This Terrible Self-Help Book Is Actually Making Me a Better Artist

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Photo: BRI Productions

I just sent an email to a friend that ended with the declaration that from now on, I write for Elena Ferrante. This is my new standard: to write something she would like, whoever she may be. I wrote this email under a windowsill where I’ve got incense burning and have displayed a neon-green index card at eye level, right above my laptop, which reads, “TREATING MYSELF LIKE A PRECIOUS OBJECT WILL MAKE ME STRONG.”

It’s taken me years of writing to call myself a writer without shrugging. Before reading The Artist’s Way, I would have sooner died than cop to my ambition to write, well, art. How presumptuous, grandiose, mortifying! But it’s maybe the truest thing about me and, I now know, important for me to embrace. If I were selling this book in an infomercial, my opener would be something like, “What if I could tell you this book would help you stop Googling to find the ages of every person you deem to be more successful than you?” Or: “What if you could stop scrolling through Instagram whenever you feel bad about yourself, and work on your novel instead?”

The shame of the book, or its central challenge, is right there in the title. The word “artist” is so embarrassing to me I have to either write it in all-caps or put it in scare quotes. And I’ve already completed the 12-week journey to recovery! The cover, featuring a drawing of a mountain with cranes flying around it, is this awful red and tan and was designed, I’m sure of it, with Pagemaker on author Julia Cameron’s home computer. Everything about the book is mortifying, and it totally set me free. Its ridiculousness is matched only by its effectiveness. Embrace it. Hide the book when you aren’t using it; read it when no one else is around. It’s fine.

What is the Artist’s Way? Well, it begins with a series of affirmations to repeat to yourself about how God exists and he wants you to make things. Oh it’s awful. (Even Julia Cameron says, in the text itself, that you can ignore the God part.) And thus begins a 12-week program “toward creative recovery.” The book instructs you to spend a week on every chapter, each of which consists of a specific theme (“Recovering a Sense of Abundance”), some chatty stories, and a handful of short exercises (“List 20 things you like to do but haven’t done in a while. Do one of them this week”). Cameron is compassionate and thoughtful, overall, and full of genuine insight. I fell for it, mostly, and — this may be the book working — forgave it when I didn’t. You’re meant to spend the week skipping around and doing the exercises at your own pace, though I tended to do almost everything on Sunday nights, in search of peak ennui-abatement. “Describe in detail your perfect day.” “Bake something.” “Buy yourself an excellent pair of socks.”

The real power of the book lies in the two exercises you do consistently throughout. First, “Morning Pages,” which entails writing three pages (longhand, stream of consciousness) in a notebook every day. I do it every morning first thing, which helps me get to my desk. Mostly, it’s just whining or budgeting or planning what to do that day. It’s a diary! But a diary with a goal, however delusional, to unblock yourself artistically. The second exercise is the “Artist’s Date,” which is harder. The Artist’s Date (could really use a rebrand, if you ask me) tasks you with one outing a week, alone, for at least two hours. The idea is to do something fun and easy but mildly creative, like going to a museum, a record store, an art class. Get some space; let your mind wander; fill up the well. One of the book’s central tenets is to coddle yourself like a child, to embrace the part of you that would sit down and draw something just for fun, even if it sucked. It repeatedly acknowledges our resistance to doing something for its own sake, for enjoyment without achievement. On my Artist’s Date I sometimes felt like a late-in-life divorcée doing exercises assigned to her by a sex therapist. Or a tween playing MASH on the school bus, daydreaming about other lives. In other words, I fucking loved it.

The Artist’s Way was recommended to me by one of my best friends almost a decade ago now, after I got rejected from M.F.A. programs (the first time). This friend has a tattoo that says “Only love is real” and meditates 45 minutes a day: I really should have listened to her. Instead, I nodded and looked it up online and promptly forgot about it for the next ten years. When a writer friend tweeted about his own Artist’s Way mortification, I felt the universe align and immediately ordered it myself, making sure to also buy three other, less embarrassing books, as if the warehouse employee would weigh my order against itself. “Huh, Ellen Willis, Barbara Comyns, Vivian Gornick, and The Artist’s Way. Maybe that last one was a gift or something.”

Now I, in turn, keep recommending it to friends who are frustrated or stuck, but so far I have failed to convince anyone. The God stuff is, as one friend said, “a bridge too far.” Another friend went so far as to order the book online and then put it away because it was “too woo-woo.” To them I say, “Yeah, I get that. I don’t blame you,” but in my head I think, Ah, you must not be ready to heal the artist within. I think Julia would have asked them why they were attached to the idea that writers must be tortured, broke, erratic, in pain, but I feel that mentioning this would be in poor taste.

I don’t know anything about Julia Cameron except what she talks about in the book. She’s written screenplays and novels; she’s directed, acted. I’m not familiar with any of her work, though I know she does it. There is a beauty in this: Julia Cameron becomes a cipher. Still, I Googled her and the main piece of information I took away from doing so was that she was once married to Martin Scorsese. This explained the blurb from Martin Scorsese on the book cover: “This is a book that addresses a delicate and complex subject. For those who will use it, it is a valuable tool to get in touch with their own creativity.” If that isn’t a perfectly undermining ex-husband blurb I don’t know what is.

In the time between privately rolling my eyes at a friend’s self-help book recs and going on a walk last month to collect rocks as a means of cultivating abundance, I’ve managed slowly to build a nascent writing career, but not without ample angst and self-loathing, procrastination and avoidance. That, as Julia would remind me, is fear. Then she’d tell me to quickly make a list of five people who discouraged or disparaged or rejected me growing up, and five friends who encouraged me. Then write them all a postcard. Then write three pages and recite some affirmations about how God wants me to be creative.

Being a slight witch is cool now, as is taking care of yourself (albeit conspicuously, consumptively), but I’m not sure we’re collectively ready to embrace the idea of a higher power who wants us to be creative. While there’s a widespread acceptance of, and attendant annoyance with, “creativity” as some sort of moral good or requirement for self-actualization, I’m still not sure we’re ready to call ourselves artists without adding a cringe emoji at the end of it. I’m certainly not. Still, I think this particular cultural moment had me primed to receive the messages therein. I had a lot of Okay, whatever, lady moments reading the book, but I never put it down. There was always something worthwhile, something soothing. Plus — placebo or not — the idea that I was nurturing myself artistically was a genuine comfort. Rather than trying to better myself in all other areas of my life in order to be the sort of person I secretly feel “deserves” to have opportunities, I focused my self-improvement efforts on my experience of the writing process itself. If nothing else, it was a more direct attempt to feel better — an edifying way to procrastinate.

Enter 2016 on a spiritual journey toward unblocking yourself and healing the artist within. Just swallow your pride and order it online. Imagine yourself in a great lineage of people who, from 1992 onward, have needed help getting over themselves. Change your life. Embrace God. Make art. Affirmations only. Don’t @ me. I’m not reading Twitter right now, anyway.