Mary Oliver on Attention, the Artist’s Many Selves & the Mysterious Love Affair of the Creative Life

mary beach

In a wonderful moment of serendipity, I chanced upon the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver the other day at my local library (how I’ve never read her, I do not know).  Intrigued after reading a few poems, I checked out both Devotions, a colossal volume spanning her prestigious sixty year career, and Upstream, a collection of essays.  Both her poetry and prose radiate with an exuberant love of life.  What I love most about Oliver is her ability to find holiness in the humdrum, sacredness in the profane: she worships the little things— the New England woods at dawn, a rose, a spider.  But though her work preoccupies itself with the small moments, it interrogates larger themes of love, the search for the sublime, and nature.  

In Upstream, she writes about two major themes: nature and the writing life.  In one of the collection’s best essays “Of Power and Time,” Oliver contemplates the importance of uninterrupted solitude to the creative life.  She writes: 

It is a silver morning like any other.  I am at my desk.  Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door.  I am deep in the machinery of my wits.  Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door.  And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone.  Creative work needs solitude.  It needs concentration, without interruptions.  It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once.  Privacy, then.  A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.”

Nearly one hundred years after the publication of Virginia Woolf’s landmark essay, Oliver asserts writers still need rooms of their own.  Ideally, a writer’s desk is a sacred space, a sort of sanctuary from the pandemonium of the world.  But though writers crave nothing more than a string of unbroken hours, we’re often interrupted: by a nagging mother, by a ring at the door bell, by yet another phone call.  In our hyper-connected era, each of us is distracted by a never-ending dinging demon: our cell phones.  Though the ease of texting and email makes it more convenient to stay in touch, these technologies have had the unfortunate effect of scattering our attention and limiting our capacity to sustain deep thought.  In many ways, our rooms are no longer our own: we don’t completely shut the door and safeguard the silence and solitude so essential to creative work— we leave our entryways unlocked so the petty demands of the world can incessantly intrude.

Even more distracting than the exterior world is the interior.  “What am I going to wear today?”  “I need to pick up the laundry!”  “Oh crap, I forgot to buy toilet paper!”  From the time we rise from bed to the time our heads hit the pillow twelve hours later, our minds restlessly swing from one branch of thought to another.  Fearful and fretful, we exist in a living-dead purgatory torturously suspended between past and future.  But to be artists, we have to be attentive to make out inspiration’s barely audible whisper:

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation.  And what does it have to say?  That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence.  You react, of course.  Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.”

In a wise moment recalling both Faulkner’s conviction that “the past is never really past” and Whitman’s affirming belief that the individual is large and contains “multitudes,” Oliver recognizes she’s still the child she once was:

I am, myself, three selves at least.  To begin with, there is the child I was.  Certainly I am not that child anymore!  Yet, distantly, or sometimes not so distantly, I can hear that child’s voice—I can feel its hope, or its distress.  It has not vanished.  Powerful, egotistical, insinuating—its presence rises, in memory, or from the steamy river of dreams.  It is not gone, not by a long shot.  It is with me in the present hour.  It will be with me in the grave.” 

According to Oliver, we not only possess a “child self” but an “attentive, social self” who is concerned with life’s practical day-to-day matters:

 And there is the attentive, social self.  This is the smiler and the doorkeeper.  This is the portion that winds the clock, that steers through the dailiness of life, that keeps in mind appointments that must be made, and then met.  It is fettered to a thousand notions of obligation.  It moves across the hours of the day as though the movement itself were the whole task.  Whether it gathers as it goes some branch of wisdom or delight, or nothing at all, is a matter with which it is hardly concerned.  What this self hears night and day, what it loves beyond all other songs, is the endless springing forward of the clock, those measures strict and vivacious, and full of certainty.  

The clock!  That twelve-figured moon skull, that white spider belly!  How serenely the hands move with their filigree pointers, and how steadily!  Twelve hours, and twelve hours, and begin again!  Eat, speak, sleep, cross a street, wash a dish!  The clock is still ticking.  All its vistas are just so broad—are regular.  (Notice that word.)  Every day, twelve little bins in which to order disorderly life, and even more disorderly thought.  The town’s clock cries out, and the face on every wrist hums or shines; the world keeps pace with itself.  Another day is passing, a regular and ordinary day.  (Notice that word also.)”

