one small daily action instead of indulging in the big questions. When we allow ourselves to wallow in the big questions, we fail to find the small answers. What we are talking about here is a concept of change grounded in respect—respect for where we are as well as where we wish to go. … Make changes, small changes, right where you are. Fill this form with creative care until it overflows into a newer, larger form—organically.”
I love the word she chose to end that statement with: “organically”. That’s so very true. When we try and conjure up something creative from a tired, empty place in our soul, it does come through in the work. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but if it means it’s chipping away at more of our energy and depleting us even more, it’s just not a good thing.
Cameron also discusses “artistic injuries” of the academic variety in the section entitled “THE IVORY POWER”. This whole section surprised me because I actually *had* an encounter like that in college- one of my favorite professors suddenly urging me to go into a less “physical” field than art history because of my Spina Bifida. I always recognized that as a crushing blow, something that really changed my fate in a lot of ways. But I never could figure out why the heck he said it. Cameron writes:
“Like the career of any athlete, an artist’s life will have its injuries. These go with the game. The trick is to survive them, to learn how to let yourself heal. Just as a player who ignores a sore muscle may tear it further, an artist who buries his pain over losses will ultimately cripple himself into silence. Give yourself the dignity of admitting your artistic wounds. That is the first step in healing them [and] just counting them as losses begins the process of healing them.”
She urges creative to turn loss into gain.
“When faced with a loss, immediately take one small action to support your artist. Even if all you are doing is buying a bunch of tulips and a sketch pad, your action says, “I acknowledge you and your pain. I promise you a future worth having.” Like a small child, our artist needs mommying. ‘Ouch. That hurt.’” – Julia Cameron
In addition to creative injury and recovery, Cameron also discusses creative process in chapter/week eight in the section entitled “AGE AND TIME: PRODUCT AND PROCESS”.
“At the heart of the anorexia of artistic avoidance is the denial of process. We like to focus on having learned a skill or on having made an artwork. This attention to final form ignores the fact that creativity lies not in the done but in doing.” – Julia Cameron
Again, this topic deeply resonated with me. This past year I have come to realize that I am VERY much of a perfectionist. So much so it paralyzes me. I loved it in Chapter Seven when Cameron pointed out that perfectionism wasn’t us being uber-critical of ourselves, but was instead a function of ego- some belief that we *could* do it perfectly if all circumstances supported us.
Cameron urges us to keep focusing on “being creative” and “creating” as opposed to “have created”. She writes:
“In a sense, no creative act is ever finished…. It simply means that doing the work points the way to new and better work to be done. Focused on process, our creative life retains a sense of adventure. Focused on product, the same creative life can feel foolish or barren. We inherit the obsession with product and the idea that art produces finished product from our consumer-oriented society. This focus creates a great deal of creative block. We, as working artists, may want to explore a new artistic area, but we don’t see where it will get us. We wonder if it will be good for our career. Fixated on the need to have something to show for our labors, we often deny our curiosities. Every time we do this, we are blocked.”
That’s so powerful to me. So much so I’m thinking about a resolution for 2013 that will support the idea of practicing creativity rather than focusing on having created things, if that makes any sense. It’s in the practice of creativity, the “process”, that the magic is. I enjoy painting. I enjoy the process of painting, the act of dipping my brush into water and pulling up bits of color and then seeing what magic is contained in the bristles of the brush, the colors spreading across the page. I definitely enjoy that more than I do sitting around and looking at art I’ve already created. So why the hell do I fixate so much on the outcome?
I think it’s all about trust. We have to learn to TRUST ourselves, our creativity. That what comes out of that paintbrush, what comes out of our fingers as we tap the keys, what comes out of our creative movements and ideas, is EXACTLY what is supposed to come out. We have to trust that the joy and passion that goes into the process is what counts and will shine through the finished piece. We have to be willing to give part of our energy and passion and experience away while we engage in our creativity.
The bottom line is this- if the call of creativity in us is SO loud that we feel a desperate need to engage it and be creative, then we come to terms with the fact that our biggest champion and supporter of this passionate, intense process MUST be ourselves. That’s a heavy burden, for sure, but who else is going to step up and understand it like we, ourselves, do?
“The grace to be a beginner is always the best prayer for an artist. The beginner’s humility and openness lead to exploration. Exploration leads to accomplishment. All of it begins at the beginning, with the first small and scary step.” – Julia Cameron
The discussion is continued on Facebook, as well. Please join us.
Chel Micheline is a mixed-media artist, curator, writer, and avid gardener/reader/swimmer who lives in Southwest Florida with her husband and daughter. When Chel’s not making art or pondering the Bliss Habits, she’s blogging at gingerblue.com (come say hi!) or posting new things in the gingerblue etsy shop.