“Think of your talent as a young and skittish horse that you are bringing along. This horse is very talented but it is also young, nervous, and inexperienced. It will make mistakes, be frightened by obstacles it hasn’t seen before. It may even bolt, try to throw you off, feign lameness. Your job, as the creative jockey, is to keep your horse moving forward and to coax it into finishing the course.” –Julia Cameron
For years I’ve been proudly describing myself as a “laissez faire” parent and teacher. Friend. Spouse. “A policy or attitude of letting things take their own course, without interfering.” I do it in my writing life, too, and I’ve written about it before. I’m not that unusual — most of us do our very best in our lives to avoid confrontations. But a story without confrontations would not be a story. And a life without confrontations? Hmm. Who wants to stay on the ocean floor, a spineless mass of jelly?
Why is it so hard for me to set boundaries and enforce them with my daughters? (Why do I think silence is a good strategy when Emma and I don’t agree on how she ought to be spending her time?)
Why am I not submitting my finished stories and poetry? (Why am I so reluctant to call any of it “finished”?)
Part of this insight, I can chalk up to my daughter Pearl. After taking some time off from college classes, after spending last quarter (finally enrolled again) taking choir and yoga, this quarter she enrolled in Math 90 and in — Journalism.
Journalism? I was shocked. She explained that all the English 102 classes were filled, and that journalism was equivalent, so why not?
I was shocked because, years ago, I wanted to take a journalism class, and I was afraid to. I didn’t label it as fear. I found other ways to rationalize not registering for it. But when it comes right down to it, I know that the thought of writing for a college newspaper, or at least submitting articles for a college newspaper (being rejected!), writing under deadline, interviewing complete strangers — all of that just wigged me out.
Not Pearl. She decided to write her first article about President Obama’s State-of-the-Union idea to make two years of community college education free. She interviewed a classmate. She did an email interview with her favorite teacher. She read the State of the Union address (out loud, to me!), and she did some research via the college website on number of students enrolled, number already receiving financial aid, etc.; and she wrote the article! I sat up with her (Sunday night, until 1 a.m.) when she told me she needed moral support (she ASKED for moral support!). I even typed it for her. She submitted it to her journalism teacher, and (as required) to the Edmonds Community College student newspaper. We went to bed. No big deal.
This week she has to write another article. We had a homework date last night (Emma, too), and Pearl went back to the college website, picked out the blood drive scheduled for next week, and wrote a list of who she might interview. And, for the day, she was done. On to math homework.
Okay, okay, I know that from the outside it looks like I get a lot done. But there are also a lot of things I avoid. Why do I avoid them? Why do I make excuses (too busy, too old, must watch 3 episodes of The Blacklist, not polished enough yet, not good enough yet…)? Today I realized that it is just fear.
Among the most helpful exercises in The Artist’s Way, for me, has been simply writing lists. Have you ever had that experience of learning a new word–kerfuffle–and then suddenly seeing it everywhere? The word existed before you were conscious of it. Presumably, it did not suddenly begin appearing everywhere. It’s just that it has now become visible to you. That’s what making lists does for me. Things that previously resided in an amorphous heap titled, “stuff that makes me nervous,” become visible.
If I had the money I would ______________________________.
If I had the time I would __________________________.
If I weren’t afraid I would _____________________________.
10 X each.
Now, pick one thing (just one!) and do it. If that’s too difficult, pick one aspect of one thing and do it.
What are you afraid of?
The last time I worked my way through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, I had three young children (the twins were only 7 or 8; Emma was a toddler!), and I was only recently tenured at Everett Community College. I frequently taught an extra class at the college, and I was able to work in our Writing Center for a scant one quarter per year; I was a College in the High School Mentor, and I was a Campfire Girls co-leader. (I get a little weary just thinking about everything I was trying to do.)
Admittedly, it was summer and I wasn’t teaching. Despite being plenty busy with my kids, I woke early, every day, and I wrote my morning pages faithfully. The rest of each day was a bit of a blur, and if I did the exercises, they were incorporated into my morning pages. The artist dates? With those I really, really, really went into serious avoidance mode. Julia Cameron couldn’t possibly understand how busy I was. What nerve to insist on a solo, soul-nurturing venture once each week!
When I first proposed doing The Artist’s Way this winter I knew that I was going to take the artist dates seriously. My inner-critic is having a free-for-all with this. After all, as my husband is fond of pointing out, I take plenty of time for myself–not just putting my writing at the top of my to-do list every day, but also sneaking off to drink lattes and read novels. I’ve never been good at ducking out on my friends, especially the ones who like lattes…or wine…and novels. But Julia doesn’t count one’s work as a date; she doesn’t count a latte and 50 pages of a novel or even a heart-to-heart talk with a girlfriend as an artist date. This is what she says:
An artist date is a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist. In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers. You do not take anyone on this artist date but you and your inner artist, a.k.a. your creative child. That means no lovers, friends, spouses, children–no taggers-on of any stripe…. (18)
She compares the artist date to the date-night a married-with-children couple might commit to. She also stipulates that the artist date should not be something you are already comfortable with. In her video on the topic, she insists that the artist date should take you out of your comfort level. (By the way, I think that if you take a watercolor class for your date, you’re allowed other students, you’re allowed an instructor. That’s how I allowed for the people who facilitated my date this week. But this rule is also why, when my daughters wanted to join me, I said “No, sorry, can’t. It’ s an artist’s date.”)
Back in December, when we first put our Artist’s Way group together, I brainstormed a list of possible artist dates; I asked the other members of the group for feedback; I asked for suggestions here at the blog. And I promised that one of my Artist Dates would involve riding a horse. Yesterday, thanks to poet Jennifer Bullis, and despite all kinds of attempts (on my part) to wriggle out of it, I rode a horse.
