Week 10: Recovering a Sense of Self-Protection

[If you are just joining in, we are going through The Artist’s Way 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 was born under a full moon in Aries. giving me a deep sense of internal power and the need to do something formidable. I was born with a largeness, creativity and power within me. In short, I was born to put myself into the world in a significant way. But rather than embracing that, I got scared. As an adult I gave a lot of the power away. Maybe more than handing it over, I just put it down, walked away from it and somebody picked it up. I didn’t want the struggle. I was afraid of it. I am writing about all of this right now for the book I’m working on.

Initially my narrative focused on my ex-husband, who liked being in charge and was happy to advise me on how I lived my life. It reminds me of that scene from The Holiday—do you remember that movie? With Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Cameron Diaz and Jude Law? There’s that scene between Kate Winslet’s character, Iris, and Arthur Abbot that goes like this: 

Arthur Abbott You know what I’ve been asking myself all night?
Iris What? Why I’m bothering you with all these questions?
Arthur Abbott I’m wondering why a beautiful girl like you would go to a strangers’ house for their Christmas Vacation, and on top of that spend Saturday night with an old cock-up like me.
Iris Well, I just wanted to get away from all the people I see all the time!…
[Arthur looks at her incredulously] 
Iris Well, not all the people… one person. I wanted to get away from one… guy.
[she sobs] 
Iris An ex-boyfriend who just got engaged and forgot to tell me.
Arthur Abbott So, he’s a schmuck.
Iris As a matter of fact, he is… a huge schmuck. How did you know?
Arthur Abbott He let you go. This is not a hard one to figure out. Iris, in the movies we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason you are behaving like the best friend.
Iris You’re so right. You’re supposed to be the leading lady of your own life, for god’s sake! Arthur, I’ve been going to a therapist for three years, and she’s never explained anything to me that well. That was brilliant. Brutal, but brilliant.

I, like Iris, had been playing a supporting role. The lead wasn’t wrestled away from me, I abandoned it! The reason I’m explaining all of this is because this chapter, titled “Week 9: Recovering a Sense of Self-Protection” is fascinating to me because the protection she focuses on is mostly protection FROM ourselves. This is not protection from the roaming villains of the world; it’s protection from the villain within. 

Julia Cameron starts out by explaining that when we start feeling the creativity, the god-energy flowing through us, it can be scary. When we are in alignment with this power, there is no better feeling in the world. But when we resist it, either “…what that energy might show us or where it might take us, we often experience a shaky, out-of-control feeling.” (Cameron, 163) So it’s natural to put on the brakes, and the way we put on the creative breaks is to use blocks. 

Blocks come in a myriad of forms. Basically anything that has sprung up with an alcoholics anonymous type of group in the past 30 years, could qualify as a block. Food, alcohol, drugs, sex, obsessions, even work—these are all blocks we use to keep ourselves from staying in the flow of creativity. Cameron explains, “ As the shaky feeling comes over them that they are going too fast and to God knows where, that they are about to fly apart, these people reach for food.” Or any of the other things I just listed. Busy, busy, busy—we want to stay busy or numb to avoid the real work of living a creative life. 

I’ve dealt with all of the blocks I named above in the past five years. When Matthew and I first separated, it was food. For the first time since I was 20, I was able to buy whatever kind of food I wanted, whenever I wanted it. And at first, it wasn’t elaborate meals I craved. I just wanted to get a hamburger that wasn’t on the dollar menu (something that was all but forbidden during my married life). What started out as freedom of fast food choices, turned into emotional numbing because I was also going through the pain of separation and the start of divorce. 

I put the brakes on that because I was gaining weight, and I thought, “I cannot be getting divorced and fat at the same time!” I wasn’t fat, but I was bigger than I wanted to be. So I started doing this meal plan that my sister had lost a bunch of weight with. I cut out carbs nearly completely, putting my body into ketosis, but I continued to exercise so I had frequent headaches, and I lost weight, at first intentionally and then unintentionally. At my skinniest, I got down to 117lb (a weight I hadn’t seen since high school). My body was lean and muscular, but the obsessive thoughts were running wild about food and everything else. I was like a scared, starving ally cat. 

At that point my block switched from food to obsessions. I was obsessed with eating the “right” foods, cutting carbs and calories. I was obsessed with fears about being alone forever in the world, so my mind grabbed onto men in my sphere who seemed like the might prevent that problem. Rather than putting my mental energy into the creative flow, the cogs of my mind spun constantly about how to solve the fear of feeling lonely. The obsessions overtook me. My brain became untenable. 

It was from this desperate place, I started to write. I started journaling on my laptop because the obsessive thoughts came so fast, to handwrite them would have felt like army crawling in a 100-meter dash. My fingers flew over the keys in a sort of cathartic purging. It provided some relief, and it was a move in a healthier direction because I was putting that anxiety into something that felt closer to creativity. 

During that first year of writing, my rift with the LDS (Mormon) church began to materialize. Writing was showing me truer and deeper parts of myself, and my relationship to god began to change. This produced a whole ton of anxiety on its own and eventually I started to experiment with alcohol, just occasionally on an evening or a weekend. I was sorting through a lot on my morning pages but sometimes by the end of the day, I just needed to shut it all down and relax. Alcohol in and of itself was never a problem for me, but over time (add a global pandemic to the mix) a glass of wine in the evening to unwind became more of a habit than a treat.

The wine made it easier to sit on the couch and watch an hour of TV, something I have never been good at. But the block to creativity happened because on difficult nights, instead of reaching for my journal or laptop to write, I poured myself a glass and poured myself into an episode of Ozark. 