Throughout history, it’s been thought that artists contain many selves.  In her much beloved Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande maintained there were two dimensions of the writer’s personality: the prosaic and artist self.  Whereas the prosaic self was rational, discriminating, and preoccupied with the mundane and ordinary, the artist self was irrational, intuitive and free-associating.  For Brande, both the critical and creative spheres were essential to the writer’s psyche. 

Much like Brande, Oliver imagines the writer is split into an “attentive social self” and a “third self.”  While the attentive social self is a joyless, sensible adult obsessed with time and shackled by responsibility, the third self is dreamy, romantic, not governed by the inhuman tick tock of the clock but enamored of eternity.  This exalted part of the writer’s self prefers the transcendent to the worldly, the extraordinary to the ordinary: 

In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward.  Which is something altogether different from the ordinary.  Such work does not refute the ordinary.  It is, simply, something else.  Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.  Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither child, nor a servant of the hours.  It is a third self, occasional in some ways, tyrant in others.  This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of live with time.  It has a hunger for eternity. 

Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always — these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit.  Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life.  Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown.  In truth, the work itself is the adventure.  And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration.  The extraordinary is what art is about.”

In a spirit-nourishing conversation with Krista Tippet on “On Being,” Oliver depicts writing as a love affair: to write, we must court the muse.  Only when we demonstrate our devotion and show up at the page day after day, doubt after doubt, dispiriting hour after dispiriting hour, will the elusive muse also commit to the relationship and learn to trust us. 

But no matter how determined or diligent, we can never will the muse to appear.  To some degree, the creative process will always be outside our control: the solution to a problem often materializes seemingly out of thin air.  Indeed, it is when we stop trying that ideas reveal themselves: when we leave our desks, when we wander the streets, when we turn the keys in our ignition and drive nowhere in particular.  To be an artist, then, we must relinquish our desire for control, embrace uncertainty and have faith that the maddening, mercurial muse will show up: 

Neither is it possible to control, or regulate, the machinery of creativity.  One must work with the creative powers— for not to work with is to work against; in art as in spiritual life there is no neutral place.  Especially at the beginning, there is a need of discipline as well as solitude and concentration.  A writing schedule is a good suggestion to make to young writers, for example.  Also, it is enough to tell them.  Would one tell them so soon the whole truth, that one must be ready at all hours, and always, that the ideas in their shimmering forms, in spite of all conscious discipline, will come when they will, and on the swift upheaval of their wings— disorderly; reckless; as unmanageable, sometimes, as passion?

No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not.  Still, there are indications.  Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen.  It likes the out-of-doors.  It likes the concentrating mind.  It likes solitude.  It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker.  It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place.  Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.” 

Later Oliver asserts an artist’s commitment is to the timeless, not the timely:

Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity.  A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost.  He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home.  Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist.  Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only.  Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.” 

Oliver concludes by returning to the image of her at her desk on a cold, gray morning.  Like all artists, she’s “absentminded, reckless” but this— she attests— is “as it should be.”  With an intoxicatingly independent spirit and defiant distaste for social responsibility, Oliver reaffirms an artist’s obligation is to the work, not the mundane and ordinary:

The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard.  The poem gets written.  I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame.  Neither do I have guilt.  My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely.  It does not include mustard, or teeth.  It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot.  My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive.  If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late.  Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.”  

Andre Dubus III on Writing as Dreaming, not Thinking

andre dubus III

In yet another restorative essay for the artist’s soul from Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Processthe same treasure trove that gave us the encouraging words of Maggie Shipstead, Marilynne Robinson, Yiyun Li, Khaled Hosseini, Hanya Yanagihara, Mary Gaitskill and Elizabeth Gilbert, novelist Andre Dubus III adds his own insights to the storehouse of wisdom on the craft.  After he stumbled upon Richard Bausch’s dictum “Do not think, dream” in the soul-nourishing Letters to a Fiction Writer, a compendium of letters from literary artists as acclaimed as Joyce Carol Oates, Ray Bradbury, and Raymond Carver, it became the bedrock of his writing philosophy.  Today the phrase acts as an eternal reminder that art belongs first and foremost to the imagination, not rationality:

“We’re all born with an imagination.  Everybody gets one.  And I really believe—this is just from years of daily writing—that good fiction comes from the same place as our dreams.  I think the desire to step into someone else’s dream world, is a universal impulse that’s shared by us all.  That’s what fiction is.  As a writing teacher, if I say nothing else to my students, it’s this.

