Since it first appeared in 1992, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way has helped countless people recover their creative potential.
It consists of 12 weeks of personal archaeology and play—some exercises seeming silly, embarrassing, childish, and pointless. I have begun this programme a few times, but have never progressed beyond week three.
When I read back over my scribblings, I find them self-indulgent, self-pitying, trite. Not really real. I don’t feel comfortable reading the words of my past self. They ring false.
Yet here I am, embarking on yet another attempt. Why?
Well, one reason is that I lent the book to a friend. She loved it, so we decided to work the programme together. Another is that I regarded my dismal drop-out rate as a personal failure, rather than a reflection on Julia Cameron’s work.
Most importantly, I have cancer now.
While not at death’s door, I have a definite feeling that if I want to do it, the time is now. And this time, it’s different. Why?
“Working with this process, I see a certain amount of defiance and giddiness in the first few weeks. This entry stage is followed closely by explosive anger in the course’s midsection. The anger is followed by grief, then alternating waves of resistance and hope. This peaks-and-valleys phase of growth becomes a series of expansions and contractions, a birthing process in which students experience intense elation and defensive skepticism.”
I have never felt anything of these emotions in my previous attempts—hence, perhaps, my discomfort reading over the invented ramblings of my false self. Imagine my astonishment, then, as this time around I found rage pouring onto my page. Cameron prescribes a tool she calls “morning pages,” which must be done every day, first thing in the morning. I have used them intermittently since I first read the book back in the 90s. Whenever I persevere for any length of time, magic happens.
This time, that magic is rage. Real, visceral rage that floods my whole body. I felt the tears come as I wrote my morning pages, even as early as week two.
So what has changed?
I think it’s cancer’s gift to me. I wrote a book about living with cancer. I believed I had worked through the necessity of creating a false self, and was now putting my real self out into the world. I believed I had recovered my personal authenticity and made peace with my demons. These, I thought, were the lessons that cancer brought in its sh*tty wake.
But I still have cancer. Why?
I believe that my cancer will quietly leave once I have learned all the lessons. Clearly there is more to discover. Revisiting The Artist’s Way, I think I have found it. Up until now, I have been dismantling the self that I had privately thought of as my acceptable self—that false construction who had nothing genuine about her at all. But I hadn’t addressed my past, and until I do, this real self I’ve come to love is only two-dimensional. Is this why cancer is sticking around?
My childhood was difficult. In order to cope with it, I shut off my ability to feel. I didn’t do this consciously, but at some point, I realised that I never felt anything at all. No matter what happened, I felt numb. This was when I began constructing my false self. I would decide what I thought I should feel about something, and then set about convincing myself and the world that these feelings were real. That’s why my previous attempts at The Artist’s Way felt so false—I made up stuff that seemed appropriate, and then squirmed, like a fly on a stick, when I reread it.
So I rejoiced when this rage appeared, unasked, on my page. I knew it was real, because I felt it in my body, and my tears wet the page as I wrote. I experienced, as never before, my childhood loneliness and neglect.
It started with a dream in which an ex-boyfriend made a speech about our instant connection, and how it would always be there. It was only a dream, but I woke up feeling validated. I knew, without a doubt, that what he said was true.
As a natural follow-on, I realised a simple truth that I have likely been avoiding for years. I matter. I’ll say that again. I matter! And because I matter, my words and actions matter too. This was where the rage came in. For all my six decades, I had never realised that I could matter to another person. Intellectually, I had made peace with the idea, but I’d never before felt the truth of it in my body. What a waste! How many addictions and crises could I have avoided if I only knew that I matter?
So that’s why, this time around, my Artist’s Way programme is different.
I’m approaching it in a spirit of exploration—I’m visiting the feelings, experiencing the rage, the sadness, the regret, and the fury, to see where they take me. I’m finally not afraid of feeling anything, because I know I’m strong. And I’m writing my truth in the exercises because I matter.
I don’t think anybody has ever suggested that The Artist’s Way is a cure for cancer. I’m not simplistic enough to think that in 12 weeks I’ll be cancer-free. But there is significant evidence that suggests cancer is a manifestation of unprocessed emotion. There is also evidence to suggest that love plays an enormous part in recovery. So it all comes down to that one thing.