At the same time this was going on, I was trying to sort out dating and love relationships, also during a pandemic which made the stakes even higher than normal. My desire for sex and relationships ebbed and flowed, but the main barrier to my creativity was this story I had in my head that I needed a relationship first, before other things in my life could move forward. That story felt very true to me, and I did a lot of fruitless searching, fruitless because it was coming from a place of fear rather than a place of love. Sex gave me a way of inhabiting my body more fully but it also became a sort of distraction at times. I used sex, and the search for sexual partners, to stay blocked creatively. 

“The minute a creative thought raises its head, it is lopped off by the obsession, which blocks fear and prevents risk.”

Julia Cameron

I hope by explaining how I’ve come across these blocks makes your blocks feel less shameful to you. I am a pretty mentally healthy, addiction-free person by modern psychiatric standards. That being said, I’m not immune to any of this. I’ve participated in these blocks consciously and unconsciously. I’ve vehemently defended them to myself at times, and other times I’ve beaten myself up over them with the very judgmental, shamey voice that lives in my head. 

The thing that’s helped is watching the interplay with all of this, primarily through morning pages, practicing yoga and taking long walks. I have earned some confidence in myself. It’s not the false confidence of feeling infallible, but the confidence of knowing my weak points and watching them with love and care. Julia Cameron’s book has helped me with this. 

She gently reminds me that I block myself—and not just blocking the creation of my art but the creation of my most beautiful life.  “Now, note carefully that food, work, and sex are all good in themselves. It is the abuse of them that makes them creativity issues. Knowing yourself as an artist means acknowledging which of these you abuse when you want to block yourself. If creativity is like a burst of the universe’s breath through the straw that is each of us, we pinch that straw whenever we pick up one of our blocks. We slow down our flow. And we do it on purpose.” (Cameron, 164)

So which block do you defend most vehemently? Which one makes you angry to consider giving up? If you’re wondering if something is a problem, it probably is. 

“The object of all this blocking is to alleviate fear. We turn to our drug of choice to block our creativity whenever we experience the anxiety of our inner emptiness. It is always fear—often disguised but always there—that leads us into grabbing for a block.” (Cameron, 165)

The blocks represent mini creative U-turns, and just like we talked about last week, it takes compassion and grace to overcome them. “Blocking is essentially an issue of faith. Rather than trust our intuition, our talent, our skill, our desire, we fear where our creator is taking us with this creativity….Blocked, we know who and what we are: unhappy people. Unblocked, we may be something much more threatening—happy.” (Cameron, 165)

I used different creative blocks when I was married, but the most massive one was giving away my power. If I wasn’t running the show, then I wasn’t responsible for my happiness or lack thereof. It’s fascinating to me that I responded this way, because I have such a strong, internal locus of control. I think it was the combination of the culture I was raised in, the one I married into and the tumors that threatened my life at the juncture of those two worlds that caused me to abandon my post (the one where I feel a strong sense of responsibility for the creation of my life.)

The unconscious wants truth. It ceases to speak to those who want something else more than truth.

Adrienne Rich

Changing gears, Cameron devotes a whole section to workaholism. I think this gets its own devoted space because workaholism is the sacred cow in our culture. “The phrase I’m working has a certain unassailable air of goodness and duty to it. The truth is, we are very often working to avoid ourselves, our spouses, our real feelings.” (Cameron, 166) Work has always been a safe space for me. I’m really thankful for that because it gave me a place to hold onto myself during my married years when homelife was obliterating me. So I’ve had to do a lot of work around this too. 

I’ve mentioned before that the morning pages are a very locked-in habit for me, but the artist dates are much more difficult. It’s because play, for the sake of play, for only my own sake is hard. Cameron writes, “For most blocked creatives, fun is something they avoid almost as assiduously as their creativity. Why? Fun leads to creativity. It leads to rebellion. It leads to feeling our own power and that is scary.” (Cameron, 166) She gives a list of questions through which you can explore your relationship to workaholism and then she encourages us to set boundaries with ourselves around work.

Finally, she talks about creative drought, fame and competition. I am grouping them together because I have felt how focus on popularity and competition can lead to creative drought. Drought can happen because we have been spread too thin, either by our own doing or the circumstances of life. I’ve been through droughts. If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ve probably noticed there have been months when I’ve posted nothing at all. These were the “long, airless seasons of doubt that [made me] grow, [gave me] compassion, and [eventually let me] blossom as unexpectedly as the desert with sudden flowers.” (Cameron, 170). 

I’ve been thankful, during these times, to have alternative creative outlets. Creativity begets creativity. So in these sometimes long seasons, I have mustered what creative energy I could and put it into playing the piano and singing or making visual art or writing silly poetry. A lot of times it felt like a forced march through a desert. I did it because I believed there was some relief over the next hill and if I only kept moving, I might find it eventually. So much antidote, so much cure, is found in movement and the willingness to simply keep moving. 

Related to fame, I’ve learned I don’t know what will resonate with people. When I have posted little, odd things I’ve written or made while feeling very blocked, sometimes I inadvertently strike gold. I am not good a predicting what people will like! And when I’ve tried to hustle for internet-approval, I end up feeling shabby and gross. Maybe this is why Cameron wrote, “Fame is really a shortcut for self-approval. Try approving of yourself just as you are—and spoiling yourself rotten with small kid’s pleasures.” (Cameron, 172) The same goes for competition, which essentially sets us on a path of asking the wrong questions, thereby getting the wrong answers. 

Reminder: Originality needs a point of origin. You are the point of origin. Start there.

Every week these chapters feel more and more like a fire hose. I hope you are getting some sips of water from the blast. Please send me your questions and comments! And thank you for hanging with me through this! 

Sat nam! Now I’m gonna go soak up some sun!