I am addicted to self-help books. They appeal to me in the way that, say, a
tub of Cool Whip or a box of Oreos does: They're sweet, they're deceptively
filling and no one has to know. The notion that I can fix any problem
(organize a bookshelf, mend a love relationship, grieve over a death), even
the ones that have stumped philosophers for centuries, with a little 10-step
how-to is endlessly appealing.
Self-help books for writers usually live incongruously near "The Elements of
Style" and "The Chicago Manual of Style" in the reference sections of
bookstores. Often, while performing a humble writing task, such as searching
in "Writer's Marketplace" for possible publishers for a story, I get snagged
by a title like Julia Cameron's "The Right to Write: An Invitation and
Initiation Into the Writing Life." Even more salacious titles hover nearby
-- "Body Trauma: A Writer's Guide to Wounds and Injuries" and "The Romance
Writer's Phrase Book" ("Her accusing voice stabbed the air"). Then there's
my favorite, "Rip-Off: A Writer's Guide to Crimes of Deception," in which we
get "The Ten-Step Program to Plotting a Con." At last, practical advice for
My secret obsession with self-help books for writers began when I was
working as a clerk in the bookstore at the Harvard Co-op. While I was
supposed to be stacking mountains of Plato, I furtively consumed Brenda
Ueland's "If You Want to Write." I was writing a novel, and I needed
inspiration. Later, as a copy editor at a publishing house, I would pretend
to look for specks of dirt on a reprint while really reading Ralph Keyes'
"The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear." I noticed that copies of
the book disappeared quickly from the giveaway piles, but I never saw anyone
else reading it.
I soon realized that I wouldn't be picked out as a genius for my rewrites of
jacket copy, so I enrolled in New York University's MFA program, which was
to prove disastrous for my writing. The university had promised to provide a
mentor each semester, but in reality the advising wasn't adequate, and my
peers seemed allergic to discussing the emotional aspects of writing. It got
to the point where I was already rehearsing the structural parts of a good
story (plot, conflict, beginning, middle, end) before I had gotten down a
single word. I was so blocked that I considered going back to my life as an
embittered copy editor on the cutting edge when it comes to discussing the
difference between "further" and "farther."
If I happened to be whining in a particularly annoying pitch, my peers at
NYU would recommend Anne
Lamott's "Bird by Bird," but no one would admit to following its advice.
When I finally did break down and buy a writers' self-help book, it was at a
liquidation sale at the local mall. I shelled out 10 bucks for "The Artist's
Way" by Julia Cameron. How did I manage to hold out against my little
addiction for so long? As Cameron would say, I was being stingy with my
Cameron's book and its philosophy have become hard for any artist to ignore
-- "The Artist's Way" had sold more than 1.4 million copies as of October
1999. There are three follow-up books, "The Vein of Gold," "The Right to
Write" and "The Artist's Way at Work: Riding the Dragon," a 12-week program
for creativity in the workplace, as well as companion journals, audiotapes
and mood music. And it seems everyone has read Lamott's "Bird by Bird." One
of my colleagues keeps a blank 1-inch frame on her desk. She explained,
compressing a small volume of air between her hands, that Lamott recommends
we open up just that much space for creativity each day.
It is now several months since I bought TAW (as "The Artist's Way" is
referred to by its online devotees -- there are 11 communities working
through Cameron's books on eGroups.com), and I have filled six legal pads
with MPs, or Morning Pages, which are three pages of daily free writing. And
I (sometimes) go on ADs, or Artist Dates, weekly "quality time" in the form
of excursions taken with the "Inner Artist, a.k.a. your creative child," and
absolutely no one else. An AD might be "a sortie out to a strange church to
hear gospel music, to an ethnic neighborhood to taste foreign sights and
sounds ... or your artist might like bowling ... In order to have a real
relationship with our creativity, we must take the time and care to
cultivate it. Our creativity will use this time to confront us, to confide
in us, to bond with us, and to plan." I found out that my Inner Artist
wanted to eat cookies, not plan.
I also learned from Cameron that had I remained a copy editor, I would be a
repressed writer with a "shadow career." I feel reinvigorated, and I am
writing again. I have experienced synchronicity ("answered prayers" for the
artist) in the form of reconnections with two friends and a serendipitous
meeting with a mentor I first met at a writers' workshop.
Many of the "Artist's Way" exercises have given me new and exciting ideas
for procrastination, an essential survival skill for a writer. I made lists
of my goals, my dreams! Then I underlined the important ones with my new
disposable purple fountain pen. I collaged, making my floor a pool of glossy
magazine pages. It was easy to indulge my Inner Artist in the calculatedly
therapeutic atmosphere of the local Borders Books, where I drank frothy
cappuccinos and ate carrot cake. I collected stones, pine cones, magnolia
cones and other unidentifiable pods. I even underwent an entire week of
reading deprivation, recommended by Cameron: "For most blocked creatives,
reading is an addiction. We gobble the words of others rather than cook up
something of our own." (Reading Cameron's book was permitted.)
I rediscovered how easy and productive this creativity thing can be. There
are "Life Pies" to chart, highlighters to buy, T-shirts to paint! Franz
Kafka, poor guy -- he was just stuck in a shame spiral. If only he had had
the wisdom of Lamott, who tells us how to get rid of that pesky critical
inner voice: "Isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a
mouse. Pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar." Voilà!
