I Used to Cringe at Self-Help Books. Until This One Changed My Life.

“The Artist’s Way” photographed at a studio in Brooklyn.Credit…Shawn Michael Jones for The New York Times

I have written about art my whole career. I find it and its creators endlessly fascinating, but I’ve always seen myself as something of a different kind — a journalist and critic, yes, but never an “artist,” with all the imaginative power that word conveys. Recently, though, I conducted a particularly poignant, intimate interview. The artist and I talked about childhood and the struggle of making oneself heard. There were tears. Afterward I had a thought: What would it be like if I were the one being interviewed? Could I be the artist, possessed of creative vision, like one of my subjects? The prospect was equally thrilling and terrifying.

These questions grew out of a long period in which I had been feeling alternately adrift and stuck. I regularly write about contemporary art for publications like this one, but for a while I’ve been in creative limbo. At first I wasn’t sure why, or even how, to describe it. Sometimes I said I felt disconnected from my voice; other times that my work and life, which was then filled with death and illness, seemed to have grown far apart.

I tried to address this through my usual methods: talking to friends, family, my therapist. When those didn’t work, I turned to a remedy several people had suggested: the 1992 book “The Artist’s Way,” by Julia Cameron. Structured as a 12-week course that leads the reader on a spiritual journey of “creative recovery,” the book began as a class and a collection of typed-up pages that Cameron photocopied and sold in bookstores, until she found a publisher willing to take it on. “We didn’t know where to put it on the shelves,” Joel Fotinos, who published the book at Penguin, said in a 2019 interview. “Eventually there was a category called ‘Creativity,’ and ‘The Artist’s Way’ launched it.” The book has sold more than five million copies since its publication, and Cameron has become a kind of guru.

I knew none of this when I ordered “The Artist’s Way,” only that it was some kind of woo-woo self-help book, and that it had popularized the phrase “morning pages” (which seemed like journaling, in the morning?). When I sat down to read, I almost immediately cringed. On the first page of the introduction, Cameron invokes “The Great Creator,” a.k.a. capital “G” God. That immediately set off my internal alarm; I underlined it wavily and wrote “Mmm” alongside. Turning the page, I realized to my horror that random inspirational quotes set in the margins were going to be a recurring feature. (An example: “I shut my eyes in order to see,” credited to Paul Gauguin.) The following chapters brought a bewildering jumble of metaphors.

I like to think I’m receptive, but I am also a critic — someone who prides herself on her discerning taste, at least in certain realms, including books. This was like a compendium of questionable taste. It took me back to the days of being a preteen, when I pored over the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series and published my bad poetry in school magazines. That version of me was so earnest that in retrospect I found her a bit embarrassing. But I also envied her nerve. She seemed a lot less self-conscious than the person I had become.

As it turned out, the beauty of “The Artist’s Way” was in asking people like me to set aside matters of taste entirely. Instead, Cameron prompted me to turn inward. One of her two core practices is the morning pages, writing three longhand pages upon waking up, which Cameron says “get us to the other side: the other side of our fear, of our negativity, of our moods” by creating space to contend with them. The other is the “artist date,” a weekly solo excursion or activity meant to cultivate inspiration. I didn’t always manage to do these tasks, but I recognized their value. I had arranged to do “The Artist’s Way” with a small group of women, and as one of them put it in a meeting, the exercises offered a way of witnessing ourselves.

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