Julia Cameron

4 books every writer should have

I think I enjoy reading about writing, more than I enjoy the act of writing. Writers seem to be the most sensitive, interestingly flawed people on the planet, and I love reading their candid accounts of the blessings and struggles of writing. Here are some of my favorite books on writing. I’d love to hear your thoughts, or further reading suggestions.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

 Anne has a biting sense of humor, and she’s brutally honest. I first came to this book after reading an excerpt called shitty first drafts, and I was hooked on her quirky essays ever since. She reminds the reader that writing is not a fun, rewarding activity. Writers hear the call of duty, and they can’t escape it. Without this ever-evolving challenge to express oneself, the writer would feel hollow and lost. But she also reminds us that our challenges can be conquered, and that piece by piece, bird by bird, our efforts will amount to something.

“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

 This was the first book on writing I ever read. Even though he made writing seem like a tortuous, tedious task, after finishing this book, all I wanted to do was read more and write more. Half of it is a memoir and half is instructions on the craft of writing. Not only does King’s life read like one of his captivating stories, his tips are easy to follow and give the writer immediate results. I stopped over-using adverbs after reading this book. As King wrote, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” He taught me not to let the strict rules of grammar cramp my style. He taught me about persistence, rejection, and appreciation.

“Almost everyone can remember losing his or her virginity, and most writers can remember the first book he/she put down thinking: I can do better than this. Hell, I am doing better than this! What could be more encouraging to the struggling writer than to realize his/her work is unquestionably better than that of someone who actually got paid for his/her stuff?”

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

 This in not merely required reading for every writer, but for everyone who is alive. Julia gives amazing tips on how to live a more creative, fun, and fulfilling life. She makes art seem accessible, and a natural part of everyone’s existence. I’ve read this book so many times, and the margins are filled with notes, the text underlined and circled repeatedly. The key to this book, however, is that you can’t just read it; you must follow all the action steps.

“No matter what your age or your life path, whether making art is your career or your hobby or your dream, it is not too late or too egotistical or too selfish or too silly to work on your creativity.”

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I haven’t actually read this one yet. It’s been recommended by every writer I know, but I haven’t gotten around to it. Fortunately, I just ordered it and will read it soon. In the meantime, here’s a quote from it that I really enjoyed:

“I write because I am alone and move through the world alone. No one will know what has passed through me… I write because there are stories that people have forgotten to tell, because I am a woman trying to stand up in my life… I write out of hurt and how to make hurt okay; how to make myself strong and come home, and it may be the only real home I’ll ever have.”

Ok, Since I didn’t read the last book, I’m throwing in a bonus book: The Mind Of Your Story: Discover What Drives Your Fiction by Lisa Lenard-Cook

Honestly, I love just holding this elegant book. There’s something beautiful and charming about the size and illustrations. It gives a lot of useful advice on the elements of fiction, with helpful diagrams and quotes. This book is great if you are new to writing, or if you want a refresher on how to express and structure your thoughts. I’ve never heard the struggle of writing described better than this:

“One of the most important tools as a writer is the ability to keep your senses open to everything around you- not simply seeing but listening, smelling, tasting, touching, and, most difficult of all, being open and empathetic to everyone (and everything) with whom you come in contact. Being this sensitive isn’t easy, which is why I suspect, so many of us retreat into our hidey-holes to recover from our forays into the outside world…It’s all the more ironic, then, that we open, receptive, caring, over-sensitive sorts must learn to shoulder rejection far more often than other mere mortals. No, not just shoulder it, but accept it and then as quickly as possible expose the rejected part of ourselves yet again, long before the hurt has begun to heal.”

Enjoy your reading, and let me know what you think!

On the shoulders of giants

Johannes BrahmsAnyone who’s taken a music history class has probably heard of Brahms. He’s usually listed off with Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and Bach as the greatest, most influential composers of all time. But like most great artists, he almost let his self-doubt keep him from sharing his work.

