The Artist’s Way: A Path to Self-Discovery
As a psychotherapist working in Central London, clients sometimes ask about Julia Cameron’s book, ‘The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity’. How compatible is it with therapy, and can the ideas be incorporated into the therapeutic process?
The Artist’s Way is a book I’m certainly familiar with. I discovered it as an undergraduate music student when it was first published in 1992.
I was intrigued, and followed through with all the exercises.
Over the last decade, The Artist’s Way has witnessed a surge in popularity, seen as a valuable tool for personal renewal, enhancing self-confidence, and fostering a spiritual connection. But what does the The Artist’s Way look like to me three decades later, from the perspective of a psychotherapist?
The Artist’s Way Morning Pages: Accessing The Subconscious
At the heart of ‘The Artist’s Way’ is the Morning Pages – three pages of longhand, stream-of-consciousness writing, completed first thing in the morning. There’s no ‘correct’ way to do this – it’s all about letting go, and allowing your subconscious to take the lead.
The content is not as important as the process itself – its about removing mental blocks and accessing creative potential. You’re not even allowed to read back any of your writing for at least eight weeks.
I think the free writing of the Morning Pages can be a really effective way to access repressed memories and emotions. The exercise can reveal uncensored thoughts and feelings, opening the door to a more authentic self expression. Much like the therapeutic setting, doing the morning pages can form a safe, judgment-free space to allow your unconscious to unravel.
The History of ‘Morning Pages’
The practice of Morning Pages has its roots in automatic writing, developed by the Spiritualism movement during the 19th Century. At the time, the author was believed to be guided by spiritual or subconscious forces.
This was later developed into the process of free association by the psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud. He’d ask his clients to experiment with automatic writing and automatic drawing, to try and access hidden dimensions of their subconscious. These exercises would later became a source of inspiration for the Surrealist writers and artists of the 1920s.
Artist Dates: Reclaiming Your Inner Child
Artist Dates, on the other hand, are about reigniting your long lost curiosity and joy. Once a week, Cameron encourages readers to dedicate a block of time to nurturing the innocent artist within.
The activities can range from visiting a sweet factory, to taking time in nature, to walking in the rain. You’re encouraged to choose anything that stirs your sense of wonder and curiosity.
Through regular Artist Dates, you can learn to recognise your inner voice which you may not even have been aware of. Too often we unconsciously follow the louder criticising voices, which are just echoes of past judgements from ourselves and others. By going on an Artists Date, you’re challenging the voices that have kept you restricted, and giving agency to the inner creative spirit.
I sometimes suggest that a client takes themselves on an artist’s date, and it can be intriguing to see which voice speaks up first. The idea can be met with resistance – fear, anger, a sense of shame are all common. Going on the first artist’s date can be quite a breakthrough, showing you that it’s ok to nurture the child within.
Evolution of the Artist’s Date
The Artist Date can be seen as a practice of honouring and connecting with your inner child. Cameron writes that the artist is a child, and that you have to find that artist child and protect it. The term ‘inner child’ is widely used in popular psychology, and self-help movements, to refer to an individual’s childlike aspect. It’s a concept with roots in ancient spirituality, later becoming integrated into various psychotherapeutic methods and theories.
During the 20th century, psychologist, Carl Jung introduced the ‘divine child’ archetype, which he regarded as one of many aspects of the human psyche. The inner child became mainstream with books like Bradshaw’s ‘Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child’ (1990). John Bradshaw was a self-development educator, who used the term ‘inner child’ to explore the lingering effects of childhood trauma.
The Shadow Artist
A concept from the Artists Way which has stayed with me since I first read the book is the idea of the Shadow Artist. A Shadow Artist is someone who is too intimidated or fearful to become an artist and follow their own creative dreams. Instead they’ll hang around other artists, admiring their work, possibly dating or marrying one. As Shadow Artist, you might take a job in the arts, so you can be around other artists while supporting them.
Cameron writes that the someone becomes a Shadow Artist because the artistic urges from their childhood were ignored, criticised or suppressed. She encourages readers to challenge their ‘core negative beliefs’, and posit alternative ones, making them into positive affirmations.
Taking the role of a Shadow Artist is seen as one of the many forms of self sabotage, designed to keep you from allowing yourself to be creative. It’s not a term I’m aware of outside Cameron’s writing, but the psychological processes that cause it are well documented within psychodynamic psychotherapy. The circumstances of your childhood can have a big impact on self-image, gaining self confidence, and your relationship with artistic creativity.
Breaking Through Your Creative Blocks
One of the core elements of The Artist’s Way is focusing on confronting and overcoming creative blocks. Cameron suggests that we block ourselves as a defence against what we perceive to be a hostile environment. These blocks can stem from unresolved emotional issues or past experiences which ultimately make us distrust our creative impulses.
There’re many ways we can block ourselves – through overeating, drinking too much, an unhealthy amount of sex, or overworking. Cameron stresses that the blocked artist is not lazy, but fearful. There can be many fears for a blocked artist – fear of success, not being good enough, or not being able to finish.
Even stronger is the fear of abandonment, stemming from early parental signals that pursuing art, or anything deviating from the norm wasn’t acceptable. These fears are unconscious, and can stay with you from childhood, so you won’t be aware of the extent to which they affect your outlook on life.
Although the blocked artist can appear to be procrastinating, they’re actually using up a great deal energy in emotions such as self hatred, regret, jealousy and self doubt. Julia Cameron guides readers through the process of being a beginner, taking baby steps, and allowing themselves to make mistakes along the way. It’s too easy to judge your early artistic efforts, but Cameron calls this ‘artist abuse’, and says you need to be willing to be a bad artist.