I discovered that, more than anything, my Inner Artist wanted a dog. So I
spent hours on the Internet and in libraries researching breeds. I visited
shelters, and then I went home to write. What glorious hours! And now, the
dog takes up scads of time and gives me an excellent excuse for not writing.
I go for walks (highly recommended in "The Vein of Gold" and in Natalie
Goldberg's "Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within" because
"writing is physical") with the dog. Don't get me wrong, I love my dog. Only
he has helped my psyche, not my writing.
So I am stuck in TAW's Week 9, "Recovering a Sense of Compassion." I do not
feel compassionate. I feel skeptical. Cameron warns, "Remember that your
Skeptic is the dragon at the gate." But I harbor warm feelings for my Inner
Skeptic. My dragon has helped me circumvent a bind or two; I suspect she may
even be guarding my Inner Artist.
As much as I've gained from "The Artist's Way," I believe there are valid
reasons to take it, and other writers' self-help books, with a grain of
salt. At the beginning, Cameron helpfully reminds us that artists do not
have to be "drunk, crazy, unhappy" or "doomed." An important point. But "The
Artist's Way" bears a strong resemblance to recovery programs like
Alcoholics Anonymous. During their 12-week recovery, artists are instructed
to recite affirmations and sign a contract committing to the program.
Cameron says all artists are creatively blocked to some extent; we are all
addicted to a deadly combination of low self-esteem and egotism, to varying
degrees. And one of Cameron's main tenets is: "Your artist is a child."
Another tenet is: "The universe falls in with worthy plans and most
especially with festive and expansive ones." So I initially took it as a
sign when I recently received an invitation to a retreat with Emily Hanlon
at Yelapa, Mexico. Hanlon promised: "At Casa Milagros, in a circle of women,
our Inner Writers will fly unfettered." We would, Hanlon went on to explain,
lead the simple life (for a certain fee) and call ourselves the Clan of the
Turtleweavers. The prospect of warm weather appealed to my Inner Beach Bum.
Then I thought about the constituency and winced. Assuredly, short stories
will happen at Casa Milagros, but they will not be the ones written by the
Admittedly, the Turtleweavers are at the far end of the spectrum when it
comes to writing self-help. Many self-help books for writers continue to
change lives for the better. Workshops are full because of these books --
and, consequently, writers are in business. But without discernment, the
support that groups like the Turtleweavers dole out is blind. There has to
be trust, yes. But there also has to be a gimlet eye.
What bothers me is not the emphasis that Cameron, Goldberg and Lamott place
on childhood or intuition, but their prohibition against reading and
critical thought -- in short, judgment. I believe that artists need both
creativity and judgment. True, Goldberg advises us to "read a lot," but then
she adds, "Don't think too much." "Perfectionism is the voice of the enemy,"
Lamott writes. But perfectionism, while crippling in the extreme, is often
the hallmark of great writers. (Raymond Carver, for example, refused to
publish anything he hadn't polished to a luster.) Perfectionism can be seen,
in another light, as the Inner Artist demanding the best for him- or
herself. When we get rid of the (very human) search for perfection, we
relinquish our lives as artists.
It's true that in jettisoning judgment, we may open up creative vistas,
which, however small, are important. But I've come to believe that the
growing presence of books like Goldberg's and Lamott's signals not a
creative resurgence but cries for help from a populace wearied by toeing the
bottom line and starving for any infusion of creativity. These self-help
books do get people to use writing as a step toward a better, more creative
life. What they don't do is help people make writing a long-term end in
itself, not merely a short-term means. By discouraging artists' judgmental
faculties, these self-help guides may actually be crippling our ability to
say to the world: We want more respect, more funding, more recognition.
"The Artist's Way," more than the other books reviewed here, treats writing
as art rather than as psychology. I give Cameron credit for encouraging
artists to take concrete, self-actualizing steps in the world. "The Artist's
Way" distinguishes between helpful and hurtful criticism: "As artists, we
must learn to be very self-protective ... does this mean no criticism? No.
It means learning where and when to seek out right criticism." Cameron adds,
"Creativity is the only cure for criticism."
All true. But we also need our own inner critic who will reach higher for us
when our art is rejected or hackneyed or not honest. Judgment -- the
crucible of truth -- can inspire when all else fails. It does this by
gauging our progress, seeing how far we have come and preparing us for an
artistically relevant future. But when the indulged Inner Artist, given
total reign, is bawling away, and there is only a lollipop, or a picture of
ourselves at age 5 mooning around in the prison of our parents' houses, and
our dragons have turned tail, then we are at the mercy of the world and its
famous mistakes regarding artists.
I was losing steam in my recovery, and I needed something, fast. So what a
delight when -- by accident? synchronicity? -- I picked up, as if in a
dream, Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles." I couldn't put it down. I
loved the unabashedly dramatic plotline, the indulgent pages describing the
English countryside and the complexity of Hardy's social commentary.
I knew then what had been missing from my recovery. The act of reading calls
forth the intuitive and the critical faculties at once. Reading inspires
with a lasting flame, but Cameron, Goldberg and Lamott barely give it a
mention. (Cameron's reading deprivation discourages it.) So the next time I
need to escape from the bite, the darkness, that writers feel, you will
probably find me in my local Borders Books dunking biscotti and indulging in
the advice of the Inner Artists. But I will keep close at hand the words of
the writers who have gone before and all their time-tested, meandering,
skeptical, crabby, obscure, fascinating wisdom.