Here’s the distinction.  There’s a profound difference between making something up and imagining it.  You’re making something up when you think out a scene, when you’re being logical about it.  You think, “I need this to happen so some other thing can happen.”  There’s an aspect of controlling the material that I don’t think is artful.  I think it leads to contrived work, frankly, no matter how beautifully written it might be.  You can hear the false note in this kind of writing. 

This was my main problem when I was just starting out: I was trying to say something.  When I began to write, I was deeply self-conscious.  I was writing stories hoping they would say something thematic, or address something that I was wrestling with philosophically.  I’ve learned, for me at least, it’s a dead road.  It’s writing from the outside in instead of the inside out.

But during my very early writing, certainly before I’d published, I began to learn characters will come alive if you back the fuck off.  It was exciting, and even a little terrifying.  If you allow them to do what they’re going to do, think and feel what they’re going to think and feel, things start to happen on their own.  It’s a beautiful and exciting alchemy.  And all these years later, that’s the thrill I write to get: to feel things start to happen on their own.

So I’ve learned over the years to free-fall into what’s happening.  What happens then is, you start writing something you don’t even really want to write about.  Things start to happen under your pencil that you don’t want to happen, or don’t understand.  But that’s when the work starts to have a beating heart.”

As writer, teacher and creativity guru Julia Cameron argues in her transformative The Artist’s Way, writing is about getting something down— not thinking something up.  Andre Dubus III is a devoted adherent to this school of thought.  Rather than consciously manufacture a contrived plot, what Cameron would call “think something up” forcefully from intellect and egotistic self-will, Dubus maintains the novelist must simply listen to the whisperings of inspiration and write down the story as it naturally unfolds.  What does he see in his imagination?  what does he hear?  smell?  Though aspiring writers imagine constructing a novel is a methodical, orderly affair with clearly discrete, delineated steps like they were taught in school, the actual act of writing is a far messier process.  Most accomplished novelists will tell you they rarely have a complete conception of a book when they first get started: they might have an idea of how it will begin and end but how it will ultimately get from point a to point b remains a mystery.  Much like legendary journalist Joan Didion who asserted writing was a voyage of discovery (“I write,” she confessed, “to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.  What I want and what I fear.”) or Agnes De Mille who claimed to create was a daring act of faith (“The artist never entirely knows,” she wisely observed, “We guess.  We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.”), Dubus believes writing requires we relinquish control, embrace uncertainty, and simply trust:

“So you can dream by being curious—by being curious enough to report back what’s in front of your narrative eye.  I love that line from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving at night.  You can only see as far as your headlights—” but you keep going until you get there.  I’ve learned over the years to just report back anything that I see in front of the headlights: Are they yellow stripes or white?  What’s on the side of the road?  Is there vegetation?  What kind?  What’s the weather?  What are the sounds?  If I capture the experience all along the way, the structure starts to reveal itself.  My guiding force and principle for shaping the story is to just follow the headlights.  That’s how the architecture is revealed.”

Ultimately, there are two distinct stages of the writing process: the “dreaming” and the “thinking”— or the creative and the critical.  The creative phase is formless, freewheeling, disorderly, intuitive, irrational whereas the critical is structured and systematic, analytical and logical.  If the creative phase is brainstorming and free writing, the critical is revising what we initially wrote.  For Dubus, dreaming and thinking are opposing but equally essential parts of the creative process: were we to write without first permitting the fun-loving partygoer of free association and exploratory imagination play, we’d produce only the most stiff ideas and dull cliches— if, that is, we wrote at all.  But if we never unleashed our stern, serious-minded school teacher onto our first drafts, we’d only have sloppy raw material.  The final critical stage is about evaluating what’s there.  Do our words clearly communicate our meaning or is there potential for misunderstanding?  Do we need to cut and condense or elaborate?  Do our style and voice convey the appropriate mood and tone?  After all, if we’re writing to reach the masses, we don’t want to employ the erudite, high-brow vocabulary of the New Yorker.  To write well we have to answer these questions as objectively as possible.

