Friday 29 June 2012

The Artist's Way

AnnalyticaPosted by Annalytica

A couple of years ago someone recommended I should read "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron, a book about unblocking creativity. It sounded interesting, so I borrowed it - and then it sat on my shelf unread for an embarrassingly long time.

Then, a few months ago, I found out about a course running in Oxford. Course participants work through the exercises in "The Artist's Way" and meet weekly to discuss their progress. In theory, this was something I could arrange to do without paying for a course - except by this point I had had the book for two years and done nothing, and I thought the structure of weekly classes might be what I needed to motivate myself.

I had several reasons for thinking that unblocking creativity was something I should work on. For one thing, when we started this blog I was overflowing with ideas for posts and seriously considering professional freelance writing. Recently it seems to be getting harder and harder to come up with ideas, which is why you haven't seen much of me on here lately. When rehearsing Lashings acts, I often freeze up, feeling self-conscious and unsure what to do with my body, and needing quite precise directions from other Lashers. Sometimes this direction helps, and other times trying to perform movements recommended by someone else only feels even more awkward. If I were more in touch with myself and my own feelings, and less concerned with consciously thinking all my movements through, perhaps I could express myself and my characters in a more spontaneous and natural way.

While this may sound odd coming from someone who writes and performs cabaret, I often don't feel terribly creative. It's easy for me to get very absorbed in the admin side of Lashings and neglect the more creative aspects. I'm rather good at admin, and in some ways that's a safer place to direct my efforts. But when I take the risk of expressing myself through writing and performance, the rewards are tremendous. I am lucky enough to have a fabulously supportive group of people to help me take that risk, but something in me is still holding myself back, preferring to bury myself in admin than spend time rehearsing my songs, for example. I hoped the course might help me to develop more trust in my creative self.

If you've been reading my other posts on this blog, you'll know a bit about my psychology by now. I'll briefly summarise the relevant points here and you can read the linked posts for more detail if you are so inclined. I call myself Annalytica because my tendency to think about everything in an analytical manner is possibly the most enduring and noticeable feature of my personality. Over the past few years I've begun to realise that I have been too focused for too long on my intellect and my rationality, to the detriment of my emotions and desires. I rarely know what I want or feel, much less how to articulate this. I'm good at making logical arguments for why X is objectively the best course of action to take, not so good at admitting that I want X to happen. The idea that it might be valid for me to want something in the absence of objective justification, simply because my subjectivity has its own value, is one I find hard to accept.

These things are clearly linked to my difficulties with spontaneity and creativity. When everything must be filtered through my conscious, rational mind before it may be expressed out loud, spontaneity is near impossible. Creative expression would no doubt come more naturally to me if I was aware of what I wanted to express, and could experience my feelings as they come without the immediate need to analyse them. I need to learn to hear my own voice.

In many ways the course is like a sort of group therapy. We talk, we listen, we offer encouragement and support, and together we try to work through the fears that hold us back from expressing ourselves. It quickly became clear that this was not just about becoming better painters or writers or performers. All of us on the course find creativity difficult, because we find it difficult to exist in the world, taking up space and making ourselves heard and trusting our own perceptions. All of us are women.

I was surprised to find just how much of a feminist space it is. The course is not advertised as women only, but it is probably no coincidence that everyone who showed up is a woman. The facilitator often remarks that the experiences we discuss are common to many women, and participants have commented that the group would feel very different if there were men present. Simply hearing one another feels like a powerfully feminist act, as being heard is something that some women in the group have little experience of in other contexts. I am lucky enough to already have a supportive feminist space in Lashings, but one thing that makes "The Artist's Way" course a very different experience for me is that all of the other participants are a generation older than I am. Nearly all Lashers are in their twenties and thirties. We're encouraged that we often attract audience members of different age groups (not only our parents!) who tell us they enjoy our work, but it's fair to say that Lashings largely represents the experiences and perspectives of people of a fairly narrow age range. To have meaningful conversations with older women, in which we meet as equals to discuss our hopes, fears and feelings in depth, is a new and exciting experience. We all learn from one another, and especially from Naomi Goldsmith, who runs the course. Naomi's determination to be herself and refusal to conform to expectations is inspiring.

There is a strong focus on spirituality, and the links between creativity and God the Creator. As an atheist I thought I would find this off-putting, but in fact I've been able to run with it. I don't need to believe that God exists or is working through me to benefit from the course. I already know that I need to learn to rely on something other than my own intellect. Julia Cameron names that something as God, and while I don't really accept that, I find that I am willing to try to trust in an unnamed something as an experiment, since what I've been doing so far clearly isn't working. This sounds anti-intellectual, but in my case, it's more like moderation. I'm extreme in my prioritising of my intellect over all other aspects of myself and I need to find some way to moderate that. I don't really know what spirituality means, but that doesn't seem to be holding me back much. I can see the course and the exercises as an experiment in expanding my capacity for experience, whatever I may want to name that.

One of the early things I realised on the course was that, rather than just focusing on getting better at activities designated as creative, I wanted to learn to take a more creative approach to life generally. Too often I see problem-solving as an attempt to find the single most efficient and effective solution, and then berate myself if, after the event, I can think of another way of doing things which would have been better. Instead of seeing life as a series of technical problems to which I must find the optimal solution, I want to begin to think in terms of responding creatively to situations. There are many possible responses to any situation, and if I can see the choice of a course of action as an act of creativity rather than a test I may pass or fail, I think life will become a lot less stressful and more exciting.

Already, I feel shifts beginning to happen within myself. I won't put these exclusively down to "The Artist's Way": I have been attending counselling for a year and a half, a mindfulness meditation course for the past two months, and of course, Lashings itself helps me in innumerable ways. In their various ways, all of these activities have been helping me get closer to feeling that there is something at my core which is of value, something more than just my intellect, and that I am entitled to express myself and be heard. I'm finding it helpful to come at this from various directions, and my different therapies seem to be dovetailing neatly towards greater self-awareness and self-acceptance. I'm more able to notice what I'm feeling and what I want at a given time, and to express that to those around me. I'm getting better at setting boundaries, and recognising that I'm entitled to do that. Where my emotions were dulled before, I am overflowing with feelings now, and it is sort of terrifying, but I (mostly) feel able to cope. Where once I would have wanted to run in the opposite direction of anything that caused me to have powerful emotions, I now feel much more able to stay with it. "The Artist's Way" is not the sole reason for these changes, but I feel it has contributed.

Naomi Goldsmith is a freelance local artist, making her living through art and teaching. She is an amazing and inspiring woman, and I would dearly love to support her in her work. The next Artist's Way course in Oxford starts on 23rd July, every Monday at 7pm - 9pm and costs £140 for 12 weeks. If you'd be interested in finding out more, you can contact her on 01865 242341 or or visit her website at


  1. If you would like to take part in The Artist's Way, Naomi is taking bookings for a course in Marston starting Weds 7th November. Details

  2. I've recently been handed the Artist's Way, and I'm willing to give it a go. I'm not at all sure of what or where I'm going with my writing, acting, singing and other creative processes these days; If I'm going anywhere at all... so, even doing the morning pages has been great for me. I've had a morning writing discipline in the past, and a love it.

    As an atheist, do you have any further advice or thoughts on how to appreciate the experience? Thanks.