Week 8 of the Artist's Way: time as a creative block

we are not too old or too young, too early or too late to make art

Hi folks! Through this newsletter I have been sharing my progress with The Artist’s Way, a self-help book for creative recovery by Julia Cameron. You can read more about the decision to start the twelve-week program here.


By a certain age in our lives, we feel for the first time that we are predestined to the path we have chosen. It feels too late to change a career, leave a relationship/marriage, or move to a new country. The age itself differs—for some it’s in their 40s, for a lucky few it’s almost never, but for a lot of people I’ve met it’s in their early 30s, when they feel like they just missed the boat of the desirably unstable, risk-taking 20s. To stray would mean disappointment and fear and giving up stability—all of which seem Bad Bad Bad!

Certainly these same blocks and perceptions of time apply to creative desires, which is the topic of this week’s chapter. Have you had a thought along the lines of, “I wish I could draw or dance or tell jokes or make music…but it’s too late, I’m too old?” Cameron pins this excuse as an avoidance tactic for having our ego deflated. It feels humiliating to be a beginner—oh no, we can only fail and look silly when we are young kids too dumb to know better, or old and slightly crazed without anything to lose. For any age in between, we think the creative dream better lead to something worthwhile.

Cameron states it is an artificial ego requirement to accomplish certain things by certain ages. Though I agree, she also conveniently leaves out the sense of loneliness and neglect felt by not accomplishing certain things by certain ages. Pressure to reach milestones by certain ages is very much entrenched in our society’s fabric (at least the American one).

Nevertheless, the overall message to embrace a beginner’s humility and openness is really wonderful. As someone who values curiosity, what could be more in line with welcoming curiosity than adopting a beginner’s mindset and taking the steps to create despite any promise or guarantee of great work?

Focused on process, our creative life retains a sense of adventure. Focused on product, the same creative life can feel foolish or barren. We inherit the obsession with product and the idea that art produces finished product from our consumer-oriented society… Fixated on the need to have something to show for our labors, we often deny our curiosities.

Other fun tidbits within the chapter deal with artistic losses. Though much of our early fears around creating can come from our parents, teachers and other authority figures in schooling are of equal influence. Quote Cameron, “many academics are themselves artistic beings who are deeply frustrated by their inability to create.” We can experience subtle disregard of our art.

Yet, “intellectualism runs counter to the creative impulse.” Much of art is based on feeling. This is hard for me to accept since I am heavily reliant on my cerebral nature to carry me through life, because it was the only guarantee of success with clear measures. Funnily enough, when a prompt asks to identify a teacher who shipwrecked my confidence, my sophomore year English teacher immediately comes to mind. Getting a subpar SAT essay score is another. I grew up learning that my worth was tied to grades, and to not receive high grades in the subject closest to writing was demoralizing.

For more practical tips: Cameron advises to think of gains disguised as loss. Instead of “why me?” we can ask “how” and “what next?” Funds don’t come through for a project. How can the project be bootstrapped? You learned flat illustration and want to get clients but find that it’s becoming out of fashion. What else can you learn that excites you?

House Dance

For this week’s artist date I dragged my butt to Cricket’s beginner house dance class at PMT. I have been meaning to learn house dance all year, mainly to improve my footwork and someday be able to freestyle confidently.

TL;DR House is a street dance primarily danced to house music (in its original form, not the more modern electro house). The footwork is complex whereas the upper body is loose and fluid (this choreography is a good example). The dance style emphasizes freedom, improvisation, and musicality. House dance appears very easy and loose—I even thought it boring for a while because it doesn’t have the flashy elements found in jazz or hip hop.

Going to a house class is VERY SWEATY. You will really be on your feet the whole time, doing basic steps but drilling them over and over again! What I appreciate about the beginner classes at PMT or House of Movement is that the teachers really emphasize the basic steps of the dance style. The class was a welcome break from the more typical routine I’ve fallen into with dance classes, where I am so focused on learning the choreography that I’m not really able to practice and absorb the underlying movement.

Reflection

I’m at the 2/3rds mark of the Artist’s Way, set to finish by the end of the year. I have not broken the morning pages streak (yay!) but artist dates are quite often a pain in the ass. I feel that I already prioritize time for hobbies and creative activities and though I welcome new adventures, I also enjoy preserving routine to maintain my current hobbies and going on artist dates with friends. For many of the weeks, the artist date is a two birds one stone deal—a stand in for exercise, for example.

Anyway, happy December to all! Here’s to comfort food and fuzzy blankets and watching all the Vanessa Hudgens Christmas movies on Netflix. 🎄

Week 7 of the Artist's Way: the right attitudes for creativity

Hi folks! Through this newsletter I have been sharing my progress with The Artist’s Way, a self-help book for creative recovery by Julia Cameron. You can read more about the decision to start the twelve-week program here.