But how can we reach the peak of objectivity necessary to survey the land of our own ideas?  Dubus, much like Zadie Smith and Brenda Ueland, recommends letting some time elapse between the two stages as distance helps us regain a level of impartiality toward our work.  When we’re immersed in the task of writing, toiling at the page day after day, we naturally become attached to what we’ve written.  There’s a reason for the widespread metaphor of writing as childbirth: our writing is our baby, a fragile, delicate, shrieking thing we labored to create and therefore want to protect.  In much the same way our water breaks at the most inconvenient moment, an idea whispers into our ear begging (sometimes demanding) to be brought into existence.  So we obey the muse and write.  Like childbirth, the actual process of articulating ourselves is excruciating.  As we endeavor for months, sometimes years, to birth our idea, our yet born child wrenches our insides until we’re in so much pain we’re shouting obscenities at blameless nurses and cursing God as we race through emergency room corridors.  When the agony of labor is finally over and we’re gazing at our angelic child in the peaceful quiet of a white hospital room, we’re overcome by indescribable gratitude: we, mere mortals, miraculously created this living, breathing thing, a sentient being with consciousness and ten toes and fingers!  Is it any wonder we find it difficult to dispassionately evaluate our words?

No matter how unbearable it feels to “kill your darlings” as the oft repeated advice counsels, Dubus argues the difference between a good book and a great book is a ruthless attitude toward our work.  No matter how burdensome a word or laborious a line was to bring into being, no matter how strong our affection for a particularly graceful turn-of-phrase, we have to be willing to part with any sentence that doesn’t further our aim:

“Now, dreaming your way through a story is very useful at first—for the first draft, maybe the first two drafts.  But once the revision process begins, you’ve got to change your approach.  Bausch would be the first to say that once you dream it through, try to look at the result the way a doctor looks at an X-ray.  You’ve got to be terribly smart about it.  In the secondary period, you get more rational and logical about what you’ve dreamt—while still cooperating with the deeper truths of what you’ve made.

So once I have a beginning, middle, and end, I walk away from it for at least six months and don’t look at it.  At least six months.  To revise means “to see again”—well, how can you see again when you just looked at it 10 days ago?  No.  Have two seasons go between you.  And then when you pick it up and read it, you actually forget some of what happens in the story.  You forget how hard it was to write those 12 pages.  And you become tougher on it.  You see closer to what the reader is going to see.

What I look for at this point is dramatic tension, forward movement, and, frankly, beauty.  I try to make it as truly itself as possible.  And that’s when the major plotting comes in—plot, not as a noun but as a verb—the ordering of events and material.  I get really merciless.  I don’t care if I spent a year writing pages 1 through 96.  If I feel some real energy on page 93, and I think that should be page 1?  Those first 92 pages are fucking gone.  A merciless reviser is in a much better position to write a really good book than one who hasn’t got the stomach for it.  That may be the distinction between what makes a really good book and a great book.”

Though Dubus would never call himself a religious man, writing has convinced him something is out there— not God, a word too narrow a linguistic box to allow for mystery and too overburdened with intolerance and bloodshed, but some sort of higher power.  The imagination, the subconscious, the universal life force, fate, destiny, the almighty infinite spirit, the holy ghost, God: whatever term we prefer, Dubus believes creativity is a way of making contact with the unknowable.  Speaking of his opera Madame Butterfly, Puccini confessed, “The music was dictated to me by God.  I was merely instrumental in getting it on paper and communicating it to the public.”  Even the most adamantly secular among us can admit we too have had the mystical experience of being a vessel, of our words coming not from our own minds but from somewhere else.  For Dubus, being an artist requires we simply transcribe what is dictated to us—  we don’t need to know exactly where we’re going or how it’ll turn out.  Because we live in a scientific age where we exalt definitive answers, merely having faith that page after page will order itself into something comprehensible seems stupid, borderline absurd.  Just “trust in the process”?  Ha!  It sounds like a bunch of hokey New Age nonsense.  We want assurance that all our efforts will lead to a finished product.  But art, Dubus believes, demands we take leap after leap in the dark:

“I don’t believe in God, but I believe in something: Something’s out there.  And the main reason I believe that something’s out there—something mysterious and invisible but real—largely has come from my daily practice of writing.  There’s a great line from an ancient anonymous Chinese poet: We poets knock upon the silence for an answering music.  The way I write, the way I encourage people I work with to try to write is exactly this: Trust your imagination.  Free fall into it.  See where it brings you to.  It’s scary, it’s unorganized, and you’re going to have to prepare yourself for some major fucking rewriting—and maybe cut two years of work.

