What a Spiritual Creative Recovery Course Taught Me About Writer’s Block
Nada Alic / WNW Member
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the park telling a writer friend how I was having trouble writing my manuscript, if by manuscript I meant organizing folders and subfolders of unrelated Google docs, and by writing I meant renaming those Google docs as “Final”, “New Final”, and “Final Final 4 Real”. I was creatively blocked and too scared to admit it, as if acknowledging it somehow made it real. So instead I spent weeks laboring over small, constipated sentences hoping to coax it out by summoning the militant discipline I inherited from my Eastern European upbringing. I also cleaned, a lot. And when I wasn’t cleaning, I was reading Amazon reviews about organic cleaning products. Then I would buy those products and write my own reviews and repeat, thus triggering a full-on Marie Kondo shame spiral.
My published-author-friend assured me that this happens to all writers at some point and suggested I get my cards read by her clairvoyant friend and buy some CBD oil online with a promo code she got from a true crime podcast. (We live in LA). As we talked, I noticed a woman walking past us carrying a book entitled The Artist’s Way. I didn’t know what it was and quickly forgot about it, until later that night when an illustrator friend of mine asked me if I’d ever done The Artist’s Way. I took this as a sign. (Again, LA). He lent me his copy and as I walked out, a musician friend of his told me he was doing The Artist’s Way with a group, and excitedly asked if I was doing it too. I felt as if I’d accidentally stumbled into a cult, which at that point felt more productive than trying to write. I was in.
After reading up on it, I learned that The Artist’s Way is a global phenomenon that has sold over 3 million copies since it came out in 1992. For many artists, it’s a sacred text—a literal 12-step program for creative recovery. Before I go any further, please note that I’m aware of the book’s pseudo-Christian self-helpy cheesiness. When I imagine the author, Julia Cameron, she is wearing turquoise jewelry and combing a horse. She describes the course as “undertaking certain spiritual exercises to achieve alignment with the creative energy of the universe,” and asserts that everyone naturally possesses a childlike creativity that has been suppressed by core negative beliefs which range from the innocuous “I can’t spell” to the bizarre “I will get self-destructive and drink, drug or sex myself to death.” She also believes wholeheartedly in synchronicity, especially while in creative recovery, writing as if the path to creativity were littered with good fortune and life-changing opportunities if we could only find the courage to embrace God’s abundance. At times, it veers into The Secret territory, unconvincingly citing the example of a woman who prayed for a new loveseat and found one at her neighbor’s garage sale.
I decided to reserve all judgement until it was over, since it was that kind of limiting belief that I assumed was blocking my writing. Besides, Julia Cameron said this would happen; the very resistance to committing to the program indicated that I had some deep spiritual work to do. She wasn’t wrong. I spent my entire life orbiting around the idea of being an artist, barely allowing myself to say it out loud. Reading a book about being an artist felt amateur; real artists don’t read books on how to become artists—they just are. But my extreme measures of hate-Googling famous authors and monastic desk sitting weren’t working for me. Creativity, like love, had to be romanced, not bullied into submission. The Artist’s Way would teach me that kindness was the only way. A part of me worried that it wouldn’t take, or worse, it would and I’d lose my angsty edge.
Getting with The Program
There are two main tenants to the program: The Morning Pages and The Artist Date. The Morning Pages are three pages of freehand writing in the morning designed to eliminate the intimidation of blank pages by writing whatever comes to mind. The Artist Date requires you to take yourself out on a literal art date each week in an effort to keep your inspiration flowing. I was too embarrassed to take myself out on “a date” so I found ways to bake it into cultural things I already planned on doing, like going to a female filmmaker’s festival or attending a book reading. The Morning Pages were more my speed because they required the least amount of effort. I began referring to them as The Morning Complaints because that’s all they were: a list of complaints and a repository for all of my most evil thoughts, frustrations and fears. Writing them out felt like an exorcism, expelling the sludge of my former self onto the page in an act of transference. I hoped to be done with them, but I found myself circling compulsively around the same tired issues, deepening the grooves of my neural pathways through The Shining-like repetition. The jury is still out on whether The Morning Pages are helping. Maybe in time, the pages will bring about some change in me, or at the very least, deliver me a loveseat.
Now, for your entertainment, here are some actual unedited sentences I randomly pulled from my Morning Pages:
Is everyone else just fine and I’m losing my mind? I don’t want to believe that but it does work into my theory that I’m a complete fucking idiot.
I need to believe that it has to be brought to life because what I’m going through IS worthy and valid and interesting and can help people or just make them laugh at how cruel life is, because I need that too. I need to overcome my shitty feelings by turning them into art and making light of them.
When I returned the next morning, the piece had not written itself as I had hoped
On writing: I can think of nothing more painful, boring, anxiety-inducing.
