Three Important Insights from The Artist’s Way

I spent three months earlier this year working through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. First published 25 years ago with umpteen reprints, several spinoffs, and numerous nips, tucks, and facelifts, the perennial title continues to unstick stuck creatives.

It’s a 12-week course designed to “discover and recover your creative self” by exposing and dispelling the myths (I’m not talented enough), the limiting beliefs (Doing art is not serious enough for adults), and the crippling mindsets (perfectionism and work addiction). With these saboteurs routed, the blocked writer or floundering artist can build self-confidence and new attitudes that support a flourishing creative practice.

The Artist’s Way sat on my TBR list for years because I couldn’t quite commit to the Cameron’s mystical language and spiritual terms that meant other things, important things, to me. The past several years has seen cracks form in many of those previously rigid mental constructs. Suffice it to say I discovered the usefulness of expansion joints, which I’ve judiciously applied.

Twelve Weeks—Count ‘em: 12

While I completed the course, my writing productivity nosedived. My blogging screeched to a crawl. The rewrite of my novel with my ASA mentor drifted into slow-mo. My reading schedule crashed and burned. I wrote my Morning Pages (Cameron’s “primary tool for creative recovery”) and edited articles for work, and that was it.

However, to be fair, during the same three months, Big Stuff of Life happened. I found a new house and that very day had emergency surgery followed by two weeks of bed rest, renovated the old house, put it on the market, sold it, packed up essentials and siphoned off 15 years of detritus, moved to a new city, downsized my beloved career, and took up the day-to-day care of an elderly relative, all of which equated to a ‘significant score’ (336) on the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale.

Little wonder I did so little creative writing for three months (and then some), and yet, crazy as it is, I still feel lousy about my low writing output.

I don’t know which derailed my productivity, The Artist’s Way course or the Big Stuff of Life, but despite everything that was going on, the course led me to several important insights. Before I share them, I have to point out something that continues to amaze me: The a-Ha moments came prior to Cameron covering them in the book. The grappling and reflecting in my Morning Pages after each chapter became a springboard to some cool personal insights, which, like magic, she covered in the next chapter. It’s hard to convey how meaningful this made the experience and how much more I valued the insights I gained.

And speaking of insights, here are three of many:

Blocking Beliefs

Journalling in the Morning Pages led me to the realisation that I held some mixed up core beliefs that were a source of creative conflict for me. Somehow in my psyche I had conflated creativity with selfishness. I don’t know exactly how or when it happened, but I had picked up the notion that expressing my creativity, whether writing fantasy for children or creating funny short stories or even hoping to be a published author, was a self-indulgent waste of time, unrealistic and just plain silly.

I worried I was cheating God, or, as Cameron puts it: “We tend to think, or at least fear, that creative dreams are egotistical, something that God wouldn’t approve of for us… …many of us unconsciously harbour the fearful belief that God would find our creations decadent or frivolous or worse…”

For me, it was both liberating and healing to begin to accept that creative dreams and yearnings start with God; they don’t steer us from God. Talk about a-HA moments! Mental shackles fell away when I read aloud the affirmation: “Through the use of my creativity, I serve God.”

Playfulness is Essential

Another discovery from my journalling was just how stodgy I’d become. Gah! What a great, greasy bore I’d curled into! I was so hung up on ‘mastering the craft,’ that I’d forgotten to steer the ship toward adventure. Where in the world had all this rigidity come from? When did the grimness set in?

Cameron’s mantras were, again, healing: “Think mystery, not mastery,” because “mystery is at the heart of creativity.” And: “Go for progress not perfection.” Oh what sweet relief.

Weekly Artist’s Dates are her prescription. An artist date is a block of time set aside to nourish the inner artist—a play-date with your creative self. I confess this was the hardest part of the course for me to carry out, and I failed most weeks. Writing three pages daily in my journal came easily compared to setting aside time for fun. Cameron warns: “Commit yourself to a weekly Artist’s Date, and then watch your killjoy side try to wriggle out of it.”

It’s nice to know I’m not the only killjoy on planet Art. “For most blocked creatives, fun is something they avoid almost assiduously as their creativity. Why? Fun leads to creativity. It leads to rebellion. It leads to feeling our own power and that is scary.”

That word ‘rebellion’ (emphasis mine) stared and continues to stare at me, goading me to just.cut.loose.

