The Artist’s Way Reflections – Week Seven: Recovering a Sense of Connection

fall flowersWeek Seven: Recovering a Sense of Connection

Listening

In this section, I liked the juxtaposition of thinking of creativity as “getting something down,” like transcribing, instead of having to think it up.

For writing, that comes pretty naturally to me. And maybe that’s especially true since I write a lot about real life, explore past experiences, and so forth. When I’m doing other things, especially working out on the elliptical, or listening to music, or walking alone, I often just have words and feelings I want to write down. I pre-write in my head a lot, always have.

Nowadays, I do less of it because there’s just so much other stress and noise, and I drown it out with too much podcast listening and pop culture consumption and social media distraction. But still, this notion of getting something down feels natural to me when it comes to writing.

That said, I don’t think what I’ve written has ever, in all my years, really lived up to what it was in my head. I wonder if that’s true for all writers? It’s something I’ve come to accept: that even though in my head I’m pre-writing in words, when I get to actually putting it in words, it never quite matches or captures what I thought it would.

For music though, I’ve been having a “making something up” mentality, especially when it comes to composing. I’ve done seven little compositions now (though I don’t think I could remember most of them and should have recorded more, rudimentary as they are).

When I think about composing, I come from a very mental, think-something-up place. I think of it like, oh should I take this or that established thing and just vary it? Is that original enough? The idea of it is overwhelming, and I definitely feel like I’m not ready, not good enough, not musical enough, not advanced enough, to be able to “come up with” something on my own.

But when I’ve actually sat down to do the composition exercises, it usually comes from just putting my hands on the keys and playing around and seeing what I like and following that. So in practice, it’s more what she says, but every time I sit down to do it, it’s hard for me to trust that it’ll happen because of all those mental blocks. When I sit down to do it, the only real thought-out part of it is I might decide on a key before I start to play around. The rest is just improvising.

Hopefully, in time, with more experience, I’ll trust that more, and let go of some of the thoughts about composition being some difficult thing to think up and the thinking about it and the doing of it will feel more flowing.

Perfectionism

This section was interesting to me, in that instead of thinking about the creative realm, it immediately got me thinking about the pre-med and academic world instead.

I was reminded of a session with a student at my job as a chemistry tutor. A student came in asking for help with a lab report. It was a physics lab report, which wasn’t my area, and what she needed help with was some obscure Excel formatting thing, which is probably the thing I was least able to help with. We had physics tutors, and a list of tutors who could help with Excel but that time she came in, none of them were on the clock so she came to me.

I had no idea how to help her with this Excel issue. After a bit of googling and getting nowhere, I suggested we move on to the substance of the lab report, analyzing the data and answering the questions, because I could help with that, and address the Excel question with another tutor later on.

She freaked out. She couldn’t do that, she said, because if she didn’t figure out this very obscure formatting thing, she would lose a point on it. One point. I asked if maybe that one point could be foregone in order to focus on the rest of the report, which she hadn’t started. I suggested again that we move on, help her get the points for the substance of the report, and come back to that later, but she’d already spent hours trying to figure out how to do this formatting maneuver and she couldn’t move on until she got it figured out. She had to get 100% she told me. Nothing else was acceptable.

In a way, this seems almost like a caricature of perfectionism because from the outside it’s so obvious in how that thinking hindered her, how fixating on trying to get that one point, which she’d already spent hours trying to get, was taking away from doing the rest of the report and causing her a lot of distress. It’s easy to see logically that forfeiting that one point would save a lot of time and allow her to do a better job on the rest of the report, which was a substantial amount of unstarted work. It’s easy to see how the fixation on getting 100% and not being able to accept anything less could have in the end led to a much lesser score and kept her from moving on with it. It’s easy to see when it’s someone else.

