A Book That Changed My Life: The Artist’s Way

Yesterday I wrote about two habits that help me feel like my true self: writing three pages every morning and taking myself on a date once a week. These tools (useful for anyone who wants to be their best self, not just those of us who consider ourselves artists) come from a book called The Artist’s Way. Reading The Artist’s Way helped wake me up to who I am, as I describe below.

What’s a book that changed your life? Do you want to write about it for my blog? Let me know.

On stage after The Artist’s Way helped me realize I had stories to tell (tons of ’em)

When I was in my 20s and feeling lost (as opposed to when I was in my 30s and feeling lost, or, earlier, when I was in my teens and feeling lost), I had the good fortune of taking a yoga class at Tranquil Space in Washington, DC, where, in the changing room, I saw a flyer for a book group that would save my life.

The group was dedicated to reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I think it was actually billed as a “creativity circle” or something; I’m baffled that I was open to something with a name like that, because I think of pre-Artist’s Way me as being pretty uptight about what constituted a worthwhile use of time — and a “creativity circle” wouldn’t typically have qualified. Thankfully, for reasons I can’t remember, I relaxed my standards and gave it a whirl.

…Thankfully. Because, as I said before, I truly believe that reading The Artist’s Way saved my life.

I remember reading the introduction to the book in the car on the way home from a skiing trip. (Do not misunderstand and think “oh, she’s the skiing type” — it was the first and last ski trip of my adult life. Not that I didn’t enjoy whooshing down the slopes; I just didn’t enjoy how impossible it was to regulate my body temp. Coat on: Too hot. SWEATY hot. Coat off: The chill that comes when your sweat is exposed to freezing temps. Coat back on. And round and round we go… NO THANK YOU, I CAN DRIVE MYSELF CRAZY WITHOUT PAYING FOR A SKI TRIP, THANK YOU VERY MUCH.)

But I digress.

I read the introduction in the car on the way home, and it was like Julia Cameron was reaching up out of the pages and pointing her finger at my heart and saying, “You! I’m talking about you!”

For those who don’t know, The Artist’s Way essentially describes a 12-step program for repressed artists — people who, for whatever reason, have convinced themselves not to make art, even though every fiber of their being is wired to thrive only when art-making occurs. Cameron argues that all of us are artists, actually — inherently creative in some fundamental way, whether we choose to express that through poetry or dance or putting little ears on pancakes.

Growing up, my favorite things were always creative writing and acting. But as I moved through college and then into the working world, these things took up less and less space in my life as I focused on (as I called it at the time, in a manner that infuriates me today): “the real world” (memo to my former self: IT’S ALL REAL). 

As I embarked on building a career, saddled with a sense of duty to give back and make the world a better place (I say “saddled” because this wasn’t joyful giving — not at the time), I arrived at the following unspoken logic:

1. I want to change the world.

2. Making art doesn’t change the world.

3. Therefore, I am not allowed to make art. It is not a valid use of my time.

For a smarty-pants, I was pretty dumb.

Funny how our education system conditions us to only take some of our gifts seriously. Art is an extracurriculur activity; it’s not where you focus.

But I wasn’t even pursuing art in any kind of extracurricular way. I was too tired. Looking back, I think, “Jesus, woman! What were you so tired about? You didn’t have a child! You were young! What the eff?”

Depression is funny like that. And without art-making in my life, I was seriously depressed.

I liked my job — loved it, even. I worked at PBS, where I got to help documentary filmmakers translate their important stories to the web, where they could reach people all over the world 24/7. I got to help shape PBS’s overall editorial strategy, playing a part in creating stories that would reach millions of people with essential information, educating them and inspiring them.

One day I was leading a workshop for filmmakers with very little understanding of online storytelling. At lunch, one of them said to me, “So, are you a producer?”

The question seemed so absurd.

“No,” I said.

“Really?!,” she replied. “Huh. You seem like someone who has a lot of stories to tell.”

I did have stories to tell. But I wasn’t telling my own stories — I was telling other people’s stories, convinced that they were the ones with the potential to create true change. 

Reading The Artist’s Way, I realized: making art might not always change the world — not in obvious and sweeping ways, at least — but NOT making art sure doesn’t change the world, either. 

So you might as well make it.

You might as well say what you have to say, share what you have to share, make what you feel like making. “Don’t ask what the world needs,” goes my favorite quote, ever, from an author and theologian named Howard Thurman. “Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.”

Writing makes me come alive.

Performing makes me come alive.

The Artist’s Way made me come alive — and for that, I am eternally grateful.

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