Week 8: Recovering a Sense of Strength

[If you are just joining in, this is a book by Julia Cameron “a spiritual path to higher creativity”….Feel free to jump in or start back at the beginning. There are posts for each week (chapter)!]

I realized today that there was a little synchronicity during Week 7, which we’ve just finished, and I wanted to point it out. At the end of Chapter 7 (p. 125), we are to take stock of our positive inventory, meaning the things we already have with which we can work to make the life we want. So I wrote down things like my good friends, things I like about where I live, what writing my morning pages has shown me (these are Cameron’s prompts). 

Around that same time, I listened to Martha Beck explain a method for solving difficult problems. The first steps are to let the ego dissolve into wordlessness and connect into the energetic force that all life is a part of (more on this in a future post!), but the second step was to identify all of the “ingredients” I have to solve the problem. Huh! Same idea Cameron had.

I have had two main goals that I haven’t achieved since I separated from my ex five years ago. The first was to write a book. My mom, for probably the last 15 years, has told me, “You’ve gotta write a book someday!” 

When I was married, I remember thinking, “That would be amazing but I could never write a true book so I don’t know what the point would be.” 

Four years ago, in the Spring, is when I started journaling. Four years ago this summer (in July, actually) is when I first formed the idea in my mind that I could actually write a book, a memoir, telling the truth about my life experience, particularly through my 20s when I got a life-altering paraganglioma diagnosis and entered the alternate universe that was my marriage. Starting a blog seemed much more doable at that time, so I started blogging and that’s how we all ended up here! 

Okay, so the book was the first goal. The second unmet goal has been to find another partner. Initially, I wanted a husband. I thought it might be easy to find one because I had this myopic view that my marriage problems were really my ex-husband’s problems and if I had a different guy in that seat then I would surely be an excellent wife and we would live more or less happily together forever. Apparently the issue was more complex than that (WHAT? Maybe I’m part of the problem!?). 

When I started to date, I found I could not date Mormon men. It was like trying to eat a sandwich that had given me food poisoning last week. My relationship with my religion started to unravel around this time too. I realized a lot of the things that were wrong in my marriage were extensions of things that were wrong in the church. 

I started looking for men who were nice, first and foremost. But this was difficult because I work with mostly women and my friends are almost all married, so meeting someone organically seemed unlikely. I ended up joining the ranks of online daters. I met some nice men, some interesting men, some men who tried to teach me sales techniques on a first date (…kewl.) And I’ve been in and out of this pool of dating since, with little to no success in finding  someone who wants to be with me, that I want to be with. 

So this summer, when I enrolled in this Martha Beck class, I decided to tackle these two problems, these two unmet goals. Her intention is to connect her students with their true nature, which I love. She and Julia Cameron have that goal in common. And I considered the ingredients I have for these two goals when I was on a walk with Rio and listening to Martha Beck. 

For the book, I have my regular writing practice. This has helped me to develop my voice and some ease with putting words on the page. I have my lived experience. I have some journals and documents from the past to help me remember how I felt at the time. I have read several books about writing memoir. I have read several great memoirs. I wrote a book last fall so I have some understanding of how that process worked for me. 

I realized I actually do have a lot of ingredients for book writing. 

For the relationship piece, I could name that I have experienced love with more than one man since I divorced. I know what love feels like. I can identify it when it’s present, and this is really big because it’s so damn scary to let yourself love after a big loss, like divorce. I have created a beautiful life for myself with my son, my dogs, the house, the neighborhood school, friends and family, hobbies, work, etc. There is already a lot there that a potential partner might want to be a part of in my life. My definition of what makes a good partner has evolved. I have a better idea of what I want now than I ever have. I also feel more comfortable being alone than I have (probably since I was ten years old!). And I no longer feel bound to society’s conventions around marriage, so I feel more free to create a relationship based on what my theoretical partner and I want.

Putting these two lists next to each other and adding several other cues from the universe that came up over the past two weeks, I realized—I’ve got to write the book first. I had this moment of clarity that the book needs to be written while I’m on my own. It cannot be shaped by a partner. It’s not that kind of book. And instead of this feeling sad or lonely, I felt freed by it.

