A Sunday Date with “The Artist’s Way” by Cheryl Owen Wilson

“My creative mojo is gone, scattered like autumn leaves.  I am bare and exposed.”

“The pandemic has eaten all I had to offer in my creative life .”

How many of you creatives felt, still feel, or have had friends express this sentiment? Are you, as a friend recently confessed, “I’m stuck in quicksand and can’t find a way out.”

In the last year, every morning when I open my email there are several offers for classes or get togethers via zoom to connect with fellow artists/writers.  Normally I would have signed up for them all.  Yet during this past year and into the new year I couldn’t manage to commit to any of them.  The uncertainty of our world had left me feeling so claustrophobic, any class, weekly meeting, etc. seemed too overwhelming to consider. 

Then a writing acquaintance offered up weekly meetings with an old friend (a book)—The Artist’s Way, A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron.  The book is a 12-chapter course in discovering and recovering your creative self.  I read the book when it was published back in 1992.  Since that initial reading it has traveled with me from home to home, but never again did I crack its spine.  My acquaintance’s plan was each week we’d read a chapter and on Sunday she would facilitate a zoom meeting lasting no more than an hour.  She gathered creatives from all across the US and as far away as the Netherlands.  It felt like a good start to getting my writing mojo back, but I also allowed myself the grace of bowing out if I felt it too restrictive. 

So I began my Sunday zoom meetings and to my surprise I missed only one of the thirteen sessions, and was sad to see it coming to an end.  I’m not going to attempt to incapsulate the many pearls of wisdom I garnered from rereading the book, but I will attempt to explain a few of the practices I recognized I’d subconsciously continued years after my first reading.

Before I begin I should address the use of the word God throughout the book.  If the word God carries for you a negative connotation, as it did for a few in our Sunday group—they explained the word immediately gave them a picture of an angry male figure passing down judgement on their every move–Cameron provides an acronym of her intent in using the word—”GOD equals Good, Orderly, Direction.  The word is useful shorthand, but so is Goddess, Mind, Universe, Source and Higher Power.”      

Let’s begin with positive affirmations or quotes as the book is riddle with them.  My favorite quote is: Affirmations are like prescriptions for certain aspects of yourself you want to change—Jerry Frankhauser. 

Positive affirmations or Quotes—I’ve collected positive affirmations/quotes for longer than I can remember and had no recollection of when I began this practice.  They hang like jewels from fairy lights in my artist studio, they’re on my bathroom mirror, I give them as gifts,  there is always a deck of cards with inspirational quotes on my bedside table.  I’m now certain my love of these small tidbits of positive energy came from my first read of The Artist’s Way.

Personalizing affirmations is also used in many of the tasks Cameron gives the reader to do at the end of each chapter.  In one such task we were to write:  Treating Myself Like a Precious Object Will Make Me Strong.  We were then instructed to place the personal affirmation in a place where we’d see it daily.  This particular task, I affirmations, elicited much discussion and proved to be one of the major catalysts on the road to creative recovery in our group.  Here are a few more Cameron listed: 

            I am a talented person.

            I have a right to be an artist.

            I now accept hope.

            I now share my creativity more openly.

I created my own I affirmation:  I Will Live with Intention in All that I Do

Morning Pages—Another practice I’d forgotten I began with my first read of this book. You put pen or pencil to paper and write.  No keyboards please.  There is a kinetic benefit to this daily stream-of-consciousness writing.   I may not accomplish this on a daily basis, and have even stopped writing these pages off and on over the years.  But when I do I find the time for morning pages I’ve found my creative mind is more easily activated.   Many paintings have been born while writing morning pages, as well as story lines and interesting characters.

“Show up at the page.  Use the page to rest, to dream, to try.” 

The Artist’s Date—The artist’s date is a weekly practice that ties nicely with my above-mentioned affirmation involving intention.  You’re to take yourself on a date with the intention of quietly observing.  Think of it as a sacred space, a time for healing solitude meant just for you.  It can be as simple as taking a brief walk, or cooking a favorite or new recipe, visiting a museum, or embracing silence while staring up at a starry night sky.  Many of my artist’s dates have been simply sitting in quiet meditation. 

Another of my own affirmations:  Life itself is Meant to be an Artist’s Date

Collage/Vision Board—Since I’m a visual artist as well as a writer I’ve found this exercise beneficial in many areas.  Collect at least ten magazines.  Then working within a ten-to-twenty-minute time frame tear out anything that speaks to you—words, pictures, etc., or if no magazines are available for you to rip up, print off similar things you’ve kept in files on your computer.  You then glue, staple or tape the images onto a canvas or board creating your own unique visual collage.  Look at it through the eyes of your past, present, future, and beyond to your dreams.  Display your collage in a place where you can see it daily.  I’ve created these vision boards not just for my own life’s vision, but also for characters in my stories, or for the actual stories themselves.  

