In today’s column, I’ll look at all of the essays, exercises and tasks of Week Three in The Artist’s Way, except for Synchronicity, a fairly long section, which will be the focus of next week’s post. That’s a whole beast of a topic to tackle.
In thinking about this week and all its topics, including Synchronicity, it strikes me that this one line in the Detective Work, an Exercise section could be the topic sentence for the whole chapter. It reads:
“Many blocked people are actually very powerful and creative personalities who have been made to feel guilty about their own strengths and gifts.”
She goes on to say that:
“Made to feel guilty for their talents, they often hide their own light under a bushel for fear of hurting others. Instead, they hurt themselves.”
To my mind, all the little essays in this chapter illuminate more about these lines, and get at how we lose our power through shamings and criticisms, how we give away our power by ignoring the messages from our difficult friend Anger, and how to start to take it back with detective work, synchronicity, and finally, growth.
Week Three: Recovering a Sense of Power
This essay is one that keeps me coming back to The Artist’s Way. It’s the take on anger, of all I’ve heard and read, that resonates most with me: that anger is a guide, a difficult friend who will always be truthful if never comfortable. That it’s meant not to be stuffed or suppressed or acted out or shoved under the rug but listened to.
What I kept thinking about this time around while reading this section was how angry I was at the start of medical school. I was angry about so much. Obviously, given this post, a lot of my anger had to do with the lack of support and infrastructure for students with disabilities, and instantly being saddled with a complete other (unpaid) job and role on top of medical student, and all the time and energy it took up.
But there were things aside from that where I was going against my own values, like signing up for a future of 80-hour workweeks where a typical 40-hour would sound like an absolute dream in comparison, and how much of myself I’d have to give up for that. And the debt. Financial security and stability is high up there on my personal importance and values list and taking on that much debt made me want to throw up every time I thought about it.
I was angry about all of it, and that anger bled over into all the little things, all the ways we were treated like middle schoolers (at best), all the ways we had less agency than in undergrad, all the busywork. Of course the big rage was always over the disability stuff–and that it never had to be that way, and that I kept getting such intense pushback when trying to make things better–and that fueled all the little things.
So the anger was there, like an honest friend, trying to tell me to GTFO. I was so ambivalent in the beginning, essentially not wanting to be there most of the time. But I stayed. I stayed because I’d been working towards this for over a decade. I stayed because you don’t have your dreams come true and then immediately turn away. I stayed because of the debt that was already accruing interest. I stayed, ultimately, for the love of science and medicine and a short lull in the disability struggles.
Until I couldn’t stay anymore despite all that. And that too was precipitated by anger. A rage storm after losing a long-fought disability battle. It would take a couple more weeks before I decided, for sure, to leave, but that rage storm was the breaking point.
On a slightly different note, I was thinking this morning in my Morning Pages how certain behaviors continue to evoke anger in me, and most of them have to do with being told who I am and how I feel, others imposing their ideas of me on me, and unsolicited advice. They all bother me so much because they all dig against my agency, my authority over my own life and what I want and how I feel and who I am. Fuck that noise.
I do think there’s a tie-in to disability too. People always seem to treat people with disabilities as younger than they are, more helpless, more childlike, more innocent, more simple, more in need of help and guidance. I am less than six months from turning forty, but sometimes people treat me more like a wayward teenager and I am not here for that shit, at all. Just thinking about and recalling this, which is less like a serious of infuriating events but something that happens so commonly that it’s woven into the fabric of my life and keeps me on a low hum of rage even in the best of times, makes me want to scream and scream and never stop screaming.
But, I noticed, I wasn’t writing it down in my Morning Pages. I’d space out thinking about it and then come back to the page and continue whatever thought I’d left off on, instead of putting the anger on the page. It makes me so uncomfortable to feel, and I feel if I write it I’ll feel it more, or be unable to escape the fact that I feel it. Anger may be a very truthful friend, and I may love this book because JC says that, instead of making it something to always suppress and not feel, but it is not a friend I’m comfortable with.