That was probably the most extreme, blatant example I saw of it in my job, but at a low-level I saw the dangers of perfectionism at a low level every day. Especially for pre-med students. And I’ve seen medical students struggle with it too. I think it happens everywhere, but omg is it ever prevalent in medicine. And omg is it rationalized exactly the way JC explains.

In reflecting on my own self, it’s harder to say. I feel like I let go of a lot of that in medical school out of necessity–when you’re spending all your time advocating just to have access to things and have no leftover time to study, you’ll settle on survival because you have to.

It’s hard to say when it comes to creativity. I’ve definitely edited certain pieces out of existence, but I feel that my tendency to do that is motivated more by people-pleasing than perfectionism. Left to my own devices, I feel like something I read once is always true: if you want to know how to fix a piece of writing, write another. Continuing to work at it usually leads to insight. As does, for me anyway, talking to writers or going to seminars where people talk about writing. I have pages and pages of notes of insights on inspired ideas for how I want to work on this or that piece or essay or book that I took during AWP conferences, the Orcas Island Writers Festival, writing classes and seminars.

Where I get tripped up a lot, and I’m going to go into this more on another week, (I think next week), is feedback. Sometimes it’s so valuable and gives me insight I wouldn’t have seen myself, but I find that rarer and rarer as I continue to write. More often, it leaves me feeling like I have to change my writing, my voice, my mission in the piece, myself. And that’s when I edit out any original creative impulse. I’ve often needed to go back and undo some of the changes I put in to those ends. That’s definitely happened with Moonchild. It’s made me wary of getting feedback, which I don’t think is a great way to feel, because I know I’m so susceptible to other people’s opinions and usually have to work so hard to gain myself back afterwards.

Risk

This was an interesting section for me. It made me think maybe perfectionism isn’t what holds me back so much, because I really struggled to come up with anything I would try if I didn’t have to do it perfectly. Maaaaybe stand-up comedy, or some singing things. But for the most part, what holds me back from the creative endeavors I want to partake in are money, time and access. Much more practical concerns than perfectionism or fear or any of that.

That’s not to say I don’t have fear–I definitely do, especially around other people’s reactions to my creativity–but as far as doing the creativity (as opposed to making it public) my roadblocks are more practical than mental in nature. That was a frustrating realization for me because a lot of mental type blocks would be easier to work with and change than more immovable practical matters like only twenty-four hours in a day, zero income and loads of student debt, inability to drive, and in some cases, restrictions or cancellations due to covid.

This sort of leads me into the next section.

Jealousy

I struggled with this section more than I ever have before. It’s always been a bit of a miss for me. I definitely feel a lot of jealousy but not really in the way she describes, which is mostly jealousy of people who are doing the creative things or getting recognized for it. When I was younger, I used to feel that more, but I worked on that, hard and a lot, and honestly don’t feel much of that anymore.

Other types of jealousy though, that don’t quite fit with her conception of it, rage through my veins constantly. But they’re mostly about things I can’t change, again going back to the practicality concerns above. Which meant that in the following exercise, it was hard to come up with meaningful action steps. The things I feel jealous about just don’t lend themselves terribly well to her paradigm, and that made it a difficult exercise.

The Jealousy Map, An Exercise

So, yeah, I don’t think mine really fit the mold so much.

So the first one I wrote down was being jealous of a friend of mine who has a peleton bike because I wish I had a way to get real cardio exercise (and get out my aggression) in my apartment. My body craves it. It’s been going on seven and a half months since I could go to the gym and I’m going a bit nuts without it. I can do other things, and should do more of other things, like bodyweight workouts, walking, using my dumb bike/climber (still at the old place), but none of those offer a way to get a real, consistent cardio workout. And I don’t even necessarily want home equipment like the person I’m jealous of has. I just want to be able to go to the gym again and go all out on the elliptical.

But yes, I can do the other things more. And maybe explore the option of the gym, which is open again. I just talked to a friend who’s been there and he said they are taking safety very seriously, that there are staffpeople cleaning all the time, everyone’s wearing masks, half the machines are blocked off, so it seems like a well-controlled environment when it comes to covid precautions and it may be worth checking out. My friend also said it’s really empty, which makes me feel better about the safety, to myself and others. So maybe I’ll think about it.