“If you want to work on your art, work on your life.”—Chekhov

Through the thirteen weeks of meeting and discussing The Artist’s Way, did I recover my mojo?  Of course I did.  But I also found so much more.  As one participant said, “It feels so good to be able to talk to people who really get what I’m feeling.”

In closing, many in the Sunday Artist’s Way meetings have decided to perhaps begin again.  This time we’re thinking of meeting and reading a chapter a month as opposed to weekly.  This will allow us to delve more deeply into each chapter and tasks.  For myself, I know I will not let years pass before I once again pick up The Artist’s Way.  I wonder in a year or two how many daily/weekly practices I’ll be continuing from this second reading?

Do you have something you can go to, a book, a daily routine, to recover your creative mojo?    

When Building Blocks Become Stumbling Blocks

by Christina Lay

Photo 150416348 © Juan Moyano | Dreamstime.com

Pronoun: a word that is used instead of a noun or noun phrase, for example he, it, hers, me, them, etc. (Oxford Online Dictionary)

Exciting stuff, eh? Normally, pronouns tend to be invisible words that carry their load without fuss; words like the, and, there. They are fundamental building blocks of the language that we absorb as we learn the language. They’re just there and we as writers don’t have to think about them much.  So what happens when new pronouns are introduced into the language? To further complicate matters, what happens when no one can agree on what those pronouns are, or if they should be used at all?

I’m talking of course about xe/xer, or ze/zir, or they/them when used to refer to a single person rather than a group.  I’m not here to argue about whether or not these new non-binary pronouns are necessary and deserve to exist. I’ll just go ahead and say that, yes, they do, assume you agree, and move on from there.

I personally prefer ze, zir because Z is a friendlier letter to work with than X. I have a writer’s bias on this.  Feel free to argue for xe/xer in the comments section if so inclined.

I have a suspicion that the incorporation of new pronouns might only be an issue for writers of a certain age.  I know my brain is rather calcified, but I’m willing to stretch and grow. You whippersnappers out there have had a chance to incorporate this addition to the language while your brain is still pliable. Good for you. For the rest of us, it’s a little more challenging.

A few years back, I took my first stab at writing a character who “chose not to gender identify”.  I craftily avoided the new, and therefore jarring, pronoun issue by avoiding using them at all.  I used the character’s name instead, or avoided sentence structure that required pronouns. I also used ‘the’ instead of a possessive like xer.  Imagine my dismay when a copy editor blithely tore through my manuscript, inserting he and him in my pronoun-less sentences and basically ignoring the fact that I’d clearly stated this was a non-binary character. Granted, my effort may have come off as rather awkward, but to have someone completely miss the point was frustrating, to say the least. Imagine what it feels like to bethe person whose reality is so easily ignored or swept aside.  Obviously, I never used that copy editor again, but I’m still grappling with the use of the new pronouns. 

Fortunately, there are more accomplished writers out there who’ve embraced the challenge, writers I admire, and they have managed to incorporate xe/xir or ze/zer so that they effortlessly fit into the sentences and barely jar this old brain at all. I’m guessing this is simply a matter of practice, practice, practice.  

My continuing issue comes not from the perspective of a writer, but from that of a reader.  The writers I referred to have adapted the new pronouns so that it only takes a few pages for the brain to absorb and accept the new words.  The problem is the greater question of what the pronoun means. For good or bad, the words she and he symbolize a host of preconceived notions.  When a writer pens, “She walked into the room” the reader’s brain is already busily sketching in details. Shemeans a woman, with certain feminine qualities.  Now, if the writer wants to stop the reader from getting carried away with their own image of the character, they will step in and fill in details. “She was a large woman with broad shoulders and short-cropped hair” will bring an abrupt end to the stereotyping a reader just can’t help doing in a vacuum. I know, this ‘filling in’ of details is part of the problem with she/he in the first place. Those little words place a lot of preconceptions on the person they are referring to, which is why xe/ze are so necessary.  But their use puts a lot more pressure on the writer to stop the auto fill that a reader is bound to do.

My problem as a reader is that when I read ze/xe, without the guidance of the writer, my imagination slips around like a fish out of water, desperately seeking a form upon which to land.  I know that we have 1. A person who 2. Is not male or female.  Everything else the writer needs to supply.