It’s slow progress but it’s happening! It has been good for me to be playful. I rediscovered my love of bike riding, sunshine, and bright colours. My wardrobe is morphing from safe, muted corporate tones and shapes to a vivid palette and flowing forms, and by jingo, it feels fabulous to ditch the dingy straitjacket.

Most Importantly: Tune In

The hardest hitting insight was how important attention is to the creative life. As a grown up, I’ve turned into a master tasker—frantically ticking off to-do lists, so task-focused that I regularly miss the wonder glinting and winking around me.

I keep going back to this sentence in particular:

“The quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight. The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.”

The capacity for delight…the phrase rings so true.

I now consciously practise tuning in, paying attention, and delighting in my environment, whether it’s soaking in the thrumming yellows of the hibiscuses and roses in my garden or drinking in the peachy-lavender hues of the sunset shimmering off the Maroochy River.

The poet William Meredith observed: “The worst that can be said of a man is that he did not pay attention.” Since early June I have shared my home with such a man, the grumpy old man dear elderly relative I mentioned earlier. At times, as I watch him absently treading time, his determined misery torments me. His sullenness is a portent to me to pay attention, to exercise curiosity, never to  abandon engaging with Wonder.

Thank God for the gift of creativity.

Creative Recovery?

My writing productivity has yet to fully bounce back, but I’m gradually accepting that. After all, I’m in the midst of a drawn-out period of major upheaval in my life, and I’m still coming to terms with some of the losses (my treasured school counselling career, proximity to the State Library of Queensland, and immediate access my beloved writing friends) and some of the additions (twice weekly long commutes to work and the new role of carer). And anyway—there’s a difference between recovering productivity and recovering creativity.

The words will flow freely again. My writing productivity will soon stagger back to its feet and flip the bird/two-fingered salute to the Big Stuff of Life before steering decisively in the direction of adventure. With the help of The Artist’s Way, I have recalibrated, and I know now: I’ve got this.

Photo Credits:

 

Photo 1 by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash

 

Photo 2 by Bogdan Dada on Unsplash

 

Photo 3 by Alex Iby on Unsplash

 

Creativity Prescription

Feeling saggy and flat in the creativity department? Is your muse off counting stars while you’re contemplating dust motes and peeling paint?

Don’t just sit there!  Motivation is within reach. Invest time in your interests!

The Creative Doldrums

It happens to us all at some point in a creative life. Whether rejection wears us down or a nasty review rains on our parade, sometimes the creative gig is a tough act. One of the biggest joy-robbers and energy-sappers is comparison, which I blogged about here. To hang in there for the long haul, we creative types have to look after our souls.

I know this well – probably because I keep having to relearn the lesson. I still catch myself comparing. I frequently run my tank dry, neglecting to nurture my spirit and feed my passions. I continue pushing myself to build a platform and develop my craft and conjure new ideas – all while working on existing projects (and holding down another demanding career and looking after a family).

The last thing I want to do is lose the joy of creativity.

Joys of The Zone

Solitude and quiet – they are the conditions creative people crave. We yearn for isolation, jealously carving out precious slabs of  distraction-free time in hopes of sidestepping any piddling thing that bars us from The Zone.

Ah, The Zone. A true creative sighs at the thought of those hours of deep concentration and prolific productivity, where time vanishes and ideas surge. The Zone is where we cast off the wet blanket of self and blissfully commune with our art. This sublime state in the zone is called flow.

Psychologists claim that flow is the key to fulfilment and happiness. Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, the researcher behind the concept of flow, holds that creativity gives meaning to life. He explains, “When we are involved in [creativity], we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life.”

Perils of The Zone

The pull of the Zone is strong, so strong that it wouldn’t take much to become a Flow junkie: a malnourished, greasy-haired, bug-eyed and hunched recluse (with an astonishing body of work).

Balance, as always, is the key. Writers, illustrators, creatives of all types need to make sure we stretch – physically, mentally, and spiritually. Otherwise, we get stale and our art goes stagnant.

Just as important as creating and producing is feeding. The artistic soul needs nourishment and a varied diet. Make time for pursuits beyond your art and pursue them passionately. Discover new interests, tackle fresh challenges, and take some risks. It will make your creativity thrive.