One way of breaking through creative block is by ‘drawing from the well’. Cameron describes the importance of replenishing your artistic energy from the world around you. As an artist you need to become self-nourishing, saying yes to life’s experiences, openly soaking up creative energy from images, encounters and the small details around you. This enables more of a creative flow, fostering a deeper connection with your inner artist.
Creative Block Through the Ages
The concept of the creative block, sometimes known as ‘art block’ or ‘writer’s block,’ has been discussed in various forms for centuries. As early as ancient Greek and Roman times, creativity was believed to be inspired by divine muses. A lack of inspiration, therefore, could be interpreted as a withdrawal of this divine favour.
Early twentieth century psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, viewed blocks as a form of repression, where unspeakable or unresolved inner conflicts prevented the free flow of ideas. And the term ‘writer’s block’ was coined by psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler in 1947, who put it down to having an unstable love life and having been bottle fed!
Creative block is now studied from a cognitive perspective, where some see it as related to perfectionism, fear of judgment, or self-doubt. Others see it as a natural part of the creative process rather than a pathological condition. Creative block is commonly treated with creativity coaching, art therapy, psychotherapy and mindfulness practices.
“Serious art is born from serious play.”
Celebrity Endorsement of the Artists Way
The Artist’s Way has captivated many well known public figures with diverse creative talents. Comedian and actor Russell Brand, renowned for his sharp wit and philosophical musings has frequently endorsed the book, and interviewed Cameron on his podcast in 2020.
Grammy award-winning musician Alicia Keys, recognised for her soul-stirring vocals, also champions The Artist’s Way for unlocking some of the deeper layers of her creativity. And Pete Townshend, the legendary guitarist of The Who, credits The Artist’s Way for its influence in his creative journey.
Actors Reese Witherspoon, Kerry Washington, and writers Patricia Cornwell, and Elizabeth Gilbert have all publicly shared how the book has shaped their artistic journeys. Even entrepreneurial guru Tim Ferriss, and polymath Emma Gannon have endorsed the book for its ability to harness creative potential.
A Brief History of The Artist’s Way
The Artist’s Way is influenced by Julia Cameron’s personal journey with addiction, which has been an integral part of her creative awakening. Her battle with alcoholism, which she openly shares, presented a profound challenge for her. But the process of overcoming her struggles sparked new ideas and methodologies that became the foundation of this revolutionary programme.
The 12 Step Recovery Program
Julia Cameron found solace and structure in the 12-Step Recovery Program. Originally developed by Alcoholics Anonymous, the program serves as a pathway towards recovery from addiction. Each step, from the admission of powerlessness over addiction, to making amends, to continuing personal growth, leads towards the goal of sobriety.
‘The Artist’s Way’ shows a clear link to the 12-Step Program, framing creativity not just as a talent or skill, but as a spiritual journey. Much like the 12 Steps, Cameron presents a progressive series of tasks designed to break down barriers and foster a deep, transformative relationship with one’s own creativity.
In essence, The Artist’s Way could be viewed as a creative recovery program – it was originally called ‘Healing the Artist Within’.
The Artist’s Higher Power
The program’s emphasis on a ‘higher power’ might put some people off the Artist’s Way. But it shouldn’t, and Cameron makes this clear at the beginning of the book.
When seen through the lens of psychotherapy, it takes on a deeply personal meaning that goes beyond traditional religious contexts. In Cameron’s book, God doesn’t refer to a traditional religious figure, but rather an internal source of creativity, guidance, and inspiration.
The Artist’s Way & Psychotherapy
It’s interesting to see how the principles of ‘The Artist’s Way’ resonate with so many psychotherapeutic approaches. It offers techniques for introspection, exploring past experiences, identification with ‘negative’ thoughts, inner child work, and the use of other creative interventions.
The practice of Morning Pages encourages an intimate dialogue with the inner self, and Artist Dates can reconnect you with a natural but forgotten sense of joy, curiosity, and spontaneity. As you immerse yourself in the Morning Pages and Artist Dates, you might find yourself uncovering surprising emotions and thoughts, that have long been lurking beneath the surface.
Conclusion: Unlocking Your Creative Potential
Rereading the Artist’s Way over 30 years later, I can see how it was a pivotal influence in how I came to see myself as an artist. At the time I was studying to be a classical pianist, but although I learned some fantastic skills, I was really being a shadow artist, serving the ‘great composers’.
After college, I taught myself to compose, eventually becoming a full time composer. This was what I really wanted to do, and it took some self examination to be able to develop the self confidence to pursue it. As a psychotherapist now, I still devote much of my time to artistic pursuits, allowing my inner child free reign when it comes to artistic pursuits.
I think ‘The Artist’s Way’ is a valuable tool you can use on your journey of self-discovery and healing. Most of the exercises for unlocking creativity originate from some of the many psychotherapeutic approaches. They share the common goal of fostering self-understanding, accepting and working with difficult emotions such as shame and anger, and embracing your authentic self.
The concepts in the Artists Way are not new, but they are presented in a unique and accessible form, with exercises such as the Artists Date, which anyone can follow. Cameron presents an effective self-help system geared towards anyone who wants to access their own creativity, or is suffering from artist’s block.
For those interested in taking their self-discovery journey to another level, psychotherapy can provide the means to continue your exploration at a deeper level. With the insights you’ve learned from The Artist’s Way, you can begin therapy with a head start on your insight and understanding.
Your journey towards creativity, self-awareness, and healing has begun.