It took Brahms 20 years to write his first symphony. 20 years! Why did it take him so long? He was paralyzed by his adoration of Beethoven. He loved Beethoven’s music so much and thought there was nothing he could add to the canon. He even had a marble bust of Beethoven overlooking his work space. He destroyed much of his early work, thinking it wasn’t good enough to exist in the same world as Beethoven’s music. Beethoven’s influence is obvious in Brahms’ first symphony. Some critics jokingly called it Beethoven’s 10th symphony. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a great work of art. And he was able to continue making truly inspiring and unique music for years afterward.

English: Photograph of bust statue of Ludwig v...This is a problem a lot of artists run into; either we’re undermined for being too similar to our influences, or we are too intimidated by “the greats” to make anything original.

At art school, before anyone would discuss your artwork they would ask your influences. Then when they’d look at the actual work they’d say, “This just looks like a bad Debuffet/ Klimpt/Monet.” And if you say you don’t have any influences, you’re considered naive or arrogant. Even an untrained artist is supposed to know that Grandma Moses influenced them…duh. In this case, I don’t think the artist needs to change, it’s the critics that need to get over themselves. Sometimes it seems like they’re just looking for an excuse to name drop.

This is a tip for writers, but it applies to all the arts; stop comparing yourself to the classics: you’re going to fall short. Dickens, Tolstoy and Hemingway would not have written the same way if they were working today, so it makes no sense to still try and mimic them. When I read Barbara Kingslover I think I have no right to call myself a writer, but when I read a random new release from the bookstore I think, “I can’t believe I paid for this! I could write circles around this piece of …” Painters should go to contemporary galleries rather than museums. Musicians should go to open-mics rather than concerts. Spend some time exposing yourself to attainable art, and boosting your confidence. Sometimes it’s good to say, “hey, I can do that!”

If you have a spark of talent you owe it to yourself to express it. Take your influences and put your own spin on them. As Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Imagine how boring life would be if everyone stopped trying to make art after great work already existed. The radio would only play Beethoven. The libraries would be filled with Shakespeare  and the movie theaters would only be playing The Godfather. We need a little Brahms to spice things up.

A note on using people

As you might know I’m working my way through Julia Cameron‘s The Artist’s Way. You might not know that one of the things that has helped with this process (tremendously) is meeting with three other women to talk about our journey to discover our hidden or stifled artist.

Two topics that come up quite often is:

  • If you know what you want and ask for it, doors will suddenly open up and if you’re brave enough you’ll accept that gift.
  • The fear of not wanting “to use” people.

I don’t understand the latter hang up. I personally love to open doors for people, and I doubt I’m the only one. As soon as someone mentions something they want to do and I can think of someone who is in that field I get really excited to introduce them. It makes me feel useful and invested in anything good that comes out of the union.

I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine (and I’ll even remove all the fleas).

For example, I’m looking for a job right now which is always an excruciating process. When I finally had a lead, I realized the actual job was not going to be challenging enough and I would quickly grow bored with it. A part of me want to take the job anyway, cause I don’t know when the next offer will come around, but another part of me said that would be a decision made from fear. Someone else would kill for that job, so why should I take it and not appreciate it. Then I remembered an old co-worker who just graduated from college. She was describing the kind of job she wanted and I knew she would be a perfect fit  for the school. To make a long story short, she got the job and is happy, the school’s administration is happy that I helped them get a great employee, and I can only hope that when a higher level position opens up, they will keep me in mind. In this situation everyone is happy (well I’m still out of a job, but at least I feel good about helping others).

It helps me believe that when I know for sure what I want to do there will be an army of friends and acquaintances who will want to open doors for me. Success and happiness are not limited resources; if someone helps you achieve success they are not giving up any of theirs, and it oftentimes helps them feel more successful.  So if you know someone who might be able to help you, by all means ask them for help. And if you can help someone offer to do so. If your friend doesn’t want the best for you, than maybe they are not a real friend.