Happy Thanksgiving! Damn does it feel GOOD to have a five day weekend. I’m staying put in the city with fellow California stragglers, eating all the food and lying prone on the couch flipping through options on Netflix (how does anybody ever settle on what to watch? It’s total overwhelm).

Last week of The Artist’s Way was about “Recovering a Sense of Connection.” Are we being receptive to our creativity? Do we have the right mindsets to let ideas flow? The first ability Cameron mentions is listening, or observation. We can consider ourselves conduits of creativity and inspiration instead of straining ourselves to create something out of nothing.

“Art is not about thinking something up. It is about the opposite—getting something down.”

We find thousands of ideas and possibilities once we pay attention; it is our job to tune into the desired frequency we want—an innovative way to market our business or a background story for a fictional character for example. The solutions will come provided you stay patient and observant (it’s likely many of us drop our projects while waiting impatiently; I certainly have).

Another facet to welcoming in creativity is to kill perfectionism. Cameron includes a quote from Martin Ritt that “cerebration is the enemy of originality in art.” However, cerebration and critical thinking are touted as the be-all end-all in education. No wonder we welcome the logic/critic side of our brain to reign supreme.

To the perfectionist, there is always room for improvement. The perfectionist calls this humility. In reality, it is egotism. It is pride that makes us want to write a perfect script, paint a perfect painting.

Though turning off the critical side of my brain is a near impossible order, the idea of perfectionism being egotistical seems like a sensible way to turn the dial down. Why should I be so special to create great works from the get go?

The third attitude is to welcome risk. We place our limits at the brink of where we feel assured we can be successful, or at least decent. When we say we can’t, we mean we won’t unless we can do it perfectly (or at least not so badly that we embarrass ourselves). I grew up with a lot of fear, especially around physical matters, so I am grateful to have tried a lot of different activities that I knew I wouldn’t be so great at (ballet and jazz dance, rock climbing, pottery, axe throwing, etc.) Not excelling at new things isn’t fun by any means, but learning and seeing my own improvement is well worth it.

Still, there remain activities that I am hesitant to try—improv, acting, singing in public and not in a karaoke room, podcasting, all of which are activities that use my voice. This signals to me that getting comfortable with my voice will help me befriend risk and be a huge win for my confidence. What about you—if you didn’t have to do it perfectly, what would you try? What stops you from doing it?

Portrait Drink & Draw

I don’t know if I really enjoy drawing. Many people associate visual arts (and therefore drawing as a fundamental for most of those arts) with creativity, and to lack talent in this area somehow means we are not meant to be creative. I know this isn’t true, yet drawing still feels like the top level skill to be definitively considered an artist. It shouldn’t matter but it does, enough for me to usually avoid drawing beyond doodles and shapes.

For my artist date I headed to my first drink and draw night, specifically a portrait drawing event. There were around twelve people present at the Kin Euphorics space in Williamsburg, which is very millennial pink with fluffy clouds for decoration.

I was imagining we would mainly be drawing by and for ourselves during the night, but the event turned out to be a lot more interactive. Visual artist Jaleeca started with a meditation then we drew a bunch of circles on a paper, then passed it to the person on our left. This cycle continued while we drew lines through the circles, then waves, then filling in the white spaces.

After the page was sufficiently filled with abstract shapes and color, we all rose and were told to pick a partner with an alluring aura to partner with. The idea of openly evaluating everybody in the room and picking one filled me up with anxiety real quick, but thankfully a woman named Tara sauntered over towards me before I had to choose. After chatting for a while (I found out Tara was a chef at a vegan restaurant in Bed Stuy) we drew each other’s portraits on top of our colorful backgrounds. Above is Tara’s abstract portrait of me, complete with my eye freckle! Mine was a more literal portrait which she took home.

Once we were done everyone walked around to look at each other’s portraits. I was pretty embarrassed of my work after this; it was clear others had been drawing for years with their beautiful renderings. It felt synchronous that I was confronted with this feeling on a week where Cameron tackles perfectionism and risk. I haven’t drawn much, so why should my ego demand that I draw better? Why not try drawing without any expectation to do it perfectly?

Week 6 of the Artist's Way: cash, paper, bread

whatever you wanna call it. this week's about $$$ MONEY $$$

Hi folks! Through this newsletter I have been sharing my progress with The Artist’s Way, a self-help book for creative recovery by Julia Cameron. You can read more about the decision to start the twelve-week program here.


Folks, we’re halfway through! The sixth week is about "Recovering A Sense of Abundance" and it’s all about MONEY. Do you equate creative work with making less money? Do financial concerns prevent you from making time or space for creativity? These pitfalls can even affect successful artists, who become too preoccupied with work to enjoy former passions and pastimes.