I still want to ignore it and shove it away and talk myself out of it, rationalize my way out of feeling it. Push it underwater. I have the intellectual sense that that’s not the healthiest or most helpful way of dealing with it, but it’s hard to do otherwise.
A lot of heavy-hitters this chapter. This is a big one for me. And probably a lot of people in my generation (very late Gen X or Xennial, depending on which definition you follow) where so much of how we were brought up was based on shame. Shame was part of the fabric of our lives, the thing you most of all things wanted to avoid but could never stop triggering with any wrong move and almost every move was wrong.
Shame for being blind. Shame for looking different. Shame for doing things differently because of the visual impairment, like looking at things close to read them or having large print books or squinting in bright light or wearing hats or sunglasses to block the light. Shame for liking everything that I liked–songs, lyrics, singers, albums, bands, music genres, books, TV shows, movies, so especially pop culture but also clothing and so many other things, almost like liking things itself, especially intensely, was a grave sin–or for simply liking anything too intensely so as to annoy everyone else. Shame for loving anyone or anything. Shame for hope. Shame for singing. Shame for writing stories that weren’t “appropriate” as in they weren’t all about peachy keen happy life and ventured into mystery or thriller territory. Shame for showing feelings of any sort. Shame for having a body. Shame for being too sexual. Shame for being not sexual enough. Shame for being boy crazy. Shame for not fitting in with girls and not being feminine enough. Shame for putting my hair in little braids. Shame for arguing. Shame for feeling intensely. Shame for standing up for myself (usually accompanied by being punished and rendered totally powerless). Shame for dreaming.
The list could go on. And on. And on. I think this is true of many people, I learned to make myself smaller and smaller to avoid provoking the red, hot shame. It was survival because maybe if I was less shameful all the time, I might be tolerated more. It’s sad to me but most of my life I felt like that’s what I was fighting for, simply to be tolerated. Not necessarily liked or accepted or loved but just to not feel like I was completely intolerable. I turned myself into pretzels all the time, just hoping to not inspire disgust and hatred and shame.
I’d love to say that, now that I’m older, I’m past all that, but I don’t know if that’s really realistic when it’s the air you breathe for so much of your life. I appreciated JC being real about this. I related hard to how she said a common defense mechanism is to tell ourselves “it doesn’t matter” or “no big deal” as a way of trying to protect ourselves. I think I do that a lot, not just in shame-inducing situations–it’s definitely something I say to myself after getting a writing rejection, which is such a huge part of the writer’s life–but also in anger-inducing situations. To avoid fights, I’ll tell myself it doesn’t matter, it’s no big deal, I can take it.
So I’m going to start watching for those phrases and dig to see what’s underneath.
Dealing with Criticism
First of all, I love this roadmap for dealing with criticism. It’s funny, in med school, I often got told that I was really good at receiving feedback, which is not necessarily how I see myself. We had these CSAs and OSCEs, encounters with standardized patients (actors) where as I liked to say, we played doctor and then had a debrief session with our actor afterward. In that setting, the actors told me often that I was especially receptive to their feedback.
Similarly, in my last day that I was on campus, for my last in-person activity, back in mid-February, we had a much more extended OSCE that involved multiple patients, inpatient and outpatient settings, and giving patient presentations. For anyone who’s seen Grey’s Anatomy or House or any other medical show, patient presentations are when the med student, or intern, or resident, says to the attending physician, “So-and-so is an X-year patient with a history of Y who comes in complaining of Z.” Learning how to give a good, thorough but not too thorough, cohesive, succinct, easily understandable patient presentation is a crucial skill. So we had to practice it before they let us loose for clinical rotations.
I had to present my patients to our Developing Human (aka reproduction, sex, pregnancy, child development, geriatrics) block director. She gave me a lot of feedback on what I needed to change after I did my first presentation and so I made some notes to myself before giving her my second one. She remarked that she was really impressed how readily I accepted the feedback and incorporated into my second patient presentation, which she thought went a lot better.