The Pie of Life

I got another promotion! I’m now an Academic Director! But as Spiderman says, with great power comes great responsibility. And that responsibility has been taking over my life. For the last two weeks I’ve been working till 10 most nights, and that’s really not cool with my HeSo. I’m hoping that all the work I’ve been doing will allow me some breathing room for the upcoming weeks. You may have noticed I’ve dropped off the face of the blogosphere. The last thing I want to do at night is look at a computer screen, but hopefully that will change.

I love my new job. There are so many creative problems to solve, people to console and motivate, and a thousand and one things to balance and manage. If I’m not careful I’ll get sucked into it, and never lead a happy, balanced life.

One excellent tool I’ve learned from Julia Cameron is drawing a life pie every now and then. Draw a big circle and divide it into 6 even pie slices. Give each slice a label: spirituality, exercise, play, work, romance, friends and adventure. Place a dot in the middle of each slice according to how fulfilled you feel in each category (close to the middle of the pie means not at all, the outer rim means you feel very satisfied). The goal is to fill up the entire pie.

It looks like someone’s been eating huge chunks of my pie. It’s a good visual reminder of what I need to work towards.

How full is your pie?


I’m Mad about Julia

Cover of "The Artist's Way: A Course in D...

It might seem strange to talk about anger right after announcing my engagement, but I came across this beautiful passage on anger and had to share it. Julia Cameron writes in The Artist’s Way,

Anger is meant to be listened to. Anger is a voice, a shout, a plea, a demand. Anger is meant to be respected. Why? Because anger is a map. Anger shows us what our boundaries are. Anger shows us where we want to go. It lets us see where we’ve been and lets us know when we haven’t liked it. Anger points the way, not just the finger. In the recovery of a blocked artist, anger is a sign of health.

Anger is meant to be acted upon. It is not meant to be acted out… with a little thought, we can usually translate the message that our anger is sending us.

“Blast him! I could make a better film than that!” (This anger says: you want to make movies. You need to learn how.)

“I can’t believe it! I had this idea for a play 3 years ago, and she’s gone and written it,” ) This anger says: stop procrastinating. Ideas don’t get opening nights. Finished plays do. Start writing.”

Sloth, apathy, and despair are the enemy. Anger is not.

I read this passage so many times and underlined almost every word. And then I put stars next to almost every other sentence.

There are two basic expressions of emotional pain: anger and sadness. While men typically express their anger and repress their sadness, women typically do the opposite. Anger has always been a really hard emotion for me to embrace. Sadness feels safer and more appropriate.

Maybe I’m afraid anger will push people away, or maybe I don’t feel like I have the inherent “right” to stand up for myself. But Sadness cannot be the only tool for relieving emotional pain. There’s no sense of empowerment when you are sad. No sense that you are in charge, and you can change the situation.

"Oh bother"

While there are certainly people who have an unhealthy amount of anger, and need to learn how to manage it, there’s also a lot of people who need a little anger in their lives. I’m talking about all the doormats, the Igor’s and the Emo kids out there. You know who you are.

My mom started her wildly successful

business of challenging property assessments because she was angry about the local municipality not doing their job, and taking advantage of her. What good would it have done her or anyone to just cry about how unfair her property taxes were? In that case, anger put all three of her kids through college, paid the mortgage, and helped thousands of people save money.

I love the thought of using anger to show you what you want. I love the thought of anger as a pro-active emotion. Take some time today and think about what makes you really angry. Are you angry enough to start doing something about it?

Disposable creativity

“Many of us wish we were more creative. many of us sense we are more creative, but unable to effectively tap that creativity. Our dreams elude us. Our lives feel somehow flat. Often, we have great ideas, wonderful dreams, but are unable to actualize them for ourselves. Sometimes we have specific creative longings we would love to be able to fulfill – learning to play the piano, painting, taking an acting class, or writing. Someimes our goal is more diffuse. We hunger for what might be called creative living – an expanded sense of creativity in our business lives, in sharing with our children, our spouse, our friends.”

