The Artist’s Way week 5: fasten your seat belts

Last week I blogged about doing the twelve-week course in  Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.  That was week 4: reading deprivation. This is week 5.

The topic

This week’s overall topic is barriers: self-sabotage/things you do to keep yourself stuck. Seriously working on week 5 results in a bumpy flight. (And why would you do the work of this course if you DIDN’T take it seriously? What a waste of time that would be.)

The tantrum

On Monday night around midnight, I was in the kitchen, tired and hungry and unable to sleep, making some hot milk with honey, and the honey bottle slipping out of my hand and knocking over the sugar bowl, which hit the floor and shattered.

Sugar is a lot like sand, on the floor.

I slammed the honey bottle down on the counter—WAY more angry than the situation required. The top to the bottle broke, something I did not realize until I tried to squeeze some honey into the hot milk and got about a cupful of honey to a half-cup of milk.

Honey is sticky, especially when it is everywhere.

What was strange about that situation was that I was angry at my inner artist. I blamed her for the broken sugar bowl, the spilled honey. I wasn’t just cursing myself for being careless; I blamed her.

What was THAT about? Was I just tired and frustrated? Was the artist grabbing for sweetness?  Whatever the motive, I’ve been calmer and more balanced since. Kinder.

The lesson

A task this week was to draw a cartoon that  illustrates “your favorite creative block.” Although I can’t draw, I drew a picture of someone standing next to a table on which was a cake. She was looking away from cake while reaching toward it. The caption was “I want this. No I don’t.”

Halfway effort is waste of time. It leaves you both satisfied and unsatisfied. Better things ahead.

The Artist’s Way Week 4: Reading deprivation

For Christmas a friend gave me a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.  In a vague intuitive way,  I thought  “something good is about to come from this.” It has. It will.

I had the mistaken impression that The Artist’s Way was one of those feel-good books for creative types, to be read once in cozy circumstances and then relegated to a bookshelf, to be removed when you need to feel good again.

Not so. The Artist’s Way is a twelve-week course in recovering creativity and focus in daily life. It is intensive. It brings up hidden things. Julia Cameron also links creativity to spirituality (a nonnegotiable point for her), and any time you venture into that country with an open mind, you embark on an adventure around every corner of which may be something you did not expect.

The tasks vary from week to week. The primary task of week 4 is Reading Deprivation. That means to stop idle-time reading. Cameron might have meant to stop reading entirely, but on a practical level this was impossible, not to mention undesirable. So I set two conditions:

  1. Social media (Facebook, Twitter) 1X/day.
  2. No reading in the evening. AT ALL.

Wait—ONCE a day?

I was an early adopter of social media.  I’ve been using these sites in one iteration or another since the late 1990s. They are about connection. Also  they are about hiding out from work, about being bored with work, and about nothing more than habit.

Here’s what I learned: the number of times I used to check into Facebook was too many, but once a day is not enough. Not for me. I am spending a half hour there every morning rather than the usual 5-6 minutes. I miss half of what I would otherwise have seen and barely respond to anything because that half hour is agenda driven. It is not fun. It is like skimming through 8,000 emails to see if there is anything important.

When the purpose is connection, all kinds of things can be important, including trivia. Sometimes especially trivia.

So when the week is up, I’ll give myself 3X/day and see how that goes.

Not surfing the Internet to waste time (as opposed to doing research) turned out to be surprisingly easy. That does tell me how little the purposeless surfing added to my day. It did nothing, basically.

My oldest habit—broken

I always read in the evenings. Even before I learned to read, books were part of the night, because I was read to. Going cold turkey on this particular habit was a major change.

The first thing reading deprivation did was to produce a flurry of housecleaning. The place now has better-looking kitchen cabinets and a number of other improvements. I stopped short of rearranging office furniture, but I did do a lot of throwing out and sorting.

There was something of the “new broom” about this cleaning. Reading deprivation is a big enough deal that it felt like a harbinger of change.

I was halfway through a new book when reading deprivation week came around and have been looking at it wistfully. A purchase from Abebooks arrived yesterday and I did not open it.

I have rediscovered the music on my seven-year-old iPod. I went through a Gregorian chant phase a few years ago. That’s nice music to get sleepy to.

An odd discovery: when I look at photos in a catalog and do not read the accompanying text, the photos look different. Imagination provides the stories rather than the sales pitch I am not reading. It’s nice.