What’s interesting is this second idea, of going to the gym again, or at least thinking about the idea of going to the gym again, didn’t come up when I was doing the exercise, just when I was writing about it here.

The others are mostly more amorphous instead of specific people. Like everyone in med school without a disability because the med school experience would’ve been so different for me if I didn’t have to deal with that, and my life wouldn’t be a total disaster right now. Or another one was I’m jealous of all the people who were able to hire me back in the day to do writing-related work for them, because top of any list of what I’d do if I had any money would be to hire an assistant to help with digitizing and other writing-relating work, very similar to the work I used to do. But these aren’t really things I can change. I’m always going to have a disability, and I would have to win the lottery or something to be in a situation where I could hire someone, and it’s all circular and frustrating and immovable.

Archaeology, An Exercise

It’s so interesting to me how consistent so many of my answers are on these exercises. So many of my answers to the first ten questions, about growing up, focused on music and singing, and my childhood love of astronomy.

For the first one, I wrote about how as a kid I missed the chance to see a lunar eclipse and Mars when it was extra close and bright. Both times, my parents were going to wake me up in the middle of the night to go see it. Both times, I woke up the next morning and said why didn’t you wake me up for it and they said they’d tried but I’d told them I wanted to go back to sleep. I don’t know if that’s true or if that’s just what they told me because they had slept through it or didn’t want to get up for it or whatever.

At the time, it freaked me out so much to think that something could’ve happened in the middle of the night–something where I woke up and talked to them and made decisions about wanting to go back to bed instead of seeing the thing I’d wanted and waited to see–and that I could have zero recollection of it in the morning. It freaked me out because it felt like there was another person inside me, one who I didn’t know or agree with or remember.

The last three in the childhood section focused on people you’ve lost touch with and regrets about that, and for me that’s a lot of people (we moved a couple times, and then I moved cross country later) but the one that always comes to mind with any questions like this is the one who the song “betty” reminds me of (and that I wrote about in more detail here).

The second half of the exercise, the part about present day, was also pretty consistent. The same themes come up over and over and over: music, singing, nature, seasons, the sky and outer space, writing, weather. But in the present day section were also so many reminders that I’m still in the deep thick of the grieving process of leaving school, and that I still feel so much rage and grief and resentment. It frustrates me that it’s not budging quicker because I hate feeling this way, but every time it seems to be abating, or I try hard to wish it away, it comes back with a vengeance. I hate it all so much but trying to accept it as part of the process and remind myself that this was the death of a thirteen-year dream and something that big takes a long time to heal from and tell myself that one day, eventually, I may not feel this way, or not as much, and I just hope that’s true.

Quote

Argh, this was another week where none of the quotes spoke to me in any meaningful way. The one I’m going with may also be the most “out there” and it’s the only one that made me think:

“In the esoteric Judaism of the Cabalah, the Deep Self is named the Neshamah, from the root of Shmhm, ‘to hear or listen’: the Neshamah is She Who Listens, the soul who inspires or guides us.”

-Starhawk

I liked the concepts in this quote of the Deep Self, and that Deep Self being She Who Listens, and that Deep Listening Self being the guiding and inspiring self. I think that’s what we’re tapping into with Morning Pages. Or maybe more accurately it’s mostly muddled but every once in awhile there’s that guiding self deep self inspiring self, if only in little glimpses.

I also think it’s what she’s aiming for in some of the tasks.

Tasks

There’s a task in this chapter that I find surprisingly hard. Surprising because I’m such a music lover. But seriously, that take some time out and listen to one side of an album (ha) task is something I often intend to do but skip, the times I’ve made it this far in the book.