Oh that reminds me of the word INHOSPITABLE, I want to incorporate that into the intruder story because I think that could be the key to making it less triggering.
Could I write about Craigslist scammers and how they are so obviously scammers and how they could stand to try to seem legitimate. Why won’t they try? It’s so easy to pass as a real person.
Do you have to be naked at Wi Spa? Or can you go in there with shorts on?
If you look at the entirety of your life, this is THE BEST TIME. Can you believe that? You’re in the best time. Enjoy it. Enjoy yourself. That always sounds like some kind of threat or punishment, you must enjoy! I don’t always enjoy, sometimes I dread, mostly I dread.
In addition, each week offered prompts and homework assignments which I never did. What? I could barely keep up with daily morning pages. The idea of listing my enemies and drawing x’s over cartoon renderings of them as monsters seemed excessive, and also hard because I can’t draw. I also never drew my Life Pie or ate my favorite childhood snack or described myself at eighty. In the spirit of kindness, I didn’t let myself feel bad about not doing everything.
The Road to Recovery
Each week focused on a different theme. Week one was about recovering a sense of safety by identifying your core negative beliefs and replacing them with affirmations. In the self-help world, this isn’t groundbreaking but if your inner voice sounds like mine, an asshole, you’ll need to start small. Week two addressed the distracting forces that keep you from cultivating attention. These forces are basically everyone keeping you from doing your work because they might on some level be threatened by your recovery, aka dream killers. I actually did stop hanging out with a few people who could only ever talk about how much they hated their jobs. These friends represented a shadow side of myself that I didn’t like, but mostly, they were a total bummer to be around.
Around week four, Cameron starts making bold claims for when a breakthrough is scheduled to occur: “long-seated depression breaks up like an ice-floe. Long-frozen feelings thaw, melt, cascade, flood, and often overrun their container (you)...be prepared for bursts or tears of laughter.” That was very extra but what I think she meant was that taking personal inventory of your soul is terrifying. Most people don’t do it. Our economy was built upon collective avoidance of it. Infinite scroll was invented for this very reason. People react differently to this level of openness in the same way mushrooms give me a panic attack but make my painter friend understand the secret poetry of a cactus. My reaction came in waves; I felt frustrated with the book’s oversimplification of things, then admittedly encouraged by how much of myself I recognized in each chapter. It was a relief to know that what I felt was universal, not some moral failure that was unique to me.
By weeks eleven and twelve there is a focus on maintaining your artistic self despite the success you will undoubtedly enjoy after faithfully following the course. There is a chronology to it that feels antithetical to the more ethereal principles outlined throughout the book. Some might never reach these chapters, others might start there. These lofty assumptions are balanced out by her greatest hits of motivational phrases: surround yourself with people who support you, self-respect comes from doing the work not the outcome, creativity is not a business, do your Morning Pages, your inner voice is a wet blanket, etc.
As much as I tried to hate it, I didn’t. I loved it. Reading this book was like a total excavation of my internal world. It systematically targeted subconscious blockers and provided alternative ways of seeing one’s self. But through benevolent school teacher-style encouragement, like suggestions to take up flamenco dancing or buy new socks, Cameron accomplishes something much bigger: she sneakily coerces us into healing, not just for our artist selves, but for our every aspect of our lives. Emotions like anger, jealousy, misguided virtue, our relationship to time, fear, and workaholism are pulled apart and disarmed for what they are. My ultimate revelation was that the twelve-week program was just an appetizer for a lifetime’s worth of work to become a better writer and person, since those two things are annoyingly, inextricably linked. It was like that time I read a book about clear skin that was actually just a book about veganism and factory farming. I was fooled, but I wasn’t mad about it.
But did it work? Had I transformed into a brilliant, prolific writer yet? (Is this article not proof enough!) Maybe that’s the wrong question to ask. Maybe the point is not the result or the outcome, but the undoing of result-based thinking. The most valuable thing The Artist’s Way did was provide me with a framework, a map for navigating my emotions, and by extension, my writing. It gave me tools and a language for understanding the creative process. Tiny nudges from the universe appeared: an old writer friend suggested I take an online writing course with one of my favorite authors, then an editor asked me to send him some work. I never did get a loveseat, but I did score a free table from my neighbor’s trash after looking for the same one online and honestly, that was proof enough for me.
Nada Alic is an LA-based editor, writer and content strategist with 9 years of professional experience. Currently, she's working on a collection of fiction. Previously, Nada was the Editorial Director for e-comm arts platform Society6. Before that, she was agency-side, managing editorial for Gap Inc. properties. She also built Etsy's first Canadian HQ, and has had work featured in VICE, Nasty Gal, Ephemera Mag, Time Out LA, Cool Hunting, and People of Print.
Header image by Eugenia Loli