Two Tools and an Unexpected Story (Artist’s Way Week 12)

(This post, like the Artist’s Way program, is long and totally worth it, if you feel like putting in the effort. And the mushrooms will make sense at the end ;o)

I’ve officially completed all twelve weeks of Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way program for creative recovery. It feels good. Not exhilarating. Not incredible. Just simply good. To be honest, my last official day of the program was pretty anticlimactic, but not in a disappointing way. Yes, it’s good to acknowledge the progress I’ve made over the last twelve weeks, but really what I’ve learned is a new creative lifestyle and that’s not something that ends. I’m going to keep evolving as an artist. And I’ve already committed to continuing to use the two basic tools of the Artist’s Way, tools that I would like to share with you here and encourage you to try yourself, if you’re so inclined.

Mushroom 4Artist’s Way Tool #1: Morning Pages

Get yourself a notebook. Every morning when you wake up, write three pages. What should you write about? There is no “should.” Just write anything. Morning pages are a stream of consciousness exercise when you write down whatever comes to you in the moment. It might feel a bit like a diary or journal some mornings. Other days it will feel like a to do list as you gather your thoughts about the day ahead. Some days it will be a rant about the inconsiderate thing your partner did or didn’t do or the way your child has suddenly stopped eating anything that isn’t white. Other days it will be line after line of “This is stupid. I could still be sleeping. I have nothing to write about. This is stupid.” It really doesn’t matter what you write. Whatever you wind up writing is exactly what you need that morning, whether you realize it or not. Morning pages are not pretty. They are personal, sloppy and not to be reread or shared with anyone. Everyone can do them—not just those who consider themselves writers. They are a way to clean out the cobwebs before you tackle the day. They are worth waking up an extra half hour early so you can have time to yourself. They are exhilarating, excruciating, and illuminating. And they work.

Mushroom 2Artist’s Way Tool #2: Weekly Artist Date

Every week, plan an outing that feeds you artistically. The only rules are that you have to go alone and that it has to be fun. Artist dates are about making time just for you and even though you love your friends and kids, it’s not really a date with your artist self if you have to consider what other people want to do or how recently they’ve visited the restroom. The point is to make play time for your artistic wellbeing and to attend to your personal artistic needs and whims. Artist dates can be simple or extravagant. Here are a few that I’ve tried or hope to try soon:

  • Go for a walk.
  • Swing on the swings at a local playground.
  • Go for a long drive with the windows rolled down.
  • Go for a long drive and blast your favorite music and sing as loud as you want.
  • Go to a dollar store and browse. Buy your artist a present, like stickers or a bird feeder.
  • Go to a craft store and browse. Fabric and yarn are two things my artist loves to look at and touch.
  • Take yourself to a concert.
  • Go to a coffee shop and color while sipping your favorite beverage.
  • Visit your closest urban center and soak up the hubbub. Maybe try some new to you ethnic food.
  • Light some candles and take a bubble bath.
  • Dress up and go to a fast food place for a treat and a chance to people watch or doodle or both.

The options are limitless. The hardest part is making the time for your date and honoring it every single week. And believing that you deserve it. You do.

Those are the essentials. While I wholeheartedly recommend that you try the Artist’s Way course in its entirety someday, just experimenting with these two tools is a great start.

Mushroom 5

An Anecdote and a Story

Before I return to writing posts that are only indirectly connected to the Artist’s Way, I wanted to share one more anecdote with you.

On my final day of the Artist’s Way course, I had a bad morning.

It was our last day of vacation in the Adirondacks and my daughter had woken up before I had a chance to write my morning pages. It was too early to take her up to the main cabin where her aunts and uncles were still sleeping, so I wandered over to the neighbor’s house. They were away and had offered their beautiful screened-in porch for our use. I thought it would be a nice change of scenery for my toddler. But as soon as I got there, I realized how many breakable things were there. So instead of writing my morning pages or at least getting to quickly check my email and Facebook using the neighbor’s Wi-Fi, I spent a frustrating hour and a half saying, “No” and plucking fragile coasters and plants and bottles out of my daughter’s eager fingers.