This time though, I did this task. I listened to folklore (of course) on headphones a couple of mornings ago, while not doing anything else. I almost never listen to music without doing something else at the same time. I’ve listened to folklore many times before, and on headphones a time or two but in loud areas so I never fully got the listening experience I did this time. I was able to hear so many details and so much nuance even though I’ve played this album all those many times before.

I still haven’t done the one about going into a sacred space, and want to do that, and a handful of the other tasks, this week. I never finish all of them in a week, though, so I’m used to having some hang over.

There were also two “treat yourself” type tasks here, and I got excited about both of these. One was to buy yourself something warm and cozy, and I went with a bathrobe and slippers, since I didn’t have either, and my new apartment is cold. I’m hoping if I have a nice warm robe to wear in the mornings (or longer), it’ll help me not crank the heat up so high just to not be freezing. I still need to learn to use the fireplace too for that.

The other one was to create a new scent in your home, and so I decided to get a wallflower plug. I’ve been curious about them for so long, and really looking forward to trying it out with different scents.

I just loved these tasks and felt like they fit so nicely with settling into my new place.

There were a couple of collaging tasks, which I chose not to do out of practicality (I don’t have magazines, or a color printer, and if I were to do something online with pictures I have, well I already did that with the Image File). What I did though was pull out some old collaging I’d done with photos, tarot cards, cool funky paper from my time in India, and also magazine photos. I looked through it and found I’d forgotten most of it and still loved it so I left it open, on display, on some furniture.

Synchronicity Lately

This one also relates to my move.

While I was sorting through my file cabinet, I found a post-it with the name and contact info for my current new apartment complex. It was several years old but I’d saved it, for some reason, and found it after I’d already signed the lease and started moving in.

It was from a neighbor at my old place. When she first moved in, we got to talking and she told me about this complex she’d almost moved to instead, and wrote down all the contact info for me on a post-it. It felt synchronous that though I hadn’t thought about that post-it in years, I ended up moving to that apartment complex anyway.

When I came across the post-it, it gave me an odd feeling. Not quite deja vu, but something in the same family of feelings, like I was meant to move here eventually.

There was also a lot of synchronicity involved with the move. I was never able to hire any movers or anything–turns out, no one I contacted was available until November–and had a lot of surprising offers of help. Some of it came very unexpected, from people I didn’t know had cars big enough to help with a move.

So I’m going to take this moment to thank all the people who helped: Sarah first and foremost who took a lot of time out of her busy schedule to make several trips, Corey, Sam, Tracy and Dan, Will and David. I appreciate the help so much!

Also, in some other apartment-related synchronicity, all the units in this complex have fireplaces, and I’ve been wanting to learn how to use mine, and the other night, a neighbor brought over some firewood.

Looking Ahead

Week Eight gets into topics that might feel a little heavier, especially survival and loss. In the tasks, it gets into one of my favorite topics: goals. It’s going to be a meaty one. Maybe there’s something wrong with me because though I appreciate the lighter weeks, especially if they come after some heavy shit, but I prefer the meatier weeks.

-April

PD: The picture up top is a photo of my kitchen table, which faces the big window to the trees. On the table is a vase full of fall-colored flowers and one little pumpkin on a stick in the middle of the bouquet. The flowers were inspired by Week Six and the idea of inexpensive creative luxury. They make me so happy. There’s also a reflection of a lamp that can be seen in the window.

~~~

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:

Schedule for the Rest of 2020

  • 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

One thought on “The Artist’s Way Reflections – Week Seven: Recovering a Sense of Connection

  1. Your experience of the student with her spreadsheet really does sound like a parable in extremis illustrating the drawbacks of perfectionism. Talk about batty!

    I soooo know what you mean about how rare it is to listen to music without doing something else at the same time. Focusing on an album, or even half an album, without feeling the need to multitask really does feel like a luxury. I’m trying to carve out more time for that once in awhile myself.

    And as for the synchronicity story about your new apartment complex, that is extraordinary!

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