I know, putting up this kind of uncertainty is very difficult.  We bring ourselves into these rooms.  We bring all of our hopes, all of our longings, all of our shadows.  What writing asks of us is the opposite of what being in the American culture asks of us.  You’re supposed to have a five-year plan.  Young people now are so cautious.  Oh, we can’t get married until we have a house.  Oh, we can’t have a baby until we have 20 grand in the bank.  These crazy, careful people!  You know, look: Life is short if you live a hundred years.  Better to die naked and reckless and with passion—and not be afraid to fuck up and fail.”

With a rebellious spirit reminiscent of Cheryl Strayed, who once told a disheartened aspiring writer “you don’t have a career, you have a life,” Dubus concludes by affirming writing is not about agents or royalties or book deals— it’s about the writing itself:

“I think one of the downsides of MFA programs is they make people really career-conscious.  Fuck career.  Let me tell you something: I’m so grateful to have had a publishing career so far.  It’s how I make most of my living.  It’s been an incredible blessing.  It’s helped me take better care of my family than I could have ever thought possible.  But I do not ever think about career when I’m in my writing cave.  I do not.  I try not to think; I dream.  It’s my mantra.  I just get in there and try to be these people.  It’s not so I can write a book and get paid and have another book tour—though those are good problems to have.  It’s because I feel an almost sacred obligation to these spirits who came before: to sit with them and write their tale.”


Dinner with the Muses: 3 of the Best Books on Writing & Creativity

According to Greek mythology, the muses were divine goddesses responsible for literature, art and the sciences. Daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, the nine muses- Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Erato, Terpsichore, Thalia, Melpomene, Polyhymnia and Urania-were thought to bestow inspiration on deserving poets in a flash of revelatory insight.

This image of the artist as beneficiary of a generous muse persists to this day. Aspiring writers put off their novel until they’re “inspired”; poets procrastinate haplessly for years, hoping to catch sight of the mythical “a-ha” moment; painters refuse to lift their paintbrushes until they feel possessed by the rapturous urge to create, until they glimpse that magical state of being an instrument, of being a vessel. How many stories go unwritten, how many songs go unsung, how many movies go unfilmed simply because we’re waiting for the unreliable muse to show up?

It’s no secret: writing is tough. The sooner we accept that creation is not the product of providence or an accident of luck but the result of tireless stamina and hard work, the sooner we can tap our hidden potential. Though there are many extraordinary books on writing and creativity, below are three I hold dear. As you sift through their pages, remember the no-nonsense advice of novelist and frontiersman Jack London: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

1. Creativity: Flow & the Psychology of Discovery & Invention


Called a man obsessed by happiness, Hungarian psychologist Csikszentmihalyi spent years interviewing the century’s greatest minds in search of what makes creative people tick.  The result was Creativity: Flow & the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.  Over the course of this landmark study, Csikszentmihalyi examines the many dimensions of the creative personality, outlines the phases of the creative process and even offers insight into the lives of inventive individuals.  Those interviewed range from those we traditionally consider creative like sculptors and poets to scientists and business moguls.  Some of his most impressive participants include Madeline L’ Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, Jonas Salk, creator of the first successful polio vaccine and John Reed, former chairman and CEO of Citicorp.  

What Csikszentmihalyi found was that one thing all creative personalities share is their complexity.  Creative people tend to alternate between a dichotomy of opposing traits, for example introversion and extraversion, playfulness and responsibility.  Though the common man usually inhabits one side of the spectrum, those who are exceptionally creative seem to possess more well-rounded, fully developed personalities.  For example, women in Csikszentmihalyi’s sample were shown to exhibit more stereotypically “masculine” traits like competitiveness and aggression while men were demonstrated to display more conventionally “feminine” qualities like sensitivity and cooperation.

