In order to keep my creativity alive, I just try to enjoy life to the fullest. G-Dragon
Creativity is a mansion. If you’re empty in one room, all you have to do is go out into the hallway and enter another room that’s full. E. Gary Gray
I remember the moment the idea came to me, a gentle nudge in mid-January. It was cold in our northern world on this particular evening, Polar Vortex cold, too cold for my skis to glide across frigid dry snow, too cold to trudge beside the howling lake on the icy path, too cold to form a rational thought or make plans in any orderly fashion. So it was through neighborhoods, shielded by homes and trees, that I walked and shivered and let go of thinking of anything at all except the sharp sting of the arctic blast. And that’s when it popped into my head, a warm thought, more cozy suggestion than militant command, a forward-fun thought that sounded something like this: “I wonder if it would be a good thing to commit to the twelve-week process of The Artist Way again.” At least four times in the past twenty-five years, I have made my way though Julia Cameron’s book, alone a few times and twice with a circle of friends, chapter by chapter, week by week, delving into the exercises and themes that encourage a reclamation of our innate creativity. However, this process had not been on my radar for years, until that cold January night, that is. There was something engaging in this friendly persistent voice inside my head and I took it to heart. By the time I returned to the warmth of my car, I was on board, would order a new copy of The Artist’s Way and plunge myself into this twelve week journey with grit and gusto.
A few day later, I mentioned my Artist’s Way plan to a fellow Capricorn friend as we celebrated the mid-January birthday that we share, and her eyes grew wide. “No way!” she cried out. She too had heard a voice in her head, felt the nudge to reacquaint herself with this twelve-week journey, even had hauled out an old copy of the book. “Let’s do it together!” we both exclaimed. “It’s going to be powerful!” we added. And indeed it has been powerful. Each week, on our own, we have read a single chapter, dipped into the tasks at chapter’s end, committed to three pages of daily free-writes, have claimed time for Artist’s Dates, and then, on Thursday mornings, in the coziness of a local coffee shop nestled in an old house, we have met, shared stories and insights and have cheered each other on. This process has been a container for me and for my friend, too, during this long long winter in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a cauldron providing focus and heat and vibrant energy. I have stirred this cauldron pot and it has stirred me too. And the gifts have been plenty, both expected and unexpected.
I am no stranger to committing segments of my days and weeks to the practice and process of creative endeavors. For over thirty years, I have written longhand in journals, have computer-typed essays and blogs, have copied down quotes, have forged out the paths for longer projects too, projects that have evolved into books and books-in-process. It is from my own decades of experience and from bearing witness to the process of others that I have come to expect the gifts to emerge when we say “yes” to a practice, a practice that is lighting our inner fire, that is bringing us heat, even in the depths of a cold and howling Upper Peninsula winter. So, I expected gifts, creative gifts, to bubble up as my friend and I traveled the artist’s way path through this book. I expected the excitement of claiming more time than usual for my writing, and more time for reflecting on new dreams that might be taking seed during the dark months of winter. And indeed, as the wind howled, as ice clung to the trees and snow flew sideways, I felt warm inside, filled with color and delight and spacious hours set aside for the tasks in The Artist’s Way book. It was the focus of these spacious hours, the focus of what exactly brought me excitement and delight that threw me for a loop, that felt like a belated birthday surprise.
“Glue sticks rock!” That was the message my Artist Way partner sent to me in a text one week during our three-month adventure. And I sent her back a two-thumbs up of agreement. While a voice in my head was full of “shoulds” — “Helen, you should be typing up those essays, should be sorting through the archive of Perry/Whitehead ancestor photos and writings, should be diving back into the Grandpa Haskell project, already a half-written book, for goodness sake” — while the blogs remained half-written and the projects stayed tucked away neatly in boxes, the glue sticks and scissors found their way center stage. My artist journal became a weekly source of pleasure, one that thrilled the artist child within me for hours on end. Each week, I copied down quotes and poems, created collages with photos that called me in all sorts of ways, photocopied paintings that drew me in, and completed the end-of-chapter tasks with gusto. One task instructed the participant to describe their childhood room — and, as I began to write about my room in our sea captain home in coastal Maine, I realized how fortunate I had been during those elementary school years to have a space set up to foster creativity, a room with two clubhouse closets, a fireplace and slate hearth perfect for chalk writing, two huge windows to peek out at neighbors, a spacious hardwood floor for coloring projects, and art supplies galore. My writing became a six-page essay of enthusiasm.