Eventually, we’d both had it. I stomped back to our cabin, found my husband was awake and grouchily asked him to take over baby duty so I could finally write. He was more than willing, but the baby kept being grumpy and disruptive, so my morning pages were feeling fruitless and I was increasingly pissed off. So I raged in my morning pages about how infuriating it was not to have a tranquil writing experience on my last day of the Artist’s Way course in this beautiful place and how I might as well just write nonsense since I could barely concentrate through my frustration. So I wrote nonsense. And that nonsense turned into a story:

Once upon a time there was a painter. And she hated everything she painted.

Perfectionism pinched all of the play from her work. She could never get her colors just right. Her compositions were always a bit askew. And no matter how hard she tried, the proportions were always off. Day after day, she’d paint and rage. Her friends would stop by and compliment her work and she’d insist that it was rubbish and they’d sheepishly leave and she’d keep painting and keep hating it and her paintings would get messier and messier as the day went on until she was overloading her brushes and her paint strokes ran like tears down the canvas. Then she’d throw herself in bed and do it all over again the next day.

Until the morning she woke up trapped inside one of her paintings.

She rubbed her eyes with an effort, her elbows unaccustomed to the two-dimensionality of canvas. At first she didn’t recognize that she was stuck in one of her own paintings. It was a painting of a forest floor with fingers of light filtering through the unseen leaves and resting on a cluster of toadstools and mushrooms. She never painted anything that simple and fanciful anymore. It must have been one of her earlier disasters, she thought to herself.

Ah. Now she remembered. She had been in her fairy tale phase then. This painting was inspired by Alice in Wonderland and the mushrooms that Alice ate to grow larger and smaller. What a stupid subject for a painting and what a horrible place to be stuck. The painter was starting to feel claustrophobic in this flat world of useless flora. How did one escape a painting? Then an idea tickled at her like whiskers. The mushrooms. Alice ate them to escape sticky situations in the story. Maybe one of these horrid creations could transport her back to reality and three dimensions. What did she have to lose? So she bent down, grimaced, and nibbled the edge of a red-capped mushroom, vaguely thinking that if this didn’t work, she’d never make it to her dentist appointment on time.

Apparently, thinking about being late while in an Alice in Wonderland-inspired painting was a bad idea. Her nibble of mushroom did successfully transport the painter back to the real world, but as she blinked and stretched, she realized that she was far too short. Not only short, but white and fluffy. And craving carrots…

 After a few terrifying incidents involving traffic and a red-tailed hawk, the painter found that she had hopped to the edge of a circus tent. While she was admiring the prowess of the lion tamer, she suddenly found herself snatched up by the ears. She was nose to nose with the circus magician. Before she knew it, she was a part of the circus magic act, being stuffed into and pulled out of a musty top hat. At first it was quite fun. She had always loved magic shows as a child and she enjoyed the applause. But after a while, she grew bored. Magic wasn’t so fun when you knew they were just tricks. Besides the repetition was excruciating. So she ran away.

 After more incidents with traffic and an under-exercised and over-excited border collie, she found herself stuck in some bird netting laid across a small patch of strawberries in a suburban garden. The painter squeaked in alarm as a curious cat came stalking into view. Lucky for her, a little girl came out onto the front porch at that moment, spotted the painter, scooped her up in her arms and adopted her with all of her heart.

They were inseparable. The painter slept in a rather spacious hutch right outside the little girl’s bedroom. She had plenty to eat and drink and was allowed to hop freely around the house, provided the doors and windows were closed. They had tea parties together, played dress ups and doctor, snuggled during thunder storms, and whispered secrets to each other without saying a word.

One day, the little girl was painting on a big pad of paper propped up on an easel in her room. It seemed a lifetime since the painter had picked up a brush. The little girl had no sense of color combinations, composition or proportions, but her creations were certainly expressive. The painter felt a twinge of jealousy. As she turned to distract herself with the bedside lamp cord, the little girl paused in painting her landscape of endless grass and sky and noticed the satisfying fluffiness of the painter’s white tail. She had an idea.

 The little girl scooped up the painter and gently dipped her tail in a smear of yellow paint. Then she studied her landscape and moved the painter’s posterior towards the blue part of the page. The painter panicked. There was far too much paint on her tail. She knew from experience that the color would run and the little girl’s picture would be ruined. The painter struggled to get away, but the little girl held tight and squished her tail solidly against the page. Then she put the painter down and admired her work. The painter was right. The yellow would-be circle had drips oozing down the blue and into the green. The painter sighed sadly and looked up at the little girl. She was grinning. “Look,” the little girl said, “the sun is reaching down to touch the grass.”

