5 Things The Artist's Way Taught Me About Writing
The Artist’s Way is one of those books that you’ve either read and loved or you feel terribly guilty about not having read because five of your closest writing friends keep telling you that you have to read it and you haven’t made the time.
I came to the book serendipitously (while browsing in my local Goodwill) at a time when I really needed its message. I was suffering a pretty crap year, ragged with wedding planning and a health setback, and my writing had fallen by the wayside.
Working through the exercises and keping “artist’s dates” with myself gave me a rope ladder to pull myself back up and invest in my creativity. It was a self-care tool during what was otherwise an overwhelming and anxiety-ridden year.
There’s so much to learn in that book, and I’m of the opinion that you’ll learn what you most need to learn when you read it for yourself. That said, there are several things that stay with me today from that book even though it’s close to five years since I completed it.
So here’s my Artist’s Way recap - know there’s much more in the book if this inspires you to find a copy.
1. MORNING PAGES | You write better with a clear channel.
Morning pages are one of the main commandments of The Artist’s Way, and they are three pages you write every morning–by hand.
The purpose of these pages is to clear out all the crap that sticks in your mind–the bits of to-do lists and worries and daydreams–so you can be a clear channel for creative writing.
Writing morning pages every morning gets you writing every day. When you’re writing morning pages every day, it’s harder to pretend like you “don’t have time” to write–one of the excuses I hear most often from people who want to be writing, but aren't making it a priority.
I did morning pages regularly while I was working through The Artist’s Way. When I was on residency, I used morning pages (or meditation) to transition my brain between the hour of freelance work I did in the morning and the creative work I did for the rest of the day.
When I take the time to clear business and travel writing from my brain before switching to creative work, I am able to tap into the writing flow much faster. Morning pages are one way to do this; walks, meditation, and reading are also effective here.
If you’re having trouble getting started (whether it’s with a big writing project or editing a piece), investigate ways to clear your channel before you dive into the work. I bet you’ll see impact whether it’s through the tool of morning pages, meditation, or something else.
2. INNER CRITICS | We all have critics in our head….but knowing where the voices come from is the first step to fighting back.
Who told you that you wouldn’t succeed at being a writer?
Was it a grade school teacher who shamed you for having bad spelling and grammar? A well-meaning parent who constantly told you that you would never be able to make a living writing and you better have a backup plan? Or a college professor who was overly critical due to their own inner baggage?
I remember the first time I was shamed for being creative. I was in kindergarten or pre-K and a teacher told me I was drawing the rainbow wrong. Nevermind that I was a kid coloring, enjoying myself–she critiqued my work. can still picture that day, and the shame I felt over doing it wrong.
With writing, the critical voices I hear most often are professors from my MFA who were less than generous with me.
One didn’t like it that I included POC in my writing, and she couldn’t see around that to give me helpful feedback on my writing–be it plot or character descriptions. I'm of the opinion that the written world should reflect the world we live in, and my world isn't populated exclusively by white people, so nor should my stories be. Yet she could not see around her moral high ground that I was wrong in what I was doing, or how I was doing it, to be of service.
Another professor praised my thesis after delivering harsh criticism around a novel in progress, which I'd wanted to pursue instead. I got a “how dare you waste my time with this dreck” sort of speech and wrote a collection, feeling chastised.
After that, no wonder I could not take in the praise for my “amazing” collection - never mind put any effort into getting my collection published after graduation. I felt like a hack, thanks to her dressing-down. I was glad to leave the MFA world behind and dove deeper into my day job, feeling like a fraudster even though I had a professional degree in writing.
What The Artist's Way showed me is how our critics lash our from their own wounds. Their criticism reflects their stories and their wounds, rather than my work. That doesn’t mean some element of the criticism wasn’t deserved (looking back, I can see that my novel-in-progress was pretty crap and that my POC characters needed development), but rather that their words were not delivered with a kind heart, in service of my work and my development as a writer. Thus, I can drop that baggage and move on, ears tuned for criticism that’s coming from the right place–helping me improve my craft.
By recasting old stories of hurt and taking back my power, I can quiet critical voices and write the way I did when I had a supportive community of peers and professors who critiqued work from a placing of caring about my craft development and respecting me as a person.
I still hear thee critics in my head sometimes, but The Artist’s Way gave me tools to reclaim my agency in situations where I hadn’t had it–I was a student, playing along to get my degree, or a child, taught to respect adult authority.
3. WAITING | "We have opinions about where our good should come from."
As a young writer, I would learn as much as I could about other writers I admired. Where did they go to school, or get published? What did they do, so I could do it too? I thought that if I checked a series of boxes (the right college, the right degree, the right jobs, the right MFA program) then I would wind up at my goal–published author.
I was so blinded by the milestones I identified that I couldn't see that there are countless ways to find success as a writer. I over-identified with the way others has found success while turning a blind eye to the fact that the world had changed, was always changing, and what worked for them might not work for me.
Only by trying and failing could I admit to myself that I wasn't meant to follow their path. I had to forge my own path.
So I tried again, rigorously identifying what I thought was the "right" way to go about it.
The more I've learned to let go of what I think a desired outcome should be, the more possibilities I collect. Opening myself up to the many ways my dreams can be satisfied means I get better results, and more of them, because I allow for the unfolding to happen.
I still find myself attaching to specific outcomes (this agent will love my book, or I'll win this contest). It's difficult to break old habits. But I know that by insisting on the particulars, I'm limiting my options rather than calling them to me. As Cameron says, "We must learn to let the flow manifest itself where it will–not where we will it."
4. LISTENING | "Art is an act of tuning in and dropping down the well."
I've always been an intuitive person–I think many of us misfits are attuned early on to social dynamics, as we try to please, fit it, get by.
Turning your intuition toward creativity means listening to signs and symbols, attuning to atmospheric shifts. It means identifying the spark that's driving the work forward and the questions that hover over the work.
It means trusting instinct, even when you don't understand where it's leading you. Especially when you don't understand where it's leading you.
As you follow these subtle signals, you'll find what you need.
Sometimes it's a text to help you research your book, there in the stack of paperbacks at the used book sale. Sometimes it's a woman who personifies your character, right there at your favorite cafe where you can watch her mannerisms and take notes on body language. Sometimes it's a phrase you hear over and over again until you finally dig into what it means and find new inspiration for a work in progress.
As you tune into the subtle energies and do the writing, you'll pick up more of these insights.
5. JOY | "Art is a process. The process is supposed to be fun."
Many of the exercises in The Artist’s Way are silly–purposefully so. Cameron wants to break people who’ve lost touch with creative impulses out of their ruts, to free their creativity from the limiting beliefs and structures that weigh it down.
Thus suggestions to dance around the house, or visit an art supply store and purchase things like paint and stickers.
While I know the writing process is supposed to be fun, it's something that's easy to forget in moments when it isn't going well.
Whether it's in editing something that isn't quite there or in submitting work to journals or agents, the process can be laborious. In these moments, tapping into the fun–the massive joy in creating worlds of our own making, which is why we all got into this–can be incredibly grounding.
If this wisdom strikes you, take it as a sign: it’s your time to read The Artist’s Way.
To get more writing tips (and personal news updates), subscribe to my monthly newsletter. I write it like I’m catching up with a friend. Sign up here.