Example 1: I read a wonderful book by Rebecca Roanhorse called Black Sun, a fantasy based on South American mythos and culture which I highly recommend.  Roanhorse’s character descriptions are so rich and vivid that every character was distinct and clear in my mind. Every character, that is, except the one who was referred to as xir/xe.  Every time the person was on the page, my brain did the fish out of water thing, trying to figure out what this person looked like.  It didn’t help that the first time we ‘see’ the character, they’re wearing a mask. After finishing the book, I went back to find out if my discomfort was merely due to me exhibiting calcified brain syndrome, but I found that whereas every other character was described in minute detail from hair color to body size to what their belt buckle was made out of, this character “wore a long skirt the color of sunset”. They had “dark eyes”. They were referred to as languid and lithe and at one point, the protagonist thought “damn that lovely face”.  But there were no specifics. My mind decided the character was tall, for no particular reason I could find, and athletic, because of their occupation: assassin. Other than that, I wasn’t sure what to think and xe/xir gives me no further clues.  Actually, xe/xir tends to push back against how I want to fill in this sketch. My old brain wants to make them male or female.

Example 2: I’m part of a group that shares short excerpts from their work online each week. One of the writers in that group is writing non-binary characters, and again, she uses xe and xer seamlessly, as well as they/them for an individual.  I have to admit that at this point I don’t know what any of her characters look like. That might be because she’s chosen not to share those passages, but a result I’ve noticed, besides an airy sort of void in my head where a character’s image normally resides, is the complete ignoring of the obviously non-binary nature of the characters on the part of many of the participants in the group. These are all well meaning and skilled authors, but week after week, they persist in referring to these characters as she or he.  Part of it might be due to ignorance of what xe/xer means (a hard sell at this point in our social awareness). Part of it might be inattention. More to the point, I think the writer bears some of the responsibility here for not creating (or at least, not showing these particular readers) more vivid, 3D characters on the page.  I imagine those readers and commentators are experiencing the same slippery fish phenomena that I did, and perhaps because they’re not spending much time thinking about the pronoun issue, they default to he/she and then forget that they have no actual reason to think those characters are male or female. It’s an easy thing to do, given our ingrained habit as readers to engage our imaginations to the fullest.

Part of this is a matter of growing and stretching that calcified brain, to be sure, but we as writers need to be aware of the reader’s potential struggle. If we don’t want our readers getting frustrated and thrown out of our stories, we need to be even more mindful of creating well drawn, vivid characters. If I as a reader know how they look, I don’t have to worry about it.  I don’t have to rifle through my character detail file every time the character speaks or stabs someone. Maybe the mysterious assassin was supposed to remain an enigma? Maybe, but they were a key part of the story, and I wanted and needed more.

Our responsibility as writers is not only to embrace the positive upgrade to our language that non-binary pronouns offer, but to do our part in bringing readers along. Characters who do not identify as male or female need not be vague, or mysterious, or less than fully realized. Yes, we’ll have to dig a little deeper into our well of descriptive powers, but in doing so, maybe we’ll hone our skills, broaden our perception of people in general, and stop relying so much on auto fill and stereotypes.  These are surely skills that will come in handy in real life as well.

Swimming Underwater

Cynthia Ray

All of the creative pursuits I’ve tackled over the years required lots of pricey supplies.   As a weaver I needed a loom, yarns, bobbins, and books. When fusing glass, a kiln was required as well as glass, frit, forms and molds. Painting involved studio space, paints, canvases, brushes and solvents. And of course, all of them called for books, lessons and workshops.

The great thing about writing is that it doesn’t require much to get started­.  All you need is something to write with (a computer or paper and pen, either will do) and an idea.  You don’t need a big room overlooking the beach, the latest computer or fancy software.  You don’t need elegant linen paper and fountain pens.  You don’t need to spend lots of money on exclusive workshops.  The library has a wealth of good books on the topic. So, begin with what you have at hand.  Sit down and write.  Simple, right?

However, as anyone who has written a book knows, simple is not easy.  Bringing the right words, the right characters, settings, and themes from the heart and head onto paper is a journey that should not be taken by the faint of heart.  It will bring you face to face with all of your weaknesses, all of your faults.  It will stretch you into places you didn’t think you could go.  It will also hone your strengths, and shine a light on the good.

Hearing about others struggles and triumphs in their work inspires me, whether it is reading about the lives of famous authors, or from my writer friends.  How did they work through the problems?  How did they slog through malaise and boredom without giving up?  How did they find the courage to write truth? How did writing change their life?  Where is their joy?  What is their vision?  How did they find their voice?  How do they discipline themselves in the work? 

One writer friend said writing is like breathing to her–she simply HAS TO WRITE.  My own experience is different.  It requires my willingness to dive deep and swim underwater for long periods of time, not breathing.  Or, it’s a bit like planning an excursion, mapping out all the highways and destinations, and then halfway through the trip, ditching the entire plan to cut a trail with a machete through an overgrown, snake infested jungle.  Therefore, every time I actually finish a story it is an astonishment, a surprise, a joy. 

Whatever your experience is, or how you get there, I’m wishing you the astonishment of completed stories.