[Hint: Whatever direction feels most like freedom is almost always the direction to take.] 

So I have begun book writing in earnest. That’s why I have’t shown up as well here on the blog. I am putting a ton of energy into book writing because I want to get a rough draft completed in the next couple of months. And for the first time, this goal feels more exciting than it usually feels, which is scary and hard. 

I’m sharing this, for one, because I think this is the fruit of the kind of self-examination process we’ve been doing in The Artist’s Way. The morning pages, the artist dates, the endless conversations with myself—it’s connected me with my desires and put in me in integrity enough to hear the inner voice when it’s calling. 

I wish I could write about your experiences with this material too, but its been mostly crickets on the internet’s side of things! This is fine. Genuinely, I know a lot of what I cover in this space is vulnerable and personal and it probably takes my readers to that place in themselves, which feels weird to share online. But I hope you are giving your soul some airtime on the screen of your mind. That’s what I hope you take from this process. 

So now, we’ve got to dive into Recovering a Sense of Strength. If by week 8, you’re feeling kind of over it, you’re not alone. I find this is usually the lull in the action for me. I’ve already uncovered a lot and I’m not sure I can do everything that I have noticed might need to change, but the book keeps pushing deeper. I want you to know, I experience resistance to to going deeper too!

Chapter 8 is a kick in the ass. It could also be called Your Life is Your Job or Get Off Your Ass and Make Something.  But, strength is actually what she is pointing to. The first section of the chapter is devoted to how academia kills creativity. I experienced this when I was a freshman at Brigham Young University (BYU). I was a declared fine arts major. I wanted to get a BFA in graphic design. I hadn’t taken a visual art class since seventh grade but I had enjoyed making artistic things on the computer in all the years in between. 

BYU is a very academically competitive place and I connected with some academically rigorous friends my freshman year. I could not imagine taking more than four years to graduate because that’s not what over-achievers do and I definitely saw myself in that group. The problem was, in order for me to get into the BFA program, I would need a portfolio and to make a portfolio I would have to learn how to make art and all of that would take time—time I didn’t have if I was going to graduate in four years. So I switched to the communications department and studied advertising and marketing, albeit on the creative track. Still, it was a ghost of the career I really wanted. 

Another manifestation of this happened with music. I was involved in choir and band through most of my school years growing up. When I went to BYU, I didn’t audition for any of the choirs initially because I was intimidated. Within their ranks, Mormons have a vast army of very capable musicians, and coming to BYU I felt my talents were mid-grade at best. In spite of that insecurity, halfway through my freshman year I auditioned for Women’s chorus and got in as a first alto (I had always sung soprano but… whatever). I did women’s chorus for a year and a half and I really enjoyed it, but then I felt like I ought to be able to advance to the BYU Concert Choir (the next level up on the choir ladder). When I auditioned, for Rosalind Hall, the director, she told me that I had the range of a soprano but because I had been singing alto it wasn’t well-developed enough, and that I should ask Women’s Chorus to make me a soprano and then return to audition the following year. Women’s chorus conflicted with one of the classes I needed to graduate so I decided that was my sign and I gave up choir all together. 

So BYU was no friend to my creativity in that way, but for my part, I lacked strength. Instead of applying what Cameron talks about in this chapter, I gave up and walked away. Too bad! I was overdeveloped in the art of criticism and underdeveloped in the art of creativity. 

One of the ways that this kind of block shows up is in the practice of “conventional wisdom.” This is a lot of what we get in school. We are taught a path for achieving what it is we want, but then when that doesn’t work out we think something must be wrong with us, not the path and certainly not the system!  

Cameron writes, “‘In order to catch the ball, you have to want to catch the ball,’ the film director John Cassavettes once told a young director. Hearing this, I took it to mean, ‘Stop complaining about the lousy curves you get thrown and stretch, reach for what you really want.’ I have tried to follow this advice.” 