Though Creativity is a work of scholarship grounded in science and supported by intensive lab work, it remains a fascinating study for the everyday reader.  In “Chapter 14: Enhancing Personal Creativity,” Csikszentmihalyi uses his years of research to offer practical advice.  “Another goal of this book,” he explains, “was to learn, from the lives of such men and women, how everyone’s life could be more creative.  How can our days, too, be filled with wonder and excitement?”  It is at this juncture of the book that Creativity moves from academia to self-help, from scientific inquiry to practical application.  Csikszentmihalyi suggests several ways to seduce the muse and unlock our creativity, including:

1) find one thing to look forward to each day

2) name one thing, at the end of each day, that surprised you

3) name one way you surprised yourself

Novelty depends on spontaneity and dies in the monotony of routine.  As Creativity points out, committing ourselves to little changes each day can enlarge our thinking and challenge us to find unexpected solutions to once impossible problems.  So take a different route to work, find a new cafe to sit down for breakfast, say yes to an invitation out.  Bottom line: do something different.

2. The Artist’s Way


I dreaded writing this book review.  “How,” I wondered desperately, “could I possibly do justice to a book that has so completely transformed my life?”  I felt like a super fan of the Fab Four trying to commemorate the Beatles.

So what can I possibly say about Julia Cameron’s smash hit The Artist’s Way?  For starters, this beloved volume has illuminated my path to artistic recovery and helped countless others.  A 12-week course based on creativity workshops Cameron led in 1990s New York, The Artist’s Way will teach you how to:

1.  unblock your creativity so you can be an active-rather than aspiring-artist

2. cherish your inner artist and ignore that perfectionistic, mercilessly mean, critical voice she calls the “Censor”

3. reform unhealthy beliefs you harbor about creativity and adopt more realistic attitudes about the artist’s life

4. cultivate a loving, nurturing attitude toward your art and, more importantly, yourself 

Each of the 12 weeks is organized around a certain theme and is accompanied by a series of checkpoints, essays, and exercises.  In addition to working through each week’s material, Cameron asks that you 1) commit to a daily practice of morning pages and 2) take yourself on an artist’s date every week.  These are what she calls “tools of the trade.” 

Morning pages form the basis of Cameron’s recovery program and are absolutely essential to The Artist’s Way.  So what is this mysterious morning ritual?  Morning pages are three pages of meandering, stream-of-consciousness style writing to be hand written everyday first thing in the morning.  “Wait, hold on one second…” you’re probably wondering, “you want me to write three pages first thing in the morning…every single day?”  When I was introduced to the practice three years ago, I reacted the same way.  Is it a big commitment?  Absolutely.  But nothing will transform your life more radically.  

One part diary, two parts brain drain, the morning pages are your confidante, your trusted ally, a place where you can play on paper.  More importantly, they offer refuge from your inner critic, the Censor.  Writing morning pages everyday will teach you two vital lessons: if you are to write (or film or design or paint or sculpt pottery), you must 1) write in self-trust and liberate yourself from the tyrannous rule of the Censor and 2) write no matter what.  In the end, The Artist’s Way is a masterclass in persistence and un-selfconcious play- the two most crucial qualities of a writer.

3. Becoming a Writer


Becoming a Writer stands assuredly as the seminal book on writing and creativity.  The original Julia Cameron, author Dorothea Brande actually suggested morning pages 70 years before she did!  From the moment I opened its covers, I adored this book- in fact, when it first arrived at my doorstep, I actually had to pace myself so I wouldn’t finish the whole thing in one sitting.  Elegant but charmingly accessible, each chapter (much like Cameron’s) is accompanied by a series of practical exercises.

Along with following a morning writing routine, Brande advises us to dedicate 15 minutes a day simply to writing.  Why just a mere 15 minutes, you ask?  Well, 15 minutes is a brief enough window for the task to seem doable, less intimidating.  Plus, even the busiest person can spare a mere 15 minutes!

But what’s the difference between this exercise and the morning pages?  Why must we do both?  The morning pages are a ritual we observe-the same time every day-and they are ugly, messy, disjointed stream-of-consciousness.  However, the 15 minute rule is more structured and meant to be completed at varying times of day.  Those 15 minutes need not be spent writing frantically to fill 3 pages (as often is the case with morning pages); they can be used to write about anything that comes to mind: a record/reflection of the day’s events, in the tradition of a formal journal, a brainstorm for an article, a profile of a character, a description of someone.  You can write about anything that strikes your fancy.  And because your mind isn’t dull from sleep, you can harness both sides of the mind-the conscious and unconscious, the critical faculty and the creative- to compose something more formal.