It made me feel really good because being good at accepting criticism is not necessarily how I see myself, or how I think others see me. I’m terrified of feedback. I think in some of these med school cases, I was just so relieved that people weren’t just straight up WTF are you doing here don’t you know you have a disability and therefore have no business in this profession.
But yeah, feedback terrifies me. Because I’ve had the horrible, mean-spirited kind she talks about in this section, and have felt crushed and paralyzed by it. I’ve had some that shines a light, too.
But most of the feedback I’ve received, especially on writing, is of a third variety that she doesn’t mention, and that’s the mostly useless. The kind of feedback that doesn’t aim to tear you down but also offers no substantial insight. The “I’m not interested in this topic so I’m not your target audience,” type replies, or the ones that want you to remake what you wrote into their image, or the ones that adhere to some strict writing rule–either real or just part of their own aesthetics and preferences–and spend the whole critique expounding on how you broke a rule.
Those are harder to deal with because they don’t offer any useful suggestions other than to write more like them, and they’re not outwardly malicious so you can’t write them off as being born of the critiquer’s own bitterness or bad day, and yet they still make you feel you did something wrong. Something amorphous and unfixable where the big problem is that you were you and not them.
I’m going to try to keep this roadmap handy, because I know deep down, that feedback scares the shit out of me, to the point that sometimes I avoid it altogether if I’m not in a state of being mental tefflon, which is never. Even when I see that my posts here are getting retweeted or posted, or receiving comments, I feel a jolt of dread every time.
Which takes me to the thought that this section needs to be updated for our vicious modern day. Because in a lot of ways, the internet is now just an endless stream of hate and death threats coming at everyone who does anything, and it’s a scary world. I don’t know how people face that and still live their lives every day without being too scared to breathe, but tons of people do every day.
I want to put my work out there but the cost to doing so is so much greater than it used to be and I wish the world wasn’t the way it is. In many ways.
Detective Work, An Exercise
This exercise is fairly long, with twenty sentences to complete. I did it separately from reading the chapter, the next evening. I say that partly to reiterate the point that there all kinds of ways to adapt working with this book to your needs. It was too much to read the whole chapter and to do this exercise in one sitting.
Some themes that emerged, none of them a surprise to me, were: I crave more connection to seasons and nature, I want to live at Camp Orkila, or at the least be able to walk its paths and shore on the daily (as this post and its pretty pictures addresses), I have some very ambitious writing projects I want to work on with the hours and energy of a medical residency, I want to write (more) movies, I want to play, write and record music, I want to make a whole podcast company and do my tarot podcast as well as other podcast ideas mentioned in that post), I want to do stand-up at least once in my life, and do more spoken word events, and I desperately long for a way to make this my life’s work and not just something I do around some job but the thing that takes up the center. But, you know, also not starve in doing so.
Another theme that came up was fear of disappointment in wanting these things because what good does it do anyone to know, so clearly, what you want if it can’t happen. It feels like it just hurts more and makes me sad and feel like I’m missing something. In many ways, it would be easier to not know myself so clearly. I know that’s not what I’m “supposed” to be saying while doing this book, but I want to keep it real, and this is a real feeling.
This section bolsters some things she’s said in previous chapters, specifically about how the process of discovering, uncovering, recovering your creativity may feel erratic and, at times, volatile. She reiterates the “easy does it” mentality too–to think of this like a marathon instead of a sprint.
The part about experimenting with solitude made me laugh because, well, quarantine. It’s been a long six plus months of experimenting with solitude.