Cameron’s main advice is to allow small luxuries into our life. Fresh raspberries, a bouquet of flowers from the grocery store, a drive to the beach—anything that gives us real joy.

All too often, we become blocked and blame it on our lack of money. This is never an authentic block. The actual block is our feeling of constriction, our sense of powerlessness. Art requires us to empower ourselves with choice. At the most basic level, this means choosing to do self-care.

Upon filling out the “Money Madness” exercise (you can try it yourself here), I grappled with the following thoughts:

  • If I had money/could afford it, I would quit my job for a year.

    • I quickly wrote down that I would quit my job with excitement and whimsy. But how am I defining “affording it” or “having money”? I have more than enough for a rainy day fund and have proper retirement investments, yet haven’t made this move nor really have any plans to. Am I defining “having money” as a far-off nebulous amount, like a million dollars?

  • Being broke tells me I’m a failure.

    • I have been actively moving away from thinking in pass or fail, black or white categories. Yet nothing would propel me more towards believing I am a failure than having no money. This is learned from my family for sure, growing up with parents that emphasized saving and discouraged unnecessary expenditures (but BLESS MY FINANCIAL SAVVY PARENTS because the thought of not having a savings account at 31 while making $180K is petrifying). Money is security and freedom and it is only because I have it that I feel free to make time and space for creative play.

  • I’m afraid if I had money I would stay trapped in a cycle of wanting more and fearing losing it.

    • Despite writing this worry down, I don’t think I deal with wanting more money all that much. Some part of me knows that even if I made double the amount I do now, my saver/hoarder tendencies would override the desire to spend and succumb to lifestyle creep. This is all proof that the fear of losing money is real—it’s why I can’t fathom quitting my job just to quit and be free, or go to graduate school without any guarantees that I’ll like where I end up more than where I am now.

What’s your relationship with money? How do you know you have “enough” of it, or is there never enough? How much of your life choices are calibrated with financial security in mind?

Dance Church

I head to Mark Morris Dance Center this week for my artist date to try a workout called Dance Church, recommended by my friend John. I’m a little skeptical in the way that one is going to Soulcycle, Y7, or other cult-like workouts.

Dance Church is a “guided improvisation dance fitness class.” The instructor covers the studio mirrors with curtains, takes the clock off the wall, and dims the lights. Everyone is barefoot or with socks (no shoes). We get in a circle around the instructor, who tells us to move freely, go at whatever intensity we’d like, and that there will be no talking for the rest of class. Then some Robyn or Icona Pop song starts playing (it probably wasn’t either of those but you get the vibes) and everyone starts writhing and moving like they’re in the privacy of their bedrooms. I feel paralyzed for a few seconds before saying “fuck it” and going off.

The best part of Dance Church is the freedom to move my arms. In my usual dance classes, I can see that I’m frequently cutting off my arm movements or not making them large enough because the power isn’t there, and I get nervous I’ll complete the movements in time. Here the instructor guides us to keep our arms up, then move them left and right, make big shoulder swings, move them up and down. I’ve never moved my arms so much while dancing and it feels so good!

The class is scheduled for ninety minutes. At around thirty minutes (though I can’t be sure since there’s no clock) my bony feet start to hurt from prancing and spinning on the bare floor. My energy level drops; I’m in awe of some of the other dancers in class who are still going at full capacity. We dance for about thirty more minutes, at one point all hugging and touching each other’s knees or elbows to “We Found Love” before breaking away and traveling the room freely. It feels…weird but fun. Pseudo-spiritual. What I imagine Burning Man to be like minus the drugs. The class ends with standard floor exercises and stretches.

I don’t know if I’ll go to Dance Church again by myself, though it would be a blast to go with a friend (hit me up if you’re curious to try!) The accomplishment and performance of dancing to choreography appeals to me more; however I can’t deny the freedom and release I feel from there not being any right or wrong way to move my body.

Week 5 of the Artist's Way: the virtue trap

do you believe spending time for yourself is selfish?

Hi folks! Over the next few months I’ll be sharing my progress with The Artist’s Way, a self-help book for creative recovery by Julia Cameron. You can read more about the decision to start the twelve-week program here.


The theme of this week is “Recovering a Sense of Possibility.” Frequently we place limits on ourselves with scarcity thinking—we might think we’re already so privileged, that there is only so much good we can receive, that it is selfish to want more, that to expect and desire less is how we can guarantee satisfaction. But has this scarcity thinking worked out for us? Can you actually want less, or are those dreams just deeply buried? We can express gratitude for all that we have and still ask for and pursue more.