Stoking the Creative Fire

Sometimes our ‘other interests’ come with restrictions. For instance, I know someone who is a scuba diving enthusiast, but it’s not the kind of activity she can do on a whim. It’s expensive, and it requires a lot of planning. Although scuba is her conduit to flow, she has to wait for her annual opportunity.

For others, travel kindles the creative flame. For me, a theatre ticket does the trick. Or choral music. Or a simple romp with my dogs.

Here’s a list of inexpensive, easy recharging activities to indulge in. They’re guaranteed to refresh the body, mind and spirit of creative people.

  • Attend a yoga class
  • taste wines at a vineyard
  • finger paint
  • go for a walk (read more here. Seriously, click the link to read one of my most under-appreciated posts)
  • even better, walk in the rain, savouring sounds and smells
  • visit (or volunteer) at an animal shelter
  • sort through old photos
  • help a child turn a big box into a fort
  • bake homemade focaccia (with or without olives)
  • research the name of your suburb or town
  • draw a rough family tree with the help of your oldest relative
  • visit an apothecary shop and ask for a love potion (just to see what happens)
  • whittle a block of soap into a dragon shape
  • visit (with an open mind) a variety of local places of worship
  • try on a formal outfit at a vintage clothing store
  • learn some useful phrases from a native speaker of another language
  • study the structure of bridges (or a structure you are unfamiliar with)
  • interview someone you admire (not related to your art)
  • join a music group (ukuleles and harmonicas can be bought cheaply)
  • play ping-pong. Or musical chairs.
  • search a cemetery for quirky headstones
  • shop at an ethnic grocery store and, with the owner’s assistance, buy a snack typical to that ethnicity.

Check your ulterior motives at the door: this isn’t the time to fossick for a story or a subject. Instead, attack the activity like a kid – for plain old fun.

Inspiration is bound to follow, but only if you let your enthusiasm take the lead.

Over to You

Do any of the activities in my list sound like fun? What do you do to avoid burnout and stoke your creative flame? Share your ideas and tips in the comments!

Image Credits: Graphics made by ME on Canva

Back to the Writing Desk

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A new year is well underway, and I’m back at the writing desk. Truth be told, I never really left it—I just upgraded, relocated, and decorated.

Upgrade

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Wee! Standing is fun! Well, not really…

Thanks to Santa Claus, I can join the ranks of the noble writers, like Dickens, Kierkegaard, and Hemingway, who stood while they wrote.  I’m now the proud owner of a Varidesk. It’s a table top surface that I can raise and lower, depending on the posture I want to work in. I try to cycle between standing and sitting in half-hour shifts.

Getting used to the new postures has been slow but steady. It’s not easy giving up a hard-core sitting habit. The body has to adjust, but already I’ve found I do miss not having this flexibility at work. After making some adjustments to get my screen height just right (very important if you don’t want to end up at the physio), I’m settled in.

As most of us know, sitting for long periods can be harmful to good health. Researchers have linked a sedentary lifestyle to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and a shortened lifespan. If office workers sit for an average of five hours and forty minutes a day, just imagine how long a hardworking writer sits! And while suffering for one’s art is admirable, dying for it is probably going too far.

Relocate

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Bye-bye old friend…

My second-hand corner desk in my home office is falling apart, so I’m afraid it won’t support my Varidesk, which weighs in at almost 24 kilos or 52 pounds). I’ve temporarily shifted to the kitchen where I’ve commandeered the old breakfast table to use as a desk surface. I thought I would hate this locale, what with the hubbub and traffic and constant visual reminders of household chores, but it’s worked out fine. I’ll move back to my little scriptorium once I find the gumption to dismantle my old desk.

Even Huckleberry the canine muse is happy with this arrangement.  The move from under one desk to the other hasn’t bothered him in the least. The kitchen floor is nice and cool on these sweltering summer days.

Decorate

Surrounding myself with a jungle of greenery inspires me. My old desk had plenty of space for my plants, which was my favourite feature. Well, I am happy to report my new desk accommodates my need for green. My daughters gave me a couple lovely vases to display blossoms from my garden. At the moment, my dahlias are going off! Every morning I snip a couple buds to freshen my test tube bud vases.

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Hello, Gorgeous!

And how about this rose! I swear its beauty makes me swoon. It’s an Avon, which has a spicy perfume. All this beauty to inspire my writing and yours. Enjoy Ali’s Desk-Cam and some floral inspiration. While you’re here, check the drop-down menu above for updates on my latest book. There’s something new there… (Wink, wink!)

