Many years ago, I read The Artist’s Way. I remember liking it, so I had hoped to like this book (the third in the series) just as much.
My disappointment might stem partly from my unmet expectation that this was a book about writing and creativity. Those were indeed included, but in fact the book was actually about Julia Cameron’s own journey, particularly her life as an artist who is a sober alcoholic, and who weathered a depressive episode during the writing of the book.
Normally I am very interested in personal stories about mental health and mental illness, and about how people navigate their illness and recovery. I also enjoy books about writing and other creative processes, both for the inspiration or validation they might give me, and for the insight into how other people commit to and engage in creating.
But this book brought things together in a way that just didn’t work for me. Here are some of the things that bugged me:
Cameron’s “one size fits all” approach: The writer insists that if people follow her method, they will become unblocked, closer to their god, more able to ask for help from friends, more able to engage in their creative work, and just generally more balanced. There is very little acknowledgement that people work in different ways and that there is no one surefire method for everyone.
The way AA and recovery from alcoholism permeate the book: If I had picked up a different book, this theme might have been fascinating to me. But in a book claiming to be relevant to all artists, the heavy and recurrent emphasis on AA slogans and philosophies was irritating. This is Cameron’s life, yes, and interesting in that way, but it is not everyone’s life.
The unrelenting Christian approach: While Cameron does give lip service to being inclusive of other religions, her absolute insistence on the connection to her god, and the way her Artist’s Way will connect all artists to that god, was very tiresome to me. She also nods in the direction of people who don’t follow an organised religion, but implies that those artists are rather deceiving themselves, and as they journey through the Artist’s way and become closer to “God,” they will come to understand their spirituality. Now, fair enough, religion and spirituality are important to an awful lot of people. But her heavy reliance on prayer and submission was quite alienating for me. (Also, as a long aside, her rapturous discourse on how mighty are the works of God uses as an example—of all the ridiculous things—dog breeds. Dog breeds! Something we humans have done deliberately [mostly] within recorded history!)
Connected to the last point: Assuming we are all servants / instruments of a god: Her insistence that we do not create art, but that we are mere conduits for the divine. She allows that it can be called God, or the Muse, or the Universe, or any name. But her insistence on submission, asking for guidance, and cooperation with a god-symbol of some type does not admit of any person who does not live with such a symbol. And so all of her advice, so thoroughly grounded in her own spirituality, leaves no space for people like me. Obviously, this would not be a problem if the book was targeted to religious or Christian or spiritual artists, but when she assumes a universality of experiences and understandings, it is disappointing and rather ignorant of other lives.
Assumption that artists are different and special: To be fair, this is certainly not exclusive to Cameron’s book. But there is a theme here that recurs in other books for and about artists (and conversations and movies and and and), the theme that artists are somehow set above. Special. Sensitive. More in touch with the inner and outer worlds. It’s bullshit. We artists are exactly the same as anybody else. Being an artist doesn’t make us special, in exactly the same way that our pain doesn’t make us special. There is no clear-cut division between artists and non-artists. Everyone is creative in their own way, and those of us who have the time and space in our lives to create art are very, very lucky. Cameron talks a lot about the life of an artist, being an artist, in a way that makes it seem like we are somehow different than others. We are not. We are the same others as everyone else.
There were a few things that I did really like about the book. I very much appreciate the emphasis Cameron places on surrounding yourself with friends who believe in you and in your art. She describes such friendships and how they work as mutual support and encouragement. I also appreciate her insistence that you have to keep plugging away at your art, even when you don’t really feel like it, and even when you don’t have much time. Also, her three constants of Morning Pages, Artist’s Dates, and Weekly Walks are really lovely ideas to take care of one’s self and one’s art practice. Still, she is adamant that everyone must do these things regularly and that they will lead to improved optimism and well-being and self-awareness and connection to god is really quite irritating, especially the repetitive and leading questions at the end of each chapter. Also, there is no acknowledgement that people might not have the health, mobility, money, etc. to do these things consistently.
I think this might be a great book for people who share Cameron’s beliefs and philosophies. By this I mean especially her religious assumptions and her AA philosophies. As a book about Cameron, it may well be a fine book. But the jacket says it is a “program for artistic renewal from a foremost authority on the creative process” and “an essential book for any artist.” It is not. It is a Christian book on creating art through submission to a higher power, and a story about Julia Cameron, her interesting work, her friends, and her struggles with alcoholism and depression. If it had been presented that way right up front, I would probably be less annoyed.
Finding Water: The Art of Perseverance. Julia Cameron. 2006. ISBN 978-1-58542-463-4.