In The Artist’s Way, the seminal book on creativity, author Julia Cameron introduces two Basic Tools, after the introduction and before the week-by-week chapters. These two Basic Tools, she says, are the cornerstone to connecting with creativity.
The first is Morning Pages, discussed in last week’s Artist’s Way Reflections column, the practice of writing three handwritten pages of whatever comes to mind every morning. I’ve wrestled with these pages, but ultimately find them to be helpful, a way to connect to what I’m actually feeling, which isn’t always easy but is in its own way grounding. They’re also a good source of fresh ideas, a way to puzzle through problems and often a place to dump the mental waste before starting the day.
The second Basic Tool is the Artist Date. You’re supposed to go on a “date” with your artist self once a week. Do something fun for an hour and no one else is allowed to come along. Quality time with your creative side.
And I’m going to be real. I get the theory behind it, it all sounds great when Julia Cameron extols the values of an Artist Date. But in actuality, I hate it.
The way it’s supposed to work is that you make this time for creative play, you value your creative side, and eventually, this should yield creative insights and such. That’s never happened for me that I can remember.
The first time I tried doing the Artist Date was back in the fall of 2000. I’d gotten The Artist’s Way from my mom a few months prior but had spent that summer working at a summer camp and there just wasn’t time for that sort of thing and I was surrounded by people all the time. It was hard enough to find time to write Morning Pages, or do any other journaling.
That fall I started my stint as a student at Northern Arizona University, and for my first attempts at Artist Dates, I took trips to the Flagstaff mall to poke around in stores I liked that spoke to my own sense of wonder that my friends wouldn’t particularly like to go to. I especially remember going to Natural Wonders, which I don’t think is still a thing and probably hasn’t been in quite some time. It was a store that had all kinds of nature and outer space themed trinkets and games and jewelry, wind chimes, telescopes, science kits, CDs of nature sounds. For a nature lover and science nerd like me, it was mall home. I’m sure I went to Hot Topic too, and poked around in the music shirts and electric purple armbands.
Doing that was probably the first time I took public transportation by myself. I can’t say how it is now in Flagstaff, but back in the fall of 2000, there was a bus that would circle around a loop once an hour, so it wasn’t particularly convenient. I think I did this two weeks in a row–it was a way I could think of to do something alone–but I got bored at the mall, really struggled to fill a whole hour, and then had a long wait for the bus going back. After two (maybe three?) such trips, I decided I had to figure out something else but wasn’t sure what else I could really get to on public transit; anything else would involve bringing someone else along as a driver.
I gave up on that part of The Artist’s Way, though I still eventually found little ways to do somewhat of an equivalent here and there, without usually thinking of it explicitly as an Artist Date. One time I painted weird patterns on this lampshade for this weird lamp I got at Natural Wonders while listening to music when my roommate was out. Other times I sat on this little roof thing off the lounge in the dorm building at night and watched the moon and listened to my discman and wrote love letters I would never send to boys I never should’ve loved.
One time, and I want to say it was in the spring of 2002, I got this Artist Date ideas book (pictured at the top of this post) to try to do this Artist Date thing right finally, but when I looked it through it, all the suggestions seemed like they were meant for middle-aged housewives with money and I was a broke twenty-one-year-old who thought of herself as wild. Most of the ideas struck me as just totally un-fun and not me.
Revisiting The Artist’s Way now, as a middle-aged (I think? I’m 39) woman, I still struggle with this. And quarantine made it harder because everything’s closed and it’s kinda hard to go places. I tried a few at home–listening to an album and dancing around my small apartment that’s too small to dance in and doing so once when the moon was out and almost full and was in range of my windows, getting some popcorn and tea and turning on my fireplace and lighting candles and catching up on the first five episodes of Little Fires Everywhere, doing the same setup but with comfort movies like Clueless and Bridesmaids and 13 Going on 30.
Most of the time–not always, but almost–it felt like a chore. It’s hard for me to tell if I’m just obstinately resistant to this Artist Date idea, the way I am to other things that are supposedly so good for you (I’m looking at you, meditation and all things mindfulness, no matter what the studies and anecdotes say I’m still a hard pass), or if it’s just not for me for practical reasons like not being able to drive which does narrow the options, or in some cases not feeling safe to go and do certain things I want to do alone, or just feeling that a lot of ideas I would think up for Artist Dates would be more fun with people and not so enjoyable by myself, and anyway I already spend quite a bit of time alone.
There’s also a truth that sometimes, being legally blind makes it all a lot more challenging. Some things I want to do aren’t that accessible by myself, either because transit doesn’t go there, or because I’d have trouble navigating and there may not be anyone to ask for help, or other complications. The whole disability thing definitely makes it harder. To use a chemistry analogy, the activation energy is a lot higher, and that makes me sad, and even a little embarrassed to admit, but it’s definitely a factor.
For all of the reasons, I feel like I always approach the idea and the actuality of the Artist Date with a strong sense of resistance and resignation. I don’t enjoy it, though even writing this, I want to.
It’s odd because I live by myself and spend a lot of time alone, especially now, and I kind of like it (though there are limits to that) but somehow am still uncomfortable with actual alone time. Or maybe it’s just the intention of the Artist Date to be fun and playful and open-ended. It feels awful to say but I think that part of it makes me uncomfortable too. I like structure, and I like drowning in distractions, but I don’t like actual quality time with myself, and maybe I feel like I’ve forgotten how to have fun or be playful, and the idea of having to do or be either makes me squirm inside. That’s really sad but there’s truth to it.
I have no grand conclusions here. I’m ambivalent about the Artist Date and maybe I always will be. I deeply resonate with the thinking behind it but I struggle with doing it. Writing this kiiiiiinda makes me want to try again, to maybe see what would happen if I tried, and kept trying even if the first attempts are uncomfortable. But then I feel that discomfort well up inside me, that resistance. And a billion excuses why not to but I’m leaning towards considering it.
In the grand scheme of things, I’m sure it’s fine whether I try these again or not. My conclusion is I’m ambivalent about the whole thing, and that may never change.
The Artist’s Way Reflections is a weekly column reflecting on the 1992 book on discovering, recovering and reconnecting with creativity, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron. Each week, I reflect on some aspect or tool or exercise or essay from the book.
Here are some previous posts from The Artist’s Way Reflections column:
- Jumping Back into the Blogging Ring – where I first introduce this column
- My Origin Story
- Morning Pages
I LOVE Natural Wonders! Man, I miss that store…haven’t seen it in eons. Artist’s Dates have been hit or miss for me on the very rare occasions when I’ve had opportunities to do them…they’ve mostly involved going to a museum and restaurant by myself, which have been enjoyable but not especially inspiring. The most memorable and fruitful for me have been a couple of excursions explicitly to take photos — one to Grand Central Station, one at the N.Y. Public Library, and one to the Union Square Farmer’s Market. Having a specific artistic goal and a place to carry it out struck that balance between spontaneity and structure for me. It was fun to pretend to be a photographer for a day!
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