Happy writing, reading, gardening—whatever makes you happiest.

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The Creative Power of Restrictions

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There’s nothing quite as daunting as a blank page. Gasp! That void could be filled with anything. Or everything. Or nothing. The emptiness stymies. It taunts. It goads.

According to Stephen Sondheim, restrictions can unleash creativity. It seems counter-intuitive. Absolute freedom seems as if it should loosen us up, but what gets us going are boundaries to bounce against.

Powerful Restrictions

  • Name a theme.
  • Set a word limit.
  • Pick a genre.
  • Add a deadline.
  • Break a rule consistently.
  • Enter a competition.
  • Play word games (five-word sentences; narrative through dialogue only; no adjectives; no words beginning with A; create palindromes; play with a literary device).

All of these restrictions make it easier to get started and keep going.

Poetry and flash fiction are excellent writing practice for this reason. Both challenge the writer on with their super-tight restrictions (especially if the poetry you’re writing has a form rather than free verse.)

Restrictions give you a point.

Over to You

What’s your favourite creativity-sparking restriction? Please share in the content.

Writing With Your Feet

Writing with your feet - S Papaspyropoulos

Every occupation has its hazards, from the moral injury of soldiers to the everyday burnout of teachers. Tilers suffer bad backs, and hairdressers are prone to carpal tunnel syndrome. Nurses and counsellors succumb to compassion fatigue.

Even writing comes with a catalogue of complaints. Authors are the masseuse’s best clients, with their cricked necks, tight shoulders, and lower back pain from too much sitting. Endless staring at bright screens leads to eyestrain, headache, and sleeplessness. And then there’s the author’s bane: writer’s block.

Put Away the Pen; Pull on the Boots

No need to pop pills or guzzle booze. Writers can walk their way to health and creativity. Walking does wonders to loosen hunched up shoulders and compressed organs. Walking is aerobic, so it oxygenates the blood and refreshes the brain. It causes the  release of endorphin, the balancing of cortisol levels, and improvement of brain function.

The benefits of walking go beyond the physiological realm. Researchers have proved that walking uncramps the imagination, making it the perfect antidote to the dreaded writer’s block. A 2014 study at Stanford University showed walking boosts creative ideation. You read that right: walking enhances creativity!

The Stanford study is recent, but this is old-world wisdom. Dickens, Woolf, and Stevenson were avid walkers, but William Wordsworth left them in his dust, clocking in an estimated one hundred and eighty thousand miles in his lifetime.

“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!” –Henry David Thoreau

Old Old School

Lyceum of Athens - J NorrisLong before these literary giants rambled, the great teachers of Antiquity used walking to promote learning. In ancient Greece, lessons at the Peripatetic School happened while meandering among the colonnades of the Lyceum of Athens.

Ever heard of the Method of Loci? It’s a mnemonic device that uses memorized spatial relationships to order and recollect the things you’ve learned, and it came from this method of learning while walking along a familiar route or through a well-known building. Greek and Roman orators used the technique to help deliver long speeches without notes. I’ve experienced this with audio books. If I re-listen to a section of a book, I can automatically recall where I was when I heard the passage the last time. It’s kind of freaky.

Memorization is one thing; creativity is another. A contemporary of Plato and Socrates named Diogenes summed up the power of walking:

 Solvitur ambulando. It is solved by walking.

That little Latin lesson is worth remembering if writer’s block strikes.

Authorial Ambulation

Maximise the benefits of walking with a few steps of preparation. Do take a notebook and pencil (or a recording device*), but don’t take the dog. Keep writerly perambulation free of distractions (even the cute K-9 variety). Vary your routes, and don’t be afraid to focus your walk by honing in on a plot problem before you set off.

Give the fingers a break, and let your feet do the writing. Your body will thank you, and your writing will be blessed.

***

* Apps for Writers *

Dragon Dictation is a voice recognition app for your phone, tablet, or laptop. It records and converts your message to text, saving you a step of transcribing your notes.

CC 2.0 Image Credits

Girl Walking by Spyros Papaspyropoulos

The Athens School by Justin Norris

N.B.: This post was submitted as an assignment in a MOOC.

Journal Day is a Thing.

Anne Frank Street Art by  TIA, CC I hereby declare the 12th of June World Journal Day in honour of Anne Frank’s birthday. Journal Day is officially a thing–at least in my little corner of the blogosphere, and you heard it first here at Spilling Ink.