This is the kind of scrappy advice that business entrepreneurship students get fed, but it’s seldom seen other places in academia. Cameron encourages us to ask “How?” instead of “Why me?” And this ties back to the bit about what ingredients do I already have? Obviously there is already something there, even if it’s just the desire to make something. The desire counts for a lot. Let it ask “How?” over and over again.

Another thing she brings up is the questions of age and time. A lot of people say they would have been artistic when they were young and foolish, or that they’re saving that part of life for retirement. I fell into this trap at BYU. It drives me crazy that I thought I was so old at age 18. Part of this was the Mormon culture that emphasized early marriage and childbearing. There are precious few years between 18 and 26, (the age that Brigham Young declared men, if still unmarried, became “a menace to society”). I believed if I left college unmarried I would be an old maid. This was a key factor in my decision making around my major and the time I spent pursuing creativity for its own sake. 

But then I got a diagnosis that I thought would kill me within five years when I was only 21, so all of a sudden life seemed precious and short. Let me just say, I did’t nail living a creative life in those five years, or even the next ten years, but I did spend a lot of time thinking about the idea of living like you’re dying. For this reason, when my marriage ended, I saw it as a second chance at life for myself, and I felt more freedom to do what I wanted for the first time ever in my life. I also became very practical, meaning, I was always asking myself, “What works?” Does this religion work for me? Does this swim suit work? How about this car? This job? This exercise routine? This yoga? This writing practice? I realized what I didn’t have time for was continuing to try stuff that didn’t work over and over again. 

This meant that my life became a big social experiment. When I was doing things that some people thought were crazy, I sort of shrugged and said, “Well, everything else I’ve tried hasn’t worked so I’m trying this.” And that’s actually a great reason to try anything new. 

Our ego naturally wants to put end dates on things. It wants to check boxes and mark accomplishments, but what we truly yearn for is to start something. I’ve learned, just from trying it out, that creativity begets creativity. So I started writing, then I started painting and drawing, then I started playing piano and singing, then I started writing poetry, then I started playing ukulele, then I started playing and singing yoga music for my studio…. The practice of starting is self-renewing and self-perpetuating. Start again and again and again!

Cameron calls this “filling in the form,” taking the next small step instead of skipping ahead to a large one. We hold ourselves back by thinking if we want to start something new, we have to change our whole lives. We tend to be dramatic in our thinking—if I want to write a book, I have to build a studio over my garage…wait, what? What does a studio have to do with writing? Sure a studio would be nice, but I’ve done plenty of writing at the kitchen table or in bed or on the couch or in the bathtub, all of which I have ready to go right now.

The remedy for the dramatic-thinking-block is committing to filling in the form, doing one small action for creativity daily. “Blocked creatives like to think they are looking at changing their whole life in one fell swoop. This form of grandiosity is very often its own undoing. By setting the jumps too high and making the price tag too great, the recovering artist sets defeat in motion.” (Cameron, 141). 

Most of us prefer to obsess about something instead of doing something about it. “This is our addiction to anxiety in lieu of action. Once you catch on to this, the jig is up. Watch yourself for a week and notice the way you will pick up an anxious thought, almost like a joint, to blow off—or at least delay—your next creative action.” 

Everybody I know, all of my patients, all the people in my personal life complain about two things—anxiety and poor attention. It doesn’t matter if you have schizophrenia or middle class malaise, these two symptoms are most people’s drug of choice. We are addicted to our anxieties and we can’t concentrate because we are always in anxiety. For most, it’s not a serotonin problem or an Adderall shortage, it’s an ignoring-self problem. At least, I wonder if we, as a society, came more into integrity with our desires and life purposes, wouldn’t we need less psychiatric medication? 

Make no mistake, anxiety is a drug and it’s a hard one to quit.

Okay! With that ominous statement, I’m going to wrap this up. These posts are meant to be food for thought, a jumping off place and someone else’s experience to bounce your own off of. If you are still hanging with me, then congratulations! I bet you’ve made some breakthroughs. And ask yourself today, what’s one tiny thing I can do to fill in the form? To move in the direction of my most creative life? 

Sat nam, anxiety junkies. I see you because it’s me too!