The painter sat transfixed, twitching her nose, and vaguely aware that she was getting yellow paint on the carpet. But she didn’t care. She was a rabbit in the presence of a painter and her masterpiece. And it was perfect.

The end, for now.

Mushroom 3


Playing Photographer (Artist’s Way Week 11)

The penultimate week of The Artist’s Way program focuses on recovering a sense of autonomy. The reading talks a lot about how we define success. It’s really easy to get distracted by false heralds of success–things like money and fame. Wondering whether or not anyone else will like what we make can hinder us from simply enjoying the creative process. From just making art because we love it.

Sure, we have to pay the bills, but if that’s the only thing we pour our creativity into, then it’s going to get tired and so will we. We need to make time to play, to mess up and around, to drastically reduce the stakes from whether people will like or buy what we make down to whether or not we had fun making it. 20160707_124347

So these days I’ve been playing with a relatively new, low stakes creative outlet: collecting pictures. I don’t consider myself a photographer of any caliber–all of my photos are taken on my trusty phone–but thanks to this blog and the Artist Way process, I’ve found myself more inclined to take photos and to pay more attention to composition. We went on a small vacation recently and as we drove through endless farmland, I found myself eagerly scanning the horizon for particularly picturesque scenes. I enjoyed the challenge of snapping photos in a moving vehicle, oftentimes through a closed window. As a result, I paid more attention to where we were going than I usually do and it made the journey more meaningful.

In addition to taking pictures, I’ve really started paying attention to how much I enjoy including images in all of my creative processes. There’s a reason why Pinterest and Instagram are so successful–people eat up images. They dress things up, they add color, texture, and life to words and ideas. They can shift your perspective or reflect something you’ve always felt to be true, but perhaps couldn’t put into words. I’m not exactly an artist, but I’ve started doodling out story ideas and details instead of just writing them down. I’ve rediscovered a delight in making collages and collecting pictures from magazines. So many images are digital these days and it’s deeply satisfying to have hard copies. And yes, I also dapple in the adult coloring book trend.


I’m in a stage in my life where I need to just play with art. Playing with pictures is one fun way to do that. And one of the best parts is that it’s something I can share with my daughter. Whether I’m snapping photos of her latest antics or coloring with her (while trying to keep her from eating the crayons) or pointing out the details in her picture books, together we can saturate ourselves in colorful, creative images and let our imaginations run wild.


Tuning Out (Artist’s Way Week 10)

Only two more weeks to left in The Artist’s Way. Wild! This week focused on recovering a sense of self-protection; defining the bad habits we have that get in the way of our creativity and admitting why we hold onto those habits when we’d be so much happier if we let them go. I didn’t have to dig very deep to identify my current destructive habit.

Hi, my name is Justine and I’m addicted to Netflix.

You might laugh, but I actually just wrote that sentence, got uncomfortable, and proceeded to open a new tab to continue binge-watching Nashville instead of writing this post. It’s ridiculous. And it’s actually a problem.

It kills me when I think of how much more mastery I could have playing my ukulele or how much of a story I could have written or how much more I could have played with my little girl by now if I didn’t spend hours of my time in front of my laptop, streaming the product of someone else’s creativity.

You’d think I would have learned from my media deprivation exercise in Week 4. But big problems don’t disappear overnight or even over the course of a week. Besides, doing the media deprivation was a task from The Artist’s Way book. I’ve always been an A student and doing homework is something I’ve always done well. I’m programmed to do things that are assigned to me. And I often enjoy that structure of being told what to do. But I struggle to motivate myself. If no outside force tells me I should do something, I’m geared up with all sorts of excuses to talk myself out of breaking unhealthy habits.

There’s a reason why The Artist’s Way is modeled on a 12-step program. Creative blocks are often addictions–things that we cling to so that we can stay stuck, because we know how to be stuck and the unfamiliarity of open creative channels is terrifying.