The Virtue Trap

We strive to be good, to be nice, to be helpful, to be unselfish. We want to be generous, of service, of the world. But what we really want is to be left alone. When we can’t get others to leave us alone, we eventually abandon ourselves.

Julia Cameron describes prioritizing others’ needs in order to appear virtuous as “the virtue trap.” I highlighted a majority of this chapter because damn, I REALLY FEEL THIS (and I’m sure a lot of you readers do too!) I dream of disconnecting from the internet, traveling by myself, or being unreachable and even lonely because I don’t provide alone time for myself consistently. And I don’t do that because to do so seems selfish, and being selfish is Very Bad, and I don’t want to be a Very Bad person.

Frequently it is unclear that this abandonment of ourselves is because we crave to be alone and do nothing. It manifests as moodiness, impatience, and guilt. We can surmise that is from lack of sleep/exercise or burnout but I do think there is something specific in needing to carve out time for one’s self for someone with creative wishes. It’s also slightly different from an introvert needing alone time to recharge, though I’m sure there is plenty of overlap.

Through the week I plan out my days as best as I can so that I know when I will have alone time with clear boundaries and when my time will be free for others. If I know these timeframes in advance, I can let go of any guilt I feel from not prioritizing one or the other. As someone who also loves jumping onto new ideas and trying new things with friends, it’s a work in progress to keep all of my own needs in mind while also allowing for some spontaneity! It feels like a very Virgo solution to practice self-love through planning & organization, but it really can be the best gift.

Vision Board

For my artist date this week, I spent a Saturday afternoon in a cafe creating a vision board through Pinterest. This was the first time that my artist date play time was digital, yet I had the most fun this week than ever before! Messing around on Pinterest and collecting inspiring, self-reflective images was 100% play, 0% pressure.

Some themes from the board:

  • I want a library in my future home with lots of greenery and sunlight through the windows. Natural, wooden elements a plus

  • I vibe a lot with introspective artwork and the color yellow

  • May I have the outfit confidence of Peggy Gou

Thank you to all of you who have been reading these weekly emails and messaging me your incredibly kind & supportive comments! If you know of a friend who wants to follow along with The Artist’s Way or is stuck in the virtue trap, please share :)

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side projects as self-care

My sister shared a newsletter with me from Glitter Guide all about side projects; I have a fixation with side projects so of course I had to read it. We laughed over this one line that starts the email:

We…fully believe that side projects are essential for creative expression, self-care, and even making you better at your day job.

Side projects are not essential. I hope we all know that! When starting out as a software engineer, I really thought I had to have a side project to be a credible developer. Having lots of projects would signal my “passion for code” and my curiosity for learning. I came up with lots of ideas for side projects and worked on a few of them early on. But over time, the last thing I wanted to do after getting home from work was open up my terminal and IDE and stare at a computer some more. Thankfully I’ve worked at companies where there are plenty of different engineers—ones who are parents and rarely have the time for side projects, ones who are young and eager and writing blog posts about different projects they maintain. Side projects can and likely will help you grow at your day job, but you know what is best for making you better at your day job? Working your day job.

For several years, side projects have been my main avenue for safely exploring different interests and learning new skills while divorcing any need to support myself financially from it. I certainly place expectation on my side projects to bring me closer to this nebulous “dream job” where I can make a comfortable amount of money while creating something that aligns with my purpose. In fact I think and stress about this expectation so much that my next side project revolves around the very topic of work and purpose. That’s why reading that sentence about side projects as a means for self-care felt like such a wild concept.

Can side projects be a form of self-care? I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea. I think hobbies are a great means of self-care. My friend Nicole did a great write-up of defining side projects vs. hobbies, stating that “a hobby is an activity that you do for pure enjoyment. There’s no expectation of progress or compensation.” It’s that very freedom of expectation for hobbies along with the play that helps us maintain our well-being.

No matter how low risk or low pressure a “labor of love” side project can be, there are usually expectations you will place on the project based on your goals. You want to see yourself improve your skills over time, or maybe you want to see tangible impact in the community that you’re serving. Side projects as self-care does seem possible if we can effectively set aside these pressures and tune into the flow and creative energy we experience while doing the project.

As much as I dismissed the newsletter upon first read, it proved to be a good lesson for me to focus more on the moments when I observe my energy filling up while working on a side project. I feel lucky to experience this more often lately as I continue to discover what sorts of projects are genuinely exciting, versus which are ones I think I should do to be perceived as smart/cool or to fit into a certain community. I still see my side projects as work and not self-care or leisure, however—and so be it. Only you can decide what self-care is for yourself (and that’s part of how it's become this nebulous, catch-all buzzword. But that’s a topic for another time)!

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