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way (pg.5)

If you haven’t read The Artist’s Way yet, for gosh sake just click on this link and buy it already. Every creative person I know attributes the growth of their creativity to this book. I’m not over-exaggerating. And if you’ve been following the HeSo project for a while now, you’ll remember that when I interviewed Lisa Bourque, a fabulous life coach, she said the book changed her life.

It is Julia Cameron’s opinion that everyone has the potential to be creative and that creativity is a like a muscle that grows the more you use it. Creativity is not just for the arts; it can be used to improve your outlook on life, the way you problem solve, or handle your relationships.

One of her famous exercises is “the morning pages.” The first thing you do every morning is fill three pages of paper. There’s really no wrong way of doing this. If you have nothing to say you can fill the pages with a grocery list.

Sometimes the pages become very negative and your “censor” comes out. Your censor is that voice in your head that tells you everything you do is garbage. Julia suggests that it’s better to let the censor out on these pages so it gets exhausted and won’t distract you when you want to do something more creative and challenging. It sounds silly but when I dabbled with the morning pages before, it really did help me feel more free and confident when I was working on my creative writing later on in the day.

My boyfriend has been doing these morning pages for over a year now (way to go Mike!) The pages have taken many twists and turns for him. They started off as an outlet for his censor, then they became an outlet for his story telling, and now he’s using that time to compose music – something that he’s always wanted to do. Sometimes what we always want to do is the hardest thing to do because we give it so much weight. We think, to do that something poorly would be worse than not doing it at all. By using the morning pages to compose he’s getting the practice he needs without the debilitating pressure to produce something “good.”

Lately I’ve been feeling like there’s a void in my life. The BeddyBye project felt very exciting and creative at first, but now as I’m talking to safety commissioners, manufacturers, and parenting associations (I’ll write more about this later) I’ve entered the more taxing, stressful part of the project. I write a lot for this blog, but it’s not the same as creative writing, something I’ve loved doing since childhood (I remember writing stories about how I was born on Mars and raised by apes. I made photocopies and tried to sell them to the kids on my block. I guess I invented vanity publishing!). So I decided to instill some creativity back into my life and embrace the morning pages again.

I started this past Friday. In the morning, before breakfast I spent 30 minutes writing a short story. I used The Writer’s Toolbox for inspiration. The Author, Jamie Cat Callan, offers a bunch of suggestions for first lines. I picked a random one and started writing. The opening line was: “Dad gave me a wink, like we were pals or something.” I ended up writing about a daughter finding out that her parents have had an open marriage for her entire life and she’s just now meeting her father’s girlfriend of 16 years. I don’t know where that idea came from, and for the life of me I would never have thought it up if I just sat at my computer and tried to come up with a story.

The exercise helps you to see that everyone has a wealth of untapped imagination inside them and you just need a safe place to let it out. Knowing that I didn’t need to complete the story, and that it didn’t need to be part of something greater was liberating. It’s what I like to call disposable creativity. I know that sounds terrible, especially in our green-conscience society, but looking at creativity like it’s a finite resource is not productive. I’ve been in many writing classes where people hold on to stories that aren’t working, and I think it’s because they’re scared they won’t be able to come up with anything else, when that’s simply not true.

Today was my fourth day of morning pages and I’m going to continue for at least 17 more days (research shows it only takes 21 days to form a habit). Does anyone else want to join me? It doesn’t need to be writing, you can start every morning strumming a song on the guitar, drawing a picture, or dancing. The point is to start every day off in a creative, non-judgmental fashion. I guarantee you’ll feel more creative and excited for the rest of the day! If you join the challenge send me some of your work or your reflections and I’ll add it to the blog!