It feels stupid to be writing this because, to be honest, I still don’t have a whole lot of resolve to change my Netflix-binging ways too much. I am about to go on two weeks of TV-free vacation. Maybe something will click then. But for now, I’m putting it out there. I’m admitting that it’s a problem and one that I will probably be dealing with for some time. I like watching Netflix. It’s calming. It’s easy. It allows me to stay stuck in this strangely seductive pattern, this illusion of not having time to do things that I’d really rather be doing and that would be better for me. I do have time. It might not be ideal amounts or types of time, but I have it. I might tell myself that my daughter takes up all of my free time, but it’s not true. I waste plenty of it–just me and my screens.

But being a full-time mom, it’s so easy to convince myself that I’ve earned the respite that watching TV shows and movies provides. And there’s nothing wrong with television in moderation. It is a fantastic art form in its own right and watching TV can be a great break. But maybe someday, I’ll truly realize that the real respite–what I really deserve–is time to tune into my creativity, instead of tuning out.

Cheer vs. Fear (Artist’s Way Week 9)


20160618_152707When my daughter discovers how to do something new, I applaud her. When she first rolled over. When she walked for the first time. When she makes the “ma-ma-ma-ma” sound anywhere in my vicinity. I praise her with actual applause, with “Good job!” and “Yay!” and with hugs and kisses. Last week, when she successfully climbed up on the couch without assistance, I cheered. On the outside at least.

On the inside, I was freaking out a little. Oh no. This new ability to climb on the furniture means more opportunities to fall. What if she gets too close to the edge? What if she starts climbing the bookshelves? What if can’t keep my eyes glued on her every second and she falls and hurts herself on my watch? One accomplishment. Dozens of fears.

The same thing happens when I try a new creative outlet. I ask for a ukulele for Christmas and actually get one. Yay! But now I actually have to learn how to play. What if it’s too hard? What if I don’t really have time to play it? What if I can never strum and sing at the same time? What if I never become Ingrid Michaelson?

I go to the craft store and buy some new yarn. Yay! It’s so soft and pretty and would make a beautiful hat. But I don’t know how to make a hat. I’ve never followed a pattern before. What if I can’t figure it out? I don’t even hold my knitting needles properly and knit so slowly. What if I wind up with a tangled mess? Better stick to knitting straight stitched scarves. That’s what I know and I’m okay at it, so I’ll just keep only being able to knit one kind of thing.

The problem is that I give much more airtime to the fear than I do the excitement. I don’t do that with my daughter. At least, I try not to. Since last week, she has continued to climb on the couch and has added a few choice arm chairs to her climbing repertoire. And I do my best to cheer her on first and caution her to be careful second.

What if I did that with my creative endeavors? What if I tried letting my cheers outweigh the fears? Campy? Perhaps. But it seems to help my daughter continue to learn new things, so why couldn’t it work on me?

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about our inner artist being a child. If that’s true, then it makes so much sense that taking care of our artistic lives so perfectly parallels raising our kids. We’ve got children running amok in our homes and a creative inner-child begging to join in the fun. We’ve got creative projects that we’ve abandoned or never even started. Each one is a newborn.

We don’t expect newborns to talk or crawl right away. If they did, we would totally freak out. But we load ourselves down with expectations that are just as outrageous. We’re not okay with being beginners. Or perhaps are and we find the “beginner” label so safe that we refuse to try advancing to a new level.The point is, we need to have some compassion for our fledgling forays into creativity. That’s what Week 9 was about: being gentle with our inner artist child.

So that’s what I did. I never learned how to crochet in elementary school even though it was part of the art curriculum. I don’t know how I got away with it, but I managed to never learn. It was too hard. I felt too clumsy trying to do it. Instead, I invented “knot crocheting,” which was taking a piece of yarn and tying knots on top of knots until you got a chain of yarn knots. I thought it was cool and it seemed to produce the same effect as a chain stitch and was far easier, so I thought I had it made. Until the teacher told me I wasn’t allowed to “knot crochet” anymore because it was really “not crocheting” and I was wasting yarn.

This week, a dear friend came to visit who happens to know how to crochet. I feel totally safe with her and if anyone was going to be able to teach me it would be her. So I asked if she would teach me. Not only did she say yes, but she also brought me my very own crochet hook and a new ball of yarn. We didn’t try it until the last night she was here, but eventually we sat down and she walked me through the steps.

It was hard. I felt clumsy. I had trouble keeping the tension in the yarn just right. But I kept going. I finally crocheted. The result was a lumpy, holey creation. And I all I can say is, YAY!