What’s really genius about this exercise is that it tricks you into thinking it’s just another casual, 15 minute task when 15 minutes is just enough to get you hooked; once you begin, you’ll usually write for hours!  It’s this initial “getting started” that frightens most writers, paralyzing them until they can’t work at all.  But when you disguise the daunting task of articulating your thoughts, you can overcome that little devil procrastination and actually put pen to paper.

The cornerstone of Brande’s philosophy is this: writing is an occasion-we must have the discipline and resolve to follow through.  “Work according to program, and not according to mood!” ordered Henry Miller.  No words capture Brande’s message more.  Writing can be such a wearisome task: it invites our worst fears and insecurities to paper.  But forcing ourselves to write everyday, regardless of mood, helps to dispel the prevailing (and dangerous) myth of the mercurial muse.  Many writers imagine composition as an ecstatic, almost mystical revelation-a metaphorical conspiring with the muses.  But when we view writing in this way, we absolve ourselves of the responsibility of actually doing the work.  “Oh, I can’t write today!” we moan, “I’m not in the mood!”  Time and time again, we use the myth of the muse to rationalize our own lack of follow through.  But Brande calls bullshit.  Real writers, those who cherish words and respect writing as a profession, recognize writing-like anything else-is a craft that rewards hard work.  Just as a mechanic must understand the tools of his trade-engines, coolant, carborators- writers must master words and gain experience in their field.  Putting pen to page, fingers to keys is the only way we can get such experience.  If we want to be writers, we must write.

Another tenet of Brande’s common sense philosophy is the study of other authors’ work.  “Anyone who is at all interested in authorship has some sense of every book as a specimen and not merely a means of amusement,” Brande writes, “but to read effectively it is necessary to learn to consider a book in the light of what it can teach you about the improvement of your own work.”  No matter how often I preach the importance of annotating to my students, I find myself reluctant to pick up a pen and highlighter when I’m cuddled up with a good book.  Why?  I suppose something about annotating makes reading feel like work.  But as Brande explains, reading critically doesn’t necessarily mean not reading for pleasure.  Nothing is more vital to the understanding (and enjoyment) of a book than reading actively with a pen handy.  Marking up critical passages and noticing patterns and themes forces us to slow down and digest what we read.  Something about going over a passage in bright pink highlighter inspires us to reflect: who are the characters?  what are they like?  what makes them tick?  what themes are emerging as important to the author?  Reading actively promotes higher-order thinking skills and gets us asking questions, which will enrich our experience of any book.

More importantly, studying literature in this way will help us refine our own craft as writers.  I always tell my students the best way to become a better writer is to become a better reader.  By critically reading renowned texts, we’ll be able to dissect how great authors work.  How many sentences of description do they include to set a scene?  Do they reveal character directly through commentary or indirectly through words and actions?  As Brande notes, to be good writers, we must treat each book as a specimen to be studied.  Our bed or quiet corner of a cafe is our laboratory; a pen and highlighter, our microscopes, our tools.  If we approach each book like a curious scientist with an analytical eye, we can access knowledge that can’t be taught otherwise, how to set a mood, for instance, or how to make a sentence “flow.”  Reading Fitzgerald may teach us to describe our experiences non-literally while reading the classic philosophers may show us how to say precisely what we mean in very few words.  Novelists, journalists, poets, essayists-all can be our teachers.  Just as a student must listen attentively and take exhaustive notes if he’s to excel in a course, so do we have to tirelessly participate in our reading if we are to one day walk among the writers we so admire.

We must approach every book this way-with the inquisitiveness of scientists and the diligence of scholars.  How much of a book is lost on the reader who’s lackadaisical!  As authors Adler and Doren once said, a book has much to teach us but only in proportion to how much we are willing to work.  A quick skim of Joyce will yield close to nothing in the way of knowledge.  But a careful, thorough analysis of particular passages might reveal his talent-and help us rise to similar literary eminence.