‘The Artist’s Way’ Weeks 1- 4

In the third of his articles exploring The Artist’s Way, Rob rediscovers his writing rhythm. You can read his first article here and his second article here

Up and running with the morning pages

A clever salesperson covers all eventualities: ‘hating the morning pages is a very good sign. Loving them is a good sign too’. I read about the Censor, my inner critic (we are well acquainted) who will be shown the door if I complete my three morning pages each day. The Censor is prominent in early efforts, but as the week progresses he moves into the shadows and the pages become something other than expressions of failure and unworthiness. It’s impossible to know if this would have happened without Covid-19, but anxiety about my work has been replaced with bigger concerns. On day three or four – who counts these days? – I fixate on how hard I press my Parker to the paper, but I don’t pay much attention to what I’m writing. At one point I repeat the same phrase over three lines. I assume this will do nothing other than get me to the end, but something else is happening: while wading through the detritus I fall into a rhythm.

When I find a rhythm, whether while writing or running – another passion – I gain comfort and confidence and this is what happens with the morning pages. By the fifth day I am waking early and keen to sit down at my desk. I take a surprising amount of pleasure from the act of writing longhand; and the fact that I am allowed to write whatever comes to mind is liberating. My Censor points out that this should be neither easy nor enjoyable, but I ignore him. On day six I write two poems and both are good enough to share with readers and writers. My average is one poem per year. I’m intrigued and excited.

The artist date sounds like fun. In the past I would have written it off as a distraction, but I am being told that it’s okay to pamper and indulge my artist. I think about printing a t-shirt: Bin the Censor and Love the Artist. It feels strange to allow oneself luxuries when one is neither producing nor earning, but after the success of the morning pages I’m curious. What I haven’t mentioned thus far is that I stopped reading fiction ten days ago. Fiction was my consolation when the writing was drying up because all reading is research and it’s the next best thing to writing. Surely not reading + not writing = instant disqualification. Not if you have the artist date to fall back on: I must now commit to a minimum two hour session per week when I take my artist out to play. We’re constrained by the lockdown, but we could choose to view galleries online, take a walk down a country lane, or try some new music. We decide to view Loveless, a Russian film that is propping up my watchlist.

Week 2: Recovering a Sense of Identity

On the twenty first day of lockdown, I will realise it has taken three weeks to complete weeks one and two. This is okay, because we are living in an extraordinary moment and besides, I am all about nurturing my inner creator and not sabotaging my best endeavours. Thus I learn that trusting my creativity is a new behaviour for many of us (tick) and it may come across as erratic. ‘This erraticism is a normal part of getting unstuck.’ Problem is, I have been exhibiting erratic behaviour, but I’ve been putting that down to what’s happening in the outside world. I’m anxious and terrified and being erratic is not only understandable: it’s the new norm. I draw comfort from Julia’s promise that ‘going sane feels like going crazy’, which feels true for this project and for my attempts to cope with everything else.

I am instructed to relinquish the self-attacks that are undermining my progress: it’s not a temporary thing; I haven’t got the morning pages wrong; and I don’t have to come up with a new project right away. Good, I like that. What I don’t like is the description of these attacks as a creative virus. Next up are Poisonous Playmates, fellow creatives who are also blocked and who will stand in the way of my recovery in order to celebrate their martyrdom, engender sympathy and wallow in self-pity. I recognise the type and I’m ahead of the game for once, having already cut them off. Note to self: keep it zipped when you are struggling and make time to encourage others. If I am going to ‘safeguard [my] newly recovering artist’, I will need to focus on my responsibilities to myself, but it doesn’t feel like the right time to put myself first. I read about on and hear about ‘crazymakers’, those chaotic and demanding artists who make frequent and unreasonable demands of those around them. I’m confident I would spot one of them a mile off.

My attention is seized by a passage about, erm, Attention. Perhaps my obsession with trivia and crippling curiosity – it’s been called worse – is central to my creativity. ‘Sanity lies in paying attention’, which will make more sense one day, when paying attention to the outside world outside no longer feels like a direct threat to one’s peace of mind. But it’s what you pay attention to that counts, which is perhaps why, in my morning pages a couple of days ago, I produced a lengthy list of reasons to be cheerful. Many of these came from the natural world I experience during my daily exercise; and I admit this is keeping me sane. Attention is also ‘an act of connection’ and who doesn’t need to connect right now? The stars are aligning.

Week 3: Recovering a Sense of Power

The first thing I notice on the opening page of Week 3 is a sidebar informing me that I may have to deal with ‘unaccustomed bursts of energy and sharp peaks of anger, joy and grief.’ On Tuesday I fizz with motivation and a sense that great work is possible; but two days later, like my old friend Sisyphus, I am back at the bottom of the hill with a boulder in my way. The sidebar also states that I am ‘coming into [my] power as the illusory hold of [my] previously accepted limits is shaken.’ I’m not so taken with that pronouncement and try to ignore the phrase that follows (something about ‘spiritual open-mindedness’).

