Writer and editor

Why, 25 Years Later, this Self-Help Manual Remains Essential Reading

Added on by Hattie Crisell.

First published by The Pool on 28 September 2016

Never – despite one friend’s enthusiastic championing of Why Men Marry Bitches – have I heard as much about a self-help book as I’ve heard about Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. It’s the 1991 manual that has spent 25 years popping up in conversations between creatives and wannabe creatives of all types; it’s the printed version of a cheerleading squad, which promises to help anybody – be they a sculptor or a pharmacist by trade – to unleash their inner artist. 

I bought my copy back in 2013, when an illustrator friend suggested that it might help me overcome a crisis of confidence in my writing. But, when the book arrived, I looked at it and then put it away – the very first page talked about “engaging the Great Creator in discovering and recovering our creative powers”. I don’t believe in God and I wasn’t willing to believe in Cameron’s new-age philosophies. It was three years later (this year, in fact), when another friend – a screenwriter – recommended it, that I finally gave in. “It can take some getting used to,” he conceded, but claimed it had allowed him to write more each day, while somehow feeling that the whole thing was less work.

At the time, I was exceptionally frustrated with myself. For a long time, I’d been kicking around an idea for a book I’d like to write and had made almost zero progress, mainly because of a sort of childish, fidgety panic that seized me every time I thought about it. Occasionally, I would sit down and write a few paragraphs, then ignore them for several months. I was getting nowhere.

So, I decided to give The Artist’s Way a try. I took it on holiday to India in April, thinking the change of pace would help me stick with something new. It did. It took me 17 weeks to finish the 12-week course inside the book, but I completed it just over a month ago – and it’s the best thing I’ve done for myself in years.

At the heart of Cameron’s method are two important routines. First of all, you write your “morning pages” every day – three pages of a freeform, unedited journal, before you do anything else. This is supposed to clear your head and clarify your thoughts. Secondly, you take yourself on an “artist’s date” once a week, “filling the well” of your own creative imagination with a trip to a gallery, a garden, a dance class or whatever else you fancy. Other than that, you follow Cameron as she breaks down, week by week, the various obstacles that might be stopping you from doing what you want: shame about your ambitions; guilt about spending your time on yourself; anxiety about money.

For some, The Artist’s Way might be too cuddly and navel-gazing. Cameron tells you to see your inner artist as a child who needs to be shielded and indulged, and hands out exercises that sometimes made me roll my eyes: “Call a friend who treats you like a really good and bright person who can accomplish things.” But the truth is her reassurances get under your skin – she is your supportive hippie aunt, who thinks you can do anything you set your mind to, if you’re only kind to yourself. And her method works – or it has for me. 

Week nine of the course was my turning point – that’s when Cameron asks you to list the fears you have in connection with the project you want to pursue. My list went on for pages, flowing out at an alarming speed. I was surprised by the worries that were holding me back, many of which I’d never acknowledged to myself. “The need to be a great artist makes it hard to be an artist,” she says. “The need to produce a great work of art makes it hard to produce any art at all … Do not call procrastination laziness. Call it fear.” 

One morning, like a dam breaking, I found myself making a leap forward in my work without any effort at all. I felt elated. It was no miracle cure, but it gave me some of the momentum I’d been lacking. In my personal life, good things have changed, too. I’ve cleared out a huge amount of unloved stuff from my home, bought a shredder and dispensed with stacks of outdated paperwork, some of which had been gathering dust for more than a decade. I’ve started hatching plans for great adventures. My morning pages have refocused me – I feel like I’ve "re-found" myself.

As for the Great Creator – Cameron’s term for a “creative energy” bigger than us – I’m still cynical. But her response to cynicism, if I can paraphrase, is “Why not just try and believe me, and see what happens?” You can apply the same argument to The Artist’s Way as a whole: yes, it’s self-indulgent, it’s ripe with eye-rolling opportunities and maybe it won’t work for you – but there’s a reason why it’s still being recommended, 25 years later. I tried it and it helped a lot.

The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron is published by Pan Macmillan.