Week 2: Recovering a Sense of Identity

Oh my goodness, there is so much to love in this chapter. I am holding back from just putting a transcript of it here! The introduction might be my favorite part: “Going Sane.” I’ve written a lot on my blog about my experiences going sane (aka learning to trust my creativity). 

For most of my life and for all of my adult life (until a few years ago) I really tried to make all of the *smart* and *safe* decisions. (Might be something about being confronted with your own death at age 20 that scares you straight…might be….) I got a lot of accolades for this from friends and family. I was frequently told, “You’re so smart,” when I would tell someone about my plans for the future. 

The stupid thing about being smart is if you make all your decisions based on *smart* (whatever that is) you find yourself in a tiny box, living half a life….at least that’s how it felt for me. So once I realized I was in the tiny box, I actually started going in the opposite direction wherever I could. I still went to work. I still paid my bills. I did the things necessary to keep me and my son physically safe, but I forced the critical judgmental voice in my head to surrender some of the creative control over this operation. 

I love how Julia Camron describes this. She uses the word “erratic,” which is perfect because that’s how it felt for me and that’s how it looked for the people around me. (Kind of still does…I remember my dad telling me six months ago that I didn’t seem “very settled”…which made me kind of indignant…because I do feel settled in my erraticism!)

Learning to trust your creativity feels kind of like learning to drive a stick shift. There are lots of false starts and sometimes the whole car shudders before it dies in the middle of the intersection. And you have to embrace humility as you start it up and try, again, to ease it into first gear in front of everyone waiting at the stop light. 

Cameron writes, “It is important to remember that at first flush, going sane feels just like going crazy.” As someone who spends her work days talking to people in various levels of mental and emotional distress, I can say this is true. But it is the good kind of crazy. The kind of crazy that might actually save your mental health and your life. 

Actually, I often marvel at the insight my patients possess. Many are people who have lived with schizophrenia for decades and they have learned to question what their brains do automatically. I frequently tell them that this is a gift! So many of us never learn to do this. We walk around believing every stupid thought our brain pumps out and so many of those thoughts have as much truth to them as the paranoia and fantasy my patients experience.  

So thoughts are not always your friend. Cameron points this out, but then she goes on to say that friends are not always your friends. “Blocked friends may find your recovery disturbing. Your getting unblocked raises the unsettling possibility that they, too, could become unblocked and move into authentic creative risks rather than bench-sitting cynicism.” Not that I’m some creative genius here, but I have made very deliberate efforts to unblock myself and, in so doing, have made some of the people around me uncomfortable. This comes with the territory and you need to expect it and protect your inner, recovering artist from their attacks. 

As women, we are particularly susceptible to guilt about pursuing things for our own pleasure. Guilt is a powerful weapon to keep women (and men, I suppose) in check. The time we give to our creative recovery can be viewed by other people as selfish. People may tell you, “You’ve changed.”

Cameron writes, “As blocked creatives, we focus not on our responsibilities to ourselves, but on our responsibilities to others. We tend to think such behavior makes us good people. It doesn’t. It makes us frustrated people.” A-freakin-men.

Now once we overcome our internal voices and our guilt and our friends who don’t like how we’re changing, there is yet one more potential obstacle—the crazymakers. [Note: Working in mental health, I realize that the word crazy is not the best, but please forgive for this book was first published in 1992…if crazy bothers you, please insert the word bananas…as in bananasmakers.]

Okay, so crazymakers are the type of people that can take up your whole life. They are a distraction and they are chaos and they have no place in your creative recovery. Crazymakers want everyone to live in service of THEIR ego. And they can orchestrate elaborate crises and catastrophes that helpful types are drawn to.  So get very honest with yourself—do you have a crazymaker in your life? If so, get out now. 

  • Crazymakers break deals and destroy schedules.
  • Crazymakers expect special treatment.
  • Crazymakers discount your reality.
  • Crazymakers spend your time and money.
  • Crazymakers triangulate those they deal with.
  • Crazymakers are expert blamers.
  • Crazymakers create dramas—but seldom where they belong.
  • Crazymakers hate schedules—except their own. 
  • Crazymakers hate order.
  • Crazymakers deny that they are crazymakers.

So why do we attach to crazymakers? “As blocked creatives, we are willing to go to almost any lengths to remain blocked. As frightening and abusive as life with a crazymaker is, we find it far less threatening than the challenge of a creative life of our own.” Let that sink in.

I already feel like I have covered a lot and there is so much more in this chapter, but for the sake of economy, I’ll keep it brief. She talks about overcoming our own skepticism. I love Elizabeth Gilbert’s explanation of cynicism (which lives in a similar place in my brain). She defined it in these two words: I KNOW. Cynicism says, I know how this ends. I know what happens. I know that it’s not good. I know. I know. I know. 

The antidote to cynicism is curiosity. Curiosity says, I DON’T know. And the remedy for any internal skepticism is the same. Cameron is focusing on skepticism around all the synchronicities, lucky breaks, or blessings that will come our way as we begin to work with our creative self. “The reason we think it’s weird to imagine an unseen helping hand is that we still doubt that it’s okay for us to be creative. With this attitude firmly entrenched, we not only look all gift horses in the mouth but also swat them on the rump to get them out of our lives as fast as possible,” Cameron writes. So what if the universe is cooperating with you? What if the universe wants you to create?

The last section in this chapter is about attention and it is so beautiful I am going to give it its own post, so stay tuned!

The exercises at the end of Chapter 2 are very practical. One is about how you spend your time. Because I’ve been through this book twice in the last two years, I was actually really pleased with how I spend my time right now. What I mean is it aligns with my values and I am spending time doing the things I love each week…but I wouldn’t be if I hadn’t first paid attention to how I was spending my time.

Another exercise asks you to list 20 things you love to do and write the date you last did them, then pick one off the list that you haven’t done for a while and do it this week. It’s so simple but so life changing! I am going to dance more. I’ve been slacking on that. 

The last one I did was to identify ten tiny changes I want to make. This one is so powerful because it’s the stuff that has been sort of floating in the background of my mind for months/years but I haven’t taken the time to attend to. Attending to the small things builds trust with self. So I will pick one thing off the list and do it this week. Should I make another chalk pastel portrait of questionable reputation???

This portrait of questionable reputation was the product of one of my first artist dates! I went to Blick’s Art Supply and bought the chalk pastels and some paper and voila. I wasn’t expecting to make something I liked so well but there you go!

There are more exercises but Cameron does’t expect us to do all of them. She recommends you pick the ones that are most appealing and least appealing and start there. Of course, there are still the morning pages each day and the artist date each week. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, please be kind to yourself, but also know that there is a space beyond your perceived limitations—that’s where we are headed. It’s okay to push and it’s okay to be kind—these are not mutually exclusive!

Do you feel some momentum? Some excitement? Me too! Keep going!