And that’s what I want to tell you, that enthusiasm became my compass this past winter. The “shoulds” flew out the window and play became paramount. I realized that my practices had been becoming quite serious, that I had been focusing not only on process but also on product, that a blog must be published by a certain date, a book completed in a certain season, a to-do list checked off by end of day. The child within doesn’t care about publication dates; the child within cares about play, and play is inherently creative and expansive and opens us up to new unexpected possibilities and pleasures. And lo and behold, sometimes the play does lead us to polished products. It was during the last two weeks of this journey that I felt compelled to peruse through two years of writings from our Upper Peninsula poet laureate’s monthly workshops at Joy Center, writings that I had cast aside as rough and raw and far too messy for serious revision. And what I found instead astounded me, a treasure chest of poems-in-process, many nearly finished in their raw messiness. It felt like the holy grail to me, gems discovered in perfect timing, gems that I now have polished with an ease and grace and a child-like wonder that can’t be forced.
And the gifts that spilled out of the cauldron-container for both my artist partner and me couldn’t be confined to a journal or notebook or a specific time set aside for the creative tasks at chapter’s end. That is the thing I remembered clearly during this process, that it is the whole of our lives, every moment, that is an artist’s expression, a miracle waiting to be noticed. I knew this already, but it was within the heat of the cauldron-container-process that I noticed it with more vivid appreciation. I could hardly contain the excitement, the awe I felt when skiing on trails surrounded by trees glazed with ice, for weeks on end, shimmering, glimmering, an other-worldly fairy land of wonder. And a Saturday supper, it is a creation to behold when the ingredients are fresh and a guy and a gal are playing together in the kitchen and a movie is waiting for them on Netflix after the feast. Each week, I devoted space in my artist journal to record miracles and magical moments, and each week my list was long and satisfying. Sometimes it was the simple things, a smile exchanged, a patch of sun that brought a startling warmth to frosty cheeks, the bold and welcoming colors in our toasty home, the heat of a basement sauna. Sometimes it was more dramatic, an eagle sitting by the side of the road or flying overhead just as I was thinking a powerful thought. Sometimes the miracle moments involved release, release of any “shoulds” or old stories that were outdated and heavy, and the release was easy and light. And there were moments that astounded me. One evening after Dinner and a Movie at Joy Center, I felt compelled to tidy up the back basement, and stumbled upon a box in the corner that I had forgotten about, a box of small treasures from my mother’s cottage that had been sitting there for six years, and in this box was a ring made by my uncle for my mother, a wonderful modern sprawling ring that looks like an angel or bird on the wing, a gift from my angel mother that I now wear daily.
There is one page remaining blank at the end of my artist’s journal, a page I plan to fill with a collage of images pointing me forward. I have finished the final chapter in The Artist’s Way and am now visiting our two sons and their families in Idaho. It is spring here, tulips in vivid bloom, leaves unfurling, a new season beckoning. Yesterday I ate lunch at school with my six-and-a-half year old grandson and a table crammed with first graders sharing knock knock jokes. Afterwards, I followed them outside for twenty minutes of recess on the sprawling field of grass and the cedar-chipped play area. And I soaked it in, the wildness of it all, the freedom, as the many classes of kids raced from one activity to another, as they hooted and hollered and kicked a soccer ball then sailed across the monkey bars then swung themselves high up into the sky. It is within us all, this artist child, this desire to create, to play, to imagine. We don’t need a twelve-week process to remind us that we are all artists, that our lives are our art, though a practice might bring us the heat we need to play with more gusto. And let’s do it, in this new season of tulips and leaves unfurling. Let’s play with more gusto. Let’s allow ourselves to unfurl and blossom with the tulips and leaves. Let’s live full-out and free. Happy spring!