When I lived in Washington, DC, I bought a beautiful art book from the National Gallery on the 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. That was a fine thing to rediscover. Look at his paintings.

To waste time (I knew I’d find a way), I discovered an addictive little computer game called Balloon Pop. If you know someone whose organizational skills and productivity have always annoyed you, Balloon Pop will derail them. It is part of a sweet and charming animation called Circus. It costs two dollars, and you can give it as a gift.

Just saying . . .

Armchair BEA: Blogging about blogging

“Apparently blogging is all about love!” writes Laura at Devouring Texts. She is right.

Love is the common ground of writers and readers. For as long as there has been human civilization, there have been stories, paintings, and music. People create art whether they get paid or not, for the thing itself. What sense does that make?

None. That is why these acts are beautiful. By their very existence, they point to realities not measurable in practical material terms.

This week I have found many good book bloggers, people whom I know I would enjoy hanging out with in life and whom I now follow. All of these people could be doing things other than reading and blogging about what they read. I wrote and self-published a novel. I could have been doing other things, too—all of them easier and none of them as meaningful. Writing and reading are two sides of the same coin.

A writer can no more complete a story than she can perfect it. Only a reader can complete a story—or co-conjure it (if you see a story as a spell) This is why every book blogger is different, just as every opinion is different. How could it be otherwise?

A book blog shines because of love, enthusiasm, intelligence, and authenticity. Without these qualities, its appearance is unimportant. With these qualities, its appearance is also unimportant.

Armchair BEA: Who are you?

Thanks to the excellent book blog Erin Reads, which I know about because I know Erin (we belong to the same book club), I discovered the Armchair BEA. I discovered that BEA (Book Expo America) was about to get under way through another book blog: The Book Smugglers.

I am a part-time book blogger. However, as you can tell from the “Books I Like” category on the right, books are often the subjects of posts at Writer’s Rest.

Reading and Writing

I wrote and self-published a novel, Cel & Anna, about 3 months ago. This was, is, and will continue to be a learning experience. One of the things I learned was how many books there are in the world. Following on the heels of that realization came another one:

I want to read a lot of books.

The Book Smugglers alone are responsible for quite a few now on my To-Read list. Every time I go onto Goodreads, I find more.

About Me

When not writing, I live a quiet normal life in a semirural area of southwestern Pennsylvania, not far from where I grew up.  I spent more than 20 years in the Washington, DC, area, where I worked as a medical/pharmaceutical editor (I still do, from a home office).

The most notable thing about me as a reader is the way obscure books fly into my hands. I swear that they find me. How many people own novels by Amos Tutuola and Fred Secombe? How many people have blogged not once but twice at The Huffington Post about the American expatriate author Russell Hoban?

And I am absolutely positively the only novelist in the history of the world to request permission from Syracuse University Press to reprint passages from Anne Sneller’s beautiful 1964 memoir, A Vanished World. I cannot prove this, but the connection is too obscure to have occurred to anyone except me, who has roots in the country Sneller wrote about.

Here is something I wish for: more illustrated books for adults. Not graphic novels, but books with pictures in them. One of the first posts I wrote was titled Illustrated Books: A Good Idea.

Here is a book I would recommend to anyone: Nancy Willard’s Sister Water.

Here are a pair of mid-twentieth century masterpieces: Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge.

My idea of a lovely Sunday afternoon: a glass of iced tea, a breeze blowing through the french doors, and a book to enjoy.

Reading and writing are both acts of imagination. I believe a story unread is a story uncompleted.

The blind spot

No one has ever asked me the condescending question “what makes you think your novel is good enough to be published?” If anyone did ask, my first response would be “other people have told me so.”

Readers know. Writers do not. My novel casts no spell over me. I am immune.

Wicked irony

This is the wicked irony of writing: you can devote hours and years to your craft, push yourself beyond the point you think you can keep going, and listen to people who give advice—but in the end you don’t know because you can’t know.

You have to do your best to cast a good spell—there are rules for that. You have to market (“I have a modest little spell you might find amusing”). Marketing is about becoming somebody, not about tooting your own horn.

More wicked irony: you cannot  recommend your own book. First, no one will take you seriously. Second, since you are immune to its charms, you cannot talk about how it works from a reader’s perspective.

(When I say “you” I mean “me.” Some writers can fall under their own spells, and read like readers. I envy them.)