She also suggests being kind to yourself in small, concrete ways. The first question she asks is if you’ve been feeding yourself well. I have, but with the local farmer’s market closed on account of unbreathable air, I wasn’t able to get my weekly haul of fruit. I’ve been getting a mystery box of berries and peaches each week for awhile now. Sometimes the occasional apple or pear is in there lately, but it’s mainly berries and peaches. I was kind of counting on putting that stuff in my oatmeal this weekend, and now that I can’t I’m kind of obsessed with wanting peaches. It’s a small problem, even as small problems go, but I WANT PEACHES.
Which makes me think of this song from my youth. I probably haven’t heard this song in twenty years, but apparently I still remember all the words. “Sun soaking bulges in the shaaaaade.”
So, I’m going to try to track down some peaches once it’s safe to go outside. And that will be my nice thing for myself. It’s kinda weird, I realize, but the heart wants what the heart wants, as they say.
Also, I’m now in a YouTube rabbit hole of ’90s songs. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” from Deep Blue Something, “Desperately Wanting” by Better than Ezra, “The Freshman” by The Verve Pipe, “If You Could Only See” by Tonic, “Hemorrhage” by Fuel and so many more. And this too is a nostalgic balm.
“We will discover the nature of our particular genius when we stop trying to conform to our own or to other people’s models, learn to be ourselves, and allow our natural channel to open.”
This one reminds me of the quote I picked in last week’s post. Both speak to the theme of figuring out who we truly are instead of accepting others’ definitions of and for us. I’m drawn to these quotes because for me this is at the core of my struggle: to accept and be who I am.
The struggle comes from something I keep coming back to, that for so much of my life–especially but not exclusively in childhood and adolescence; it still happens now–I was told that everything I was or felt or thought or liked or was curious about or wanted or loved was bad and shameful, never to be admitted lest I lose whatever scant tolerance from others that I’d won for myself by stuffing myself down as completely as possible.
It’s a big hurt because it wasn’t one horrific incident, it was the air I breathed, and is often the air I still breathe. It’s hard to undo that or just snap my fingers and be over it when it’s decades of that kind of damage.
Five Childhood Accomplishments – these can range from the monumental to the mundane, and mine went mundane for the most part.
- Solving math puzzles – in fifth grade, there was this math puzzle on the board: find the lowest number that’s divisible by 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,10 and 12 and though that might not be hard for a more sophisticated student, to my ten-year-old self, this was an epic puzzle and I often thought about it before falling asleep and went through some iterations of wrong answers before getting to the right one (I’ll post at the bottom in case anyone wants to try it). Similarly, in sixth grade, we had this extra credit game where we had to fill in blanks to famous phrases and all the blanks were numbers. I guessed on some based on alliteration (the famous five, the secret seven) and others I knew, and tied for first place with (I believe) two other people in my class.
- remembering the “secret passage” in our house in Buffalo – it wasn’t really a secret passage, something I spent all my elementary school days searching for with tips and tricks I’d picked up from Nancy Drew and Baby-Sitters Club books, but this little hidden crawl space type thing. One night, I just suddenly remembered that it existed, and later went into it by standing on the dryer and climbing up into it, and also convinced other people, I think my brother and a friend or two, to check it out too.
- kicking ass on my high school chemistry class’s “element bee” and “ion bee” – GUYS I AM A NERD and that nerdy, science-y, mathy side is coming out this week.
- This one time when we played Red Rover in Girl Scouts. Usually, I was always the weak link and easy target, but one time, after hearing the girls on the other team talking about going for me, and being newly emboldened by discovering rock music, I just decided I wouldn’t be scared and I wouldn’t let go. And I didn’t. I remember I ended up getting dragged really far, like all the way across the grass, but never broke the chain. I wasn’t the easy target after that. I was scrappy.
- Getting my school’s nomination for the NJ Governor’s School of the Arts in Creative Writing
This task has a bonus – name five favorite childhood treats and I put: ice cream in a waffle cone with sprinkles, strawberry shortcake, dirt cake (anyone else remember this? I sometimes tried to trick people at birthday parties into thinking it was actually dirt), double chocolate cookies and apple crisp. We’re supposed to have one and given the season I’m thinking I’ll make some apple crisp once I go apple picking. I also really want cider, real cider. Wow, this post is developing a fruit theme.