An interview with the founder of Wild Heart Coaching (part 2)

Here’s the second half of my interview with Lisa Bourque, founder of Wild Heart Coaching. Lisa inspired many people when she quit her job as an Attorney to become a life coach. By focusing on living a more authentic, happy life she has helped others to find their own true passions as well. For more background read part 1!
What would you say to someone who is unhappy with their career right now, but can’t think of any personal passions to drive them to a new career path?
First, get really honest with yourself.  How does it feel to be so unhappy?  Really feel it.  Don’t try to run away from the feeling or shut it out.  You’re feeling this way for a reason.  Get honest with yourself about what isn’t working — is it your environment?  The attitudes of the people you work with?  The type of work you do?  What’s missing?  Then, get honest with yourself about what you really want.  It doesn’t have to be a job title.  But think about how you would like to spend your day — what does that look like?  Who do you work with?  What types of things do you do?  What is the impact you have on others?  Starting to explore these types of questions in an honest way is an important first step.  Because if you aren’t honest with yourself and try to fit into a box that doesn’t fit, it’s going to be hard to make changes.
Second, notice when you do feel engaged in what you’re doing — whether in your life or in your work.  If you don’t ever feel engaged, then it’s time to start trying new things!  Is there something you want to do that you haven’t given yourself permission to do?  Maybe it’s going to a photography exhibit, maybe it’s trying out kayaking, or taking a cooking class.  Whatever is calling to you, try it!  When you start following your interests and allow yourself to experiment, you will get more in touch with personal passions — those things that make you feel happy, alive, and engaged.
A life coach is an expert who partners with you during that process of exploration, self-connection, deeper understanding and awareness, and conscious action toward what you want.  Working with a coach helps you to move forward and deeper more quickly and with greater focus — kind of like hiring a personal trainer to get more fit versus just doing it on your own.  Working with someone who’s main purpose is to help you in this way tends to yield the results you’re looking for much more efficiently!
What is a typical life coaching session like? If someone can’t afford life coaching what would you recommend?
Every coaching session is different!  People have many different issues and goals that they bring to coaching, and the really great thing is that coaching can be applied to many areas of your life.  The only typical thing is that you come to the call (most coaches coach over the phone) with a topic that is important to you — something you’ve been stuck in, a big question that’s been on you mind, a desire to take action that for some reason you haven’t taken yet.  Then I coach you around that topic using whatever tools support your goals or agenda.
Sometimes the session focuses on gaining clarity about what you really wants and what it may look like.  Other times it is exploring your feeling of being stuck and brainstorming new perspectives so that you can take a different approach and move forward where you hadn’t been able to before.  Other times it may be gaining a deeper awareness of what’s going on beneath the surface of everyday life so that you can see the big picture.

If you don’t know if  you are ready for coaching, just start exploring.  Go to a bookstore and browse the personal growth/personal development section and see what draws you in.  One of my favorite books is The Artist’s Way"" by Julia Cameron.  The exercises in that book changed how I saw myself in my life. If you hear about a workshop or a class that seems interesting, take it! Journal.  Even if you aren’t used to writing what’s on your mind, just go for it.  Start by writing 1 page a day about anything you’ve been thinking or feeling.  Write about what you’re feeling.  Build up to a couple pages a day.  Explore blogs that interest you and stretch you to think about your life in new ways.  I write my blog at  http://www.yourwildheart.com/blog.html and offer useful information, tips, and perspectives for free two times a week.  Many other blogs do too — including the HeSo Project!
If you think coaching could be a valuable tool to help you move toward what you want, I invite you to talk to a coach!  Many coaches offer free sample sessions so that you can get a first-hand idea whether coaching is right for you – because ultimately it’s up to you to create the life you want.  I found coaching to be invaluable in my journey and I continue to work with a coach to this day.  I also see how coaching is of great value to my clients – knowing that makes me happy and proud to do what I do every day.
Thank you so much for sharing your insights and motivating story with us!
 Lisa Bourque is a personal coach and the founder of Wild Heart Coaching.  She specializes in helping people who feel lifeless at work to find their authentic path and align their personal and professional passions with confidence and choice.  Visit her website at www.YourWildHeart.com.