The Artist’s Way: Book Review

I enjoy reading the odd book about creativity, art, and writing—the more inspirational and romantic (as opposed to inclined to reduce everything to craft) the better. I’ve been curious about Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way for a long time, so I checked it out from a local library, and I’ve now read all but the appendix. 

I enjoyed it a great deal. I am going to try writing the “morning pages” (three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing) for a while, though I doubt I’ll actually hit three because I do not want to get up more than fifteen minutes before I have to. I loved her emphasis on doing art for the sake of the act of creation itself, rather than for the sake of material success or praise. I love it that this is what works best for her, and that she believes that it works best in general, though I disagree on the latter point. I doubt very much that art undertaken for its own sake is, always and forever, bound to be superior to art undertaken as service or as communication—or even as a way of showing off or as commerce; I just wish people wouldn’t say that theirs is the only valid reason to make art and and recognize that every artist has their own complex cocktails of reasons . But the idea of making art  for art’s sake really resonates with me emotionally, and I think it helps me create, too. Clearly—looking at this book’s immense popularity—I’m not the only one. (Whatever artists themselves may think as they’re making art, I also really, really want society to retain the idea that art is worthwhile even when it doesn’t make money, please people, or improve morals, though the kinds that do do those things are very valuable in their own ways. I think art is good in itself.)

I love Cameron’s beat-the-negativity attitude too, though, again, I’m inclined to complicate it. I think that, for many people, including me, in the process of creating negativity breeds despair. Yes, as an Amazon reviewer points out, she’s repetitive on this point, but it’s repetition with a purpose: even though intellectually we may well know that we can’t be expected to be perfect at first (etc.), convincing ourselves of this emotionally is much, much more difficult—at least, I know I have this problem—and Cameron’s series of sometimes hokey exercises seems better tailored to doing that than my making abstract pronouncements. But I also think that having high standards (if that’s important to you and the kind of art you want to make) can in the bigger picture improve your art a lot, as long as you don’t let them lead you to despair. One of my ways of avoiding this (which Cameron approaches somewhat) is recognizing that, leaving aside your own emotions, bad art is not a big bad thing. Good art is a big good thing. Bad art (assuming it’s not inciting people to kill each other) is not a big bad thing. It might be annoying. It might inspire mockery—if you show it to people. It will not hurt people other than you, and, if you figure out how to work around your high instinctive standards and sense of shame, it won’t hurt you either. I exhort you to your damnedest not to let it hurt you.

Despite the fact that the overall message of The Artist’s Way resonates strongly with me, I do have frustrations with it.  I air these hesitantly, because the sort of reasonableness and nuance I feel like I want out of it is—however, y’know, reasonable and intelligent and, more to the point, right my objections may be—anathema to the muse as Cameron experiences it and to emotionally vulnerable people trying to build their confidence. Still, here are some things that bug me.

For one thing, I think Cameron has a one-size-fits all approach. As I hinted above, I suspect there are many creative people for whom her philosophy does not work at all, and she barely acknowledges that possibility. More than that, she creates a role for her readers that many fit but many, I suspect, don’t: the “blocked,” overworked, self-effacing, socially constrained “nice” person who feels compelled to serve others at their own expense and considers art frivolous

But maybe I’m not blocked. Maybe I do have the audacity to share my work even if I am (I do.). Maybe I’m not too ashamed of my work but too pleased with it too quickly. Maybe, blocked or not, I’m a lazy and selfish. Maybe I’m a jerk, not nice. Maybe I’m one of her dreaded crazymakers. For any of these readers (and I sometimes fear I’m a bit of all of them), it’s fun to be cast as the overworked, self-denying person who needs to learn to live a little—but not everyone is that thing, and the people who aren’t can and should be creative and can probably still benefit from a lot of what Cameron has to say here—and shouldn’t be encouraged or pushed into deluding themselves into thinking they’re martyring themselves when they’re not. 

Another thing that bothers me in the book is her focus on synchronicity—the idea that taking steps toward one’s own well-being will cause God to do even more for one’s well-being, by, say, arranging for financial opportunities when one takes up an interest in something. It is my experience that the universe does not work that way. What’s more, it seems a weirdly self-centered view of divinity. While Cameron’s client hears about an agent who’s better than the agent he just ditched, people all over the world are living in abject poverty, and if Cameron wants me to believe that what these people need is an attitude adjustment, and when they start proactively seeking their own good, God will start raining abundance on them—well…

Finally, I am bothered by Cameron’s assertion that the intellectual is the enemy of the creative. The art I’m fondest of includes the intellect to a fairly high degree, and while (for some people) having too intellectual an approach during the actual creative process may hamper creation, being able to include all aspects of one’s thought and not just what one passively channels from a higher being in whom one may or may not believe seems exceedingly important. I think different people see the split between the rational and the emotional in different places in themselves, and can use both to different degrees in creating.

So, in summary? Genuinely inspiring despite some major reservations.



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