Task 6 is to call a supportive friend, and Claire and I have a call on the calendar for tomorrow!
People You Admire – and what traits do they share?
My list was way more than five, and most were women. Women who don’t hold back, say waht they feel, are real about politics, life, sex, love, guys. Fearless, outspoken, loud, talented, good writers, intelligent, funny, have creative vision.
For a smattering of my list, I included Taylor Swift (yeah duh), Shonda Rhimes, Tori Amos, Rabia Chaudry, Fiona Apple, Mary Karr, and my other yeah duh, Chris Cornell.
People You Secretly Admire
This was harder to come up with, and harder to put in this post.
The first one was easy, and was always going to be who it was: David Foster Wallace. I feel guilty for liking him so much given some real problematic stuff that came out about him, and some of it directed at a writer I love who’s on the first list. But on the other hand, when you find your kindred spirit writer soulmate, it’s hard not to love what and who you love. And anyway, he’s been dead for twelve years and I legit talk to his ghost sometimes and I love his work (which is also pretty problematic) in a complicated but intense, fierce, full-hearted way, even when I don’t.
Courtney Love – I’ve loved her since I was a teenager listening to Live Through This and Hole’s MTV unplugged album, and probably always will.
Sinead O’Connor – that VOICE. And also, she was right about the whole priest sex abuse scandal thing.
Tasks 8, 9 and 10
Task 8 asks you to list five people you wish you met before they died. Mine is exactly the same as it was the last time I did, and probably the same as other iterations of going through AW (though one of these people definitely was still alive before these most recent AW journeys):
- Chris Cornell
- David Foster Wallace
- Carl Sagan
- Kurt Cobain
- Layne Staley
Task 9 asks you to list five dead people you’d like to spend awhile hanging out with in eternity, and my list was pretty much the exact same. The only thing was since this one didn’t say “you wish you met before they died,” I put my grandma, Nana, in there. I couldn’t think of who I’d take off the list so just made it six people.
Next week’s post will look closely at the Synchronicity section of this week, which gets a post all its own because it’s a tough one, and how I experience it has changed a lot over the many years of working with this book, and has been especially loaded for me lately.
I’ll also do some of the tasks next week as well. Since Week Three is split over two weeks on here, the tasks might as well be too.
PD: The picture at the top of the post is my new Morning Pages journal. It’s a small one, so will go get used quickly. It has a light blue cover with a tree with colored leaves, and some of the leaves are falling.
And the answer to the math problem is 840.
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 The Artist’s Way Origin Story
- The Basic Tools: Morning Pages
- The Basic Tools: The Artist Date
- Re-Starting the Journey
- Preview Digression on Spirituality
- Week One: Recovering a Sense of Safety
- Time Travel – Creative Monsters and Champions
- Week Two: Recovering a Sense of Identity
Schedule for the Rest of 2020
- September 24 – Synchronicity
- October 1 – Week Four: Recovering a Sense of Integrity
- October 8 – Week Five: Recovering a Sense of Possibility
- October 15 – Week Six: Recovering a Sense of Abundance
- October 22 – Week Seven: Recovering a Sense of Connection
- October 29 – Week Eight: Recovering a Sense of Strength
- November 5 – Goal Search
- November 12 – Week Nine: Recovering a Sense of Compassion
- November 19 – Blasting Through Blocks
- November 26 (Thanksgiving) – Creative Goal Setting (for 2021)
- December 3 – Week Ten: Recovering a Sense of Self-Protection
- December 10 – Setting Bottom Lines
- December 17 – Week Eleven: Recovering a Sense of Autonomy
- December 24 (Christmas Eve) – Week Twelve: Recovering a Sense of Faith
- December 31 (New Year’s Eve) – End of Book Wrap-Up