I’m on surer footing with the main body of text, which starts with a section on Anger. Julia tells me to listen to my anger, but if she heard it she’d run a mile. She persists: ‘anger is meant to be respected…because…it shows us where we want to go.’ I don’t agree and furthermore, as far as I am concerned, anger is not a sign of health. Less anger would mean more space for the good stuff in my head and the prospect of better words on the page. It is not the fuel that will propel me to a new life and it is not action’s invitation. For me, anger is a quagmire: an endless, stinking bog. This moment of deviation makes me less open-minded about what Julia has labelled synchronicity, but putting aside the concept of ‘the universe’ responding to actions and desires, I extract a useful principle about work begetting work and being ready to adapt to opportunity.

We move on to Shame, which I don’t need telling ‘is a controlling device’. But it’s good to hear I’m not alone. I read about how art undresses society, and I see that, but shame feels more personal to me. Artists who have endured childhood shaming are subject to the fear of shame as artists. I feel like I’m on the couch, but it’s plausible. We need to recognise that in feeling shame we are warding off vulnerability – tick – and then move beyond it. I think of Grayson Perry, whose work is honest, beautiful and thought provoking and does not appear to countenance shame. It occurs to me that two recent stories, which are more personal than I am in the habit of writing, confirm Julia’s contention that ‘by telling our shame secrets around…and through…our art, we release ourselves and others from darkness.’ Grayson has the confidence and standing to ignore those who might not welcome the release from darkness, but I bet he was always like that. I’m getting better at receiving criticism and recognising the good from the bad, but even so I welcome the nine bullet points which provide guidelines for dealing with feedback, in particular the final point: ‘Do it. Creativity is the only cure for criticism.’ If only.

Perhaps being locked down is changing us all. At the end of Week 3 I feel well disposed towards The Artist’s Way, which assures me that I am growing. How very Californian! Still, I’m willing to accept that ‘a creative recovery is a healing process’ and that this healing and growth will come in spurts: ‘You are capable of great things on Tuesday, but on Wednesday you may slide backward.’ I ‘will lie dormant sometimes’ and once again it is a relief to hear that this is to be expected and in no way represents failure.

Week 4: Recovering a Sense of Integrity

A stronger and clearer me is emerging, but before we get to Julia’s latest affirmation, let me state for the record that I feel as though I am changing. I skim read the sidebar on the first page: self definition, blah, productive introspection, blah, new self-awareness, reading deprivation. What? Yes, right at the bottom: ‘Warning, do not skip the tool of reading deprivation.’ Hmm.

I take a breath, move to the main body of text and read about Honest Changes. What this boils down to (oh for more brevity) is that the morning pages force the artist to confront their ‘real feelings’ rather than whatever they choose to present in public. Instead of simply being ‘okay’, when writing the pages I am required to be more specific and if not deal with (no doubt this will come later) then at least identify what’s really going on in my head. And it is happening: the pages have become a conduit for my fears, desires, ideas and ambitions, many of which I have dared not express for months; and some of which have never seen daylight. I ignore a lengthy section designed to counter excuses for not having done the pages, because I haven’t missed a day yet.

‘As we gain – or regain – our creative identity, we lose the false self we were sustaining… [And]…this can feel traumatic.’ This kind of trauma feels indulgent in the current moment, but I won’t deny it. I chuckle at the sentence about spontaneous dancing, because on Saturday night I danced around the living room for an hour while listening to a friend broadcasting a live DJ set. I haven’t danced like that for years and it was an unrestrained joy. The tears later on were also to be expected, apparently.

Two sentences hit me between the eyes: ‘You may well be experiencing a sense of both bafflement and faith. You are no longer stuck, but you cannot tell where you are going.’ This nails what I have been struggling to articulate for days: a sense of possibility, but no more than that. I’ve been anxious that I don’t have sufficient focus or any idea about what’s next, so it is a mighty relief to be told I should not worry. This is where the affirmation pops up: if in doubt, I should remember that ‘a stronger and clearer me is emerging.’ This gives me the confidence to attempt six sets of exercises – not my favourite part of the programme – and although I’m not sure what they are meant to achieve, I’m surprised to learn that I would like to be able to build dry stone walls and to try naked swimming. Presumably not on the same day. I even have enough faith to accept Julia’s instruction to forego the pleasures of reading – the blood that flows through this writer’s veins – during this week. This is supposed to steer me towards the benefits and power of solitude, but for now it feels like cliff diving and I’m terrified of heights. Perhaps it will motivate me to write something half decent. We’ll talk about this next week.

WORK TO DATE + INCIDENTS OF NOTE

During this period I managed to shoot a very short film, return to and complete an abandoned short story, started Italian lessons, wrote two haiku and a micro story and discussed collaborating with a good friend whose work I greatly admire.

Turns out I’m not the only one struggling to put words on the page.

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