It wasn’t like riding the proverbial bicycle (that one you never forget how to ride). But when my posture and ability to stay seated on Brownie’s lovely back during a trot seemed, to me, deplorable, Barb and Jennifer smiled and encouraged me. “You have to keep riding every day to get the hang of it, and every horse is different. Try to ride the same horse every day, at least at first.”
It was advice that sounded uncannily like what I tell my friends who come to me for encouragement about writing. Just keep writing. Write a little every day. Choose one project and keep at it, just see what will happen.
Almost a year ago I went out in the rain and wind to find a labyrinth near the retreat center where I was staying. I didn’t find it, but I hiked up the hill into old-growth timber, dipped my hands into a stream, and, generally, communed with nature. Nice. Then, on the way back to the retreat center, I slipped on the lawn, fell down, and broke my ankle in two places. Stumbling up, to my feet again (ouch!), I saw the labyrinth marked out with stones, just a stone’s throw behind the buildings. Needless to say, I limped back inside. No labyrinth that day.
Earlier this week, my friend Carla told me about her Artist-Date visit to a labyrinth. I remembered that, near my mom’s home in Allyn, there is a little sign that says, “Labyrinth Open.” Yesterday, inspired by Carla, and disheartened by a not very positive visit with Mom, I decided to investigate. Interesting how I have seen this sign every time I’ve visited Mom in the last four months, but it took a little prompting before it occurred to me that I might walk it.
The parking lot at St. Hugh’s Episcopal Church was empty, and a sign on the office door to the side said “Closed.” I felt like I was trespassing, but there was that “Labyrinth Open” sign. And my Artist’s Date is supposed to get me out of my comfort zone–which made feeling uncomfortable a good thing, right? (And then the whole not irrelevant history with the broken ankle.) So I got out of my car and started walking around the church. I found the memorial garden and a memorial bench. I didn’t see a labyrinth. I found an information board and a brochure that told about the labyrinth and the St. Hugh’s congregation’s tradition of a “blessing bowl” full of stones, and an invitation to take away a stone. Still, no labyrinth.
I expected something obvious, lavender hedges maybe or raised stones. Maybe I expected something like a hero’s journey with obstacles, maybe stations of the cross. Instead I found only this flat patio with a creche at the center. As I hiked around the perimeter, investigating, however, I began to see that the colors of the patio stones formed a spiral pattern. I stepped onto the outer path and I began to walk.
I thought about Mom as I walked, my mother who no longer walks. I gave thanks for Mom’s long life and many blessings, and I gave thanks for my healed ankle. The blessing bowl full of stones sat beside the path and I picked out a white stone and put it in my pocket. When I had walked all the way to the center of the labyrinth, I spent a moment looking up, at the view of Hood Canal, and then I walked back through the spiral and out of the labyrinth. And that was that. My Artist’s Date.
Certain novels are like this, quiet, unobtrusive, little journeys that can seem almost pointless, except to the discerning reader, that perfect reader (as Hawthorne defined him or her in one of his prefaces).
We are, all of us (writing, or not writing) on a path. Once in a while we open our eyes and see the path.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back I can see that I used my family and my jobs and everything else I could come up with as excuses. I kept myself ridiculously busy because I was afraid if I had any extra time, I might have to look at the fact that I’d chickened out on living the life I was born to live.” -Claire Cook
A friend read this aloud to me recently. When she sent me the link to where she had found it, I was delighted to see that its author is Rachel Naomi Remen, author of Kitchen Table Wisdom.
It appears on the website, Living Life Fully.
Some of the oldest and most delightful written words in the English language are the collective nouns dating from medieval times used to describe groups of birds and beasts. Many of these go back five hundred years or more, and lists of them appeared as early as 1440 in some of the first books printed in English. These words frequently offer an insight into the nature of the animals or birds they describe. Sometimes this is factual and sometimes poetic. Occasionally it is profound: a pride of lions, a party of jays, an ostentation of peacocks, an exaltation of larks, a gaggle of geese, a charm of finches, a bed of clams, a school of fish, a cloud of gnats, and a parliament of owls are some examples. Over time, these sorts of words have been extended to other things as well. One of my favorites is pearls of wisdom.
An oyster is soft, tender, and vulnerable. Without the sanctuary of its shell it could not survive. But oysters must open their shells in order to “breathe” water. Sometimes while an oyster is breathing, a grain of sand will enter its shell and become a part of its life from then on.
Such grains of sand cause pain, but an oyster does not alter its soft nature because of this. It does not become hard and leathery in order not to feel. It continues to entrust itself to the ocean, to open and breathe in order to live. But it does respond.
Slowly and patiently, the oyster wraps the grain of sand in thin translucent layers until, over time, it has created something of great value in the place where it was most vulnerable to its pain. A pearl might be thought of as an oyster’s response to its suffering. Not every oyster can do this. Oysters that do are far more valuable to people than oysters that do not.
Sand is a way of life for an oyster. If you are soft and tender and must live on the sandy floor of the ocean, making pearls becomes a necessity if you are to live well.
Disappointment and loss are a part of every life. Many times we can put such things behind us and get on with the rest of our lives. But not everything is amenable to this approach. Some things are too big or too deep to do this, and we will have to leave important parts of ourselves behind if we treat them in this way. These are the places where wisdom begins to grow in us. It begins with suffering that we do not avoid or rationalize or put behind us. It starts with the realization that our loss, whatever it is, has become a part of us and has altered our lives so profoundly that we cannot go back to the way it was before.
Something in us can transform such suffering into wisdom. The process of turning pain into wisdom often looks like a sorting process. First we experience everything. Then one by one we let things go, the anger, the blame, the sense of injustice, and finally even the pain itself, until all we have left is a deeper sense of the value of life and a greater capacity to live it.