Writing well requires talent, love, and a long apprenticeship. Still, whether a word-spell works ultimately depends on the reader, not on the writer. And that, dear friends, is as much luck as anything else.

A wonderful thing

A good friend owns a copy of Cel & Anna. Her daughter came to visit last weekend with her five-month-old baby girl. Drove all the way from Indiana without her husband, who couldn’t get away.  She had to cope with visits from relatives and caring for her baby, but on Sunday she picked up the book and read a little.

She took Cel & Anna back to Indiana with her. “Hey,” she said to her mom. “This is pretty good.”

The edge of success

After waiting four months, I got six possible cover designs for my novel CEL & ANNA last week. It took that long because the designer is very talented and very busy, and he did this work out of friendship. Also, it took some back and forth for him to get a handle on the novel.

The Welcome Song

Before I looked at the cover concepts, I set iTunes to playing “The Welcome Song” by Anne Trenning. This tune floated by months ago on Pandora. When I heard it, I  stopped what I was doing.

“Hey,” I thought. “What a beautiful tune.”

At this turning point in the long and winding road to self-publication, I could have played any one of hundreds of tunes. I chose “The Welcome Song.” I played it for about an hour on repeat. It is that good.

The next step

For a writer, success means readers. No story is finished until a reader completes it. I want people to complete CEL &ANNA eagerly, even happily. I want them to enjoy the journey.

Moving forward means, above all else, transitioning a business model. I wrote this book. Now I want to sell it. Readers need me to do this job well, too.

I believe that knowing who you are is the foundation of a successful marketing campaign—at  least in the Wild West that is indie publishing. No one told me this, and I can’t explain WHY I believe it, but I do.

The sequel

In an early-morning internet ramble, I found fiction writing software from the UK called Writer’s Café. Downloaded a trial version and began to play with it. I’d never used software to help me plot, outline, and track the progress of story arcs.

I liked my introduction to Writer’s Café. Sophisticated story planning tools + friendly interface = product that I wish I’d had when I was writing CEL & ANNA.

I found some notes I made for the sequel to CEL & ANNA, whose working title is THE NEW NORMAL. Actually, more than notes: some scenes had their wings and had launched themselves forward and upward in their tiny cage (ie, the Word file no one has seen but me). Plugged these notes into Writer’s Café.

“Hey,” I thought. “This is going to work.”


A neighbor wrote a poem for her mother, who is ninety-one. She wanted to get it typed prettily and formatted to fit in a 4″ by 6″ frame. Because she and her husband stock my kitchen with abundance from their garden every summer,  I volunteered to do the work.

I typed up a page of examples of fonts and colors. She picked Lucida Calligraphy in either plum or black—she wasn’t sure. “Can you do long dashes?” she asked. I assured her that I could.

About a half hour after I took the poem home, she called me.

“In that line ‘A loving heart, carved out of gold’ I think ‘carved’ should be ‘made.'”

“That’s a good point,” I said. “‘Carved’ implies something hard like stone or wood.”

“Or a turkey,” she remarked.

“‘Made’ is definitely softer,” I said.

“It isn’t a problem for you to change that word, is it?”

“Um, no.”

It was short work to get the poem formatted and printed out. I made 3 copies, in plum, plain black, and boldface black,  set in Lucida Calligraphy 14 point. My neighbor selected boldface black. When she called to say she had the poem in the frame, she sounded excited. She thanked me over and over.

My neighbor wrote the poem. Her mom will complete it.

Readers complete writers

Often writers admit that they don’t know whether what they are writing is any good. This is true. You never know because the reader completes the story. A story has as many versions as it has readers.

You can sense heat rising from the printed page even if you can’t isolate the exact combination of words that produce it. With heat the scrappiest hack work can keep you turning the pages. Without it, the finest prose lies inert on the page.

In this blog I’ve mentioned a variety of books that have heat for me. AMERICAN GODSTHE MOONSTONE. A VANISHED WORLDTHE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE. MOUSETRAPPED. The Bridge novels. Perry Mason mysteries. Russell Hoban’s novels. Most everything Emily Dickinson wrote, including the letters.

These books have nothing in common except that they work for me.

Light in love

“But I will be your light in love,” Joe Henry sang in “God Only Knows” on his great CD Civilians. God only knows why the heat starts to rise. It is not a lowbrow thing or a highbrow thing. It just happens.