On this day in 1943, Anne Frank received the diary that became The Diary of a Young Girl, so in Anne’s honour, I have a super-cute Kiki.K journal and pen set you can win. Read to the bottom of the post for details.

To kick off the giddy World Journal Day celebrations, I’m sharing some of the benefits of journalling. It turns out writing in a journal is good for your soul–and a whole lot more! Did you know keeping a journal benefits you physically, mentally, and spiritually? Researchers have spent decades unpicking the hows and whys. Here are a few to ponder.

Body Boosthttps://www.flickr.com/photos/jek-a-go-go/

I’ve known for years that journalling makes me feel better, but I had no idea that the benefits were so powerful. Various researchers have discovered journalling has positive effects on the symptoms of asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and even HIV/AIDS.

Another study found writing expressively improves liver and lung function, reduces blood pressure, and  can shorten hospital stays–and more. They list 16 benefits to well-being!

Other research links journalling to improved immune function. University of Texas at Austin psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker has been studying the health advantages of writing since the mid-80s. “…research by Pennebaker indicates that suppressing negative, trauma-related thoughts compromises immune functioning and that those who write visit the doctor less often.”

Dr Pennebaker told Psychology Today, “When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experienced improved health. They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function. If they are first-year college students, their grades tend to go up.”

There you have it, students! Journalling is not only good for your body; it’s good for your grades!

Some researchers are quick to point out that rehashing trauma and negativity isn’t as helpful as writing through the events. Journalling that documents growth and transformation seems to be the most helpful. Finding the story is the key! (Sounds like good practice for writers.)

Still skeptical about the power of journalling and writing? Here’s a study that will blow your mind: Researchers have shown the act of writing affectionately about someone can lower cholesterol levels! I’d love to see someone explain the mechanism behind that one!

Mind Boost

https://www.flickr.com/photos/erinkohlenbergphoto/Any regular journaller will tell you the practice helps them manage stress and navigate difficulties. Some people use journalling as a sleep aid–I do. I find journalling helps me “empty” my busy mind before I turn out the lights. It’s as if downloading the worries frees my mind of the burden of care, thus allowing me to sleep.

A journal provides a safe space to make sense of the things we go through. Even the effects of trauma and the intensity of emotions can be reduced when we can find the story thread in events. Psychology Today reports:

In a different but related theory, the ability to construct a story from our experiences may give us the opportunity to detach ourselves and approach our situation more objectively. Stories may also be better stored in the brain as memories, rather than what may otherwise be a random amalgamation of strong emotions.”

Spiritual Boost

Journalling can be a form of meditation, the new buzz word in well-being management. Writing and Mindfulness dovetail nicely, and both practices are good for your soul. Plenty of creatives, myself included, have found that writing in a journal helps shift stuckness and stagnation. It lets me move past self-doubt and other internal hindrances and frees up creativity.

Writer Natalie Goldberg advocates free writing in her timeless writing book Writing Down the Bones. Free writing is a perfect form of writing in journals–without censors, without an audience, just being present. It’s good for your soul and great for your creativity.

Many major religions link gratitude with spiritual growth and well-being. Researchers can now prove the benefits of practising an attitude of gratitude through writing. One study found that gratitude journalling reduces stress, materialism and negative self-comparisons.

In General…

Journalling helps you:

  • Prioritise
  • Find clarity and focus
  • Improve self-awareness
  • Identify unhelpful thinking patterns
  • Practise positive self-talk
  • Process challenging events

Here’s a link to a huge list of journalling prompts–enough to keep you writing for half the year.

 Win! Win! Win!

To celebrate Anne’s birthday and Spilling Ink‘s inaugural World Journal Day, I have one lovely Kiki.K journal to give away. It’s an A5 bonded leather journal in “Why-Not Pink.” (Click the link for a sneaky-peek.) The matching pen features the words  “Life is Sweet” in curly script.

To be in the running to win, “like” this post or leave a comment about how journalling helps you. (Winner selected in a random draw on 14 June 2015.)

Happy World Journal Day! Here’s to your health and your soul!

Image Credits

Anne Frank Street Art by TIA, CC

Drat 172.365 by Jessica Wilson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Writing in the Journal by Erin Kohlenberg, CC BY 2.0