“Go to the page with a heart as open as the heart of god.” Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton
A flyer arrived in my mailbox, inviting me to a workshop entitled “Artist’s Way: A Spiritual path to Higher Creativity.” Published in 1992 by Tarcher-Putnam, Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way is an international best seller. At first, I was put off. Higher Creativity? Really? I judged the book awkwardly written, and felt it borrowed too freely from 12-Step lingo and other journaling and creativity techniques.
But I trusted the clinical social worker offering the workshop. Judith Alexander is a long-time resident of Port Townsend, Washington, and we’d worked together with at-risk adolescents. And so, for the next fourteen weeks, two hours every Tuesday, eight of us met in an artist’s loft overlooking Port Townsend’s sparkling seas. One woman wanted to paint murals, and a man wanted his carpentry work to become more alive. Others wanted to write poetry or sculpt using materials found in the environment.
The Artist’s Way advises three pages of hand-written daily journal, a weekly solitary adventure called an Artist Date, and other exercises and activities Cameron describes as “toys” designed to awaken the creative spirit.
With Alexander keeping us on track, we talked about our morning pages (doing or not doing) and completed homework. I’d kept a journal since elementary school, but I liked having permission to enjoy my daily warm up rather than feel guilty. Artist Dates indulged the pleasure of seeking treasure in a thrift shop, or creating secret art in a garden or on a beach.
I’d always planned to write. My mother’s degree was in journalism, and she took her six offspring along on assignments. When I was in fifth grade, she gave me my first journal, encouraged me to write every day, and helped me enter writing contests. She and my father, an artist, reviewed every project or paper I wrote. My father shredded it, and then my mother offered encouragement. When I was in seventh grade, my father gave me E.B. White’s Elements of Style and took me to night classes at the University of Washington as he earned his M.A. in English. He assigned me the books he was reading, Hardy, Mann, and Joyce, and we’d discuss them as my father drove through the night.
In school, I studied with teachers who encouraged and mentored me. After I completed my M.A. I was ready to take on the world. Instead, I drifted into a marriage that left me supporting my husband’s musical aspirations. I blasted out of that by drinking like a madwoman. At one year sober, I met a man with a four-year old child. He needed me. The child needed me. Heck, I convinced myself, even the guy’s wife needed me. And so I married him.
One Tuesday when I returned home from the group, my husband seemed to notice me for the first time in years. “Those jeans aren’t very flattering,” he said. Soon after that, when a group member called, my husband noticed again. “You never told me there were men in the class!” he shouted. Although the second chapter of Artist’s Way is entitled “Crazymakers,” I’d skipped that one. “None of those in my life,” I reported to the group. Halfway through the course, my husband “accidentally” erased the novel I was still pretending to write.
For our final gathering, Judith assigned a collage to symbolize our life. We weren’t supposed to think, just tear images from magazines and slap them together on a poster board. Until the group members pointed it out, I didn’t notice that although images of my stepdaughter appeared everywhere, my husband did not appear at all. Determined to make the marriage work, I wrote myself a formal letter of resignation from my writing dreams.
In Artist’s Way, Cameron describes finding “True North.” Once identified, Cameron says, there is no turning back. Our lives gently, slowly, or sometimes tumultuously lead us toward truths about ourselves, the choices we’ve made, and the opportunities we’ve abandoned. The marriage ended, and then my job. I moved into a tent on a wild and remote bay where I’d grown up, the frame of an unfinished cottage rising skeletal beside me. Finally, forced to face myself, I made two decisions. First, I would finish building the cottage on my own. Second, I would seek out the Artist’s Way, this time on-line.
I lucked into a group that was just starting. Each week, about a hundred of us completed the exercises and shared the results with strangers all over the world. Then, out of the blue, I was offered a position as editor for a start-up. I landed in Los Angeles to talking of design, buzz, and monetization. By the time the start-up failed, the co-founder and I were headed off to the island of Rarotonga, where a Maori elder pronounced us joined for life. Back in LA, though, we were jobless.
“Let’s head north,” I said. We combined our tattered treasures in my wilderness cabin. We planted wildflowers and vegetables and watched eagles take their first flight from the nest overhead. We became activists, managing to hold off the chain saws to protect hundreds of acres. The only thing we weren’t doing, it seemed, was make a living.
Then came another out of the blue call. My husband, a New Yorker, was offered a position in New York City. Soon we were sub-letting in Manhattan. I stumbled into a writing group. At the first gathering, a novelist described how she always left her projects 95% complete. A man, just selected by a prestigious magazine as one of the “top twenty under thirty,” was now in a profound depression and couldn’t write at all. When my turn came to lead, I described how I’d resigned from my own dreams, and how discovering this group offered hope and support.
When the group broke up, an elegant woman came up and shook my hand. “Thanks for your talk,” she said. “I really identified.” Her face seemed familiar. In fact, I realized, I’d just seen that face emblazoned on a huge poster in a bookstore window. “I’m Julia,” she said.
What does it mean to be “stuck with your vulnerability?” How do you face yours? Do you find, as the character Lucy Barton does, that you can “go to the page with a heart as open as the heart of god?” What does that feel like for you?