THE ARTIST’S WAY—Creativity Mid-life and Beyond

Watercolor image of woman writing in journal by a lake in the fall.

Julia Cameron wears many hats. She’s a playwright, artist, poet, musician, author, mother, grandmother, former Rolling Stone journalist, and ex-wife of director Martin Scorsese. When her marriage to Scorsese ended over his affair with Liza Minnelli and Cameron’s subsequent decline into alcohol and cocaine, she spent the next 15 years reclaiming both her creativity and dignity, before parlaying her recovery into a 1992 international bestselling book, The Artist’s Way.

Now 75, she continues to pen fiction and nonfiction books, produce videos, and teach workshops about the creative process. The tools she developed for her seminal publication have been adapted into volumes designed for parents, writers, workers, and weight loss. And while those audiences are an eclectic bunch, they reflect Cameron’s own life stages. At age 69 she authored, It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again: Discovering Creativity and Meaning at Midlife and Beyond. “I found my just-retired students the most poignant. I sensed in them a particular problem set that came with maturity,” she explains in the introduction before leading readers through 12 weeks of activities to transition out of an occupation and empty nest while “rejuvenating the creative spirit when suddenly branded a senior citizen.”

I’d taken an Artist’s Way course in the late 90s. Back then, finding time to add Cameron’s recommended activities to a hectic work schedule and single parent life seemed impossible. But now mostly retired and hoping to ignite some midlife creativity, I joined 300 participants this summer for an online Cameron-led workshop.

After 31 years of field testing, Cameron is prescriptive about the Artist’s Way practices and well supplied with midlife examples and supplemental activities. Her four basic tools—what she calls “the bedrock of sustained creative life”—felt doable this time around.

Daily Morning Pages

The Morning Pages daily writing activity gets kudos from celebrities, businesspeople, and creatives who say it’s a transformative practice. It seems simple on its face. Each morning, within the first 45 minutes of waking up, write three full one-sided pages of whatever comes to mind. Cameron jumps starts hers with a weather report and quick update on how she’s feeling.

Why so early in the morning? According to Jungian psychology, our self-critic kicks in 45 minutes after awakening, interrupting the stream of consciousness and creating doubts. Cameron has an inner critic who occasionally appears during her morning writing. As a way of dismissing him, she’s named him Nigel and imagines him as a British interior designer with impossibly lofty standards.

Write the pages in longhand. Perceptions are fleeting, says Cameron, and longhand means there’s less chance of missing them. She’s also specific about paper size. Anything smaller than 8.5 x11 miniaturizes thinking, and writing anything larger is too daunting.

It’s the three pages I find daunting first thing in the morning. Some days I can only eke out a few sentences, but Cameron encourages, saying writing of any length gives a mental jumpstart to the day. Be vulnerable and authentic in your writing, she advises, and above all, do not share your morning pages with anyone.

Twice Weekly Solo Walking

Cameron is insistent about what constitutes solo. Don’t have a companion. Don’t bring your cellphone. “Don’t bring your dog,” she says, “or you’ll end up taking your dog’s walk.” Don’t listen to music or podcasts. And, she adds, the walk should not be your normal run or powerwalk for exercise. If walking is impossible because of a disability or pain, biking or swimming can serve as an alternative.

An Artist’s Way walk has a specific purpose, and her list of don’ts is intended to avoid distractions. Walking for 20 minutes, says Cameron, is a contemplative exercise in receptivity. “As we walk, we notice new things and make new connections that fill the creative well.” It’s true, without my cellphone, my walks have become exploratory meanders. I’ve become far more attuned to birdlife and the growing beaver dam in a nearby stream.

Weekly Solo Artist Dates

Cameron describes the artist date as a “small expedition to intentionally enchant or entice you; a weekly hour to woo your creative consciousness.” One of her recent favorites was a trip to a pet store to visit a gray rabbit named George. She’s also fond of the children’s sections in bookshops, botanical gardens, aquariums, and art supply stores.

The tool is intended to help regain the sense of play and wonder we had as children. Curious about the new bakery in your neighborhood? Take yourself out for a scone. Borrow a bird book, a pair of binoculars, and get yourself to the nearest park for an hour. Has it been decades since you roller skated? I can attest to how much fun I had trying my favorite teen experience out again, albeit far more tentatively. Think of your favorite childhood experiences and recreate them, she says. But do it alone so you’re savoring them without distractions.

Weekly Memoir Exercise

The fourth tool is unique to her book on midlife creativity. The memoir exercise encourages a life review in multi-year increments. “By revisiting—and reigniting—the many deep, complex, creative parts of yourself and your story, you will arrive at a place of clarity and purpose, a ‘jumping off’ point for the rest of your life,” Cameron says.

The activity asks you to divide your current age by 12 and then consider the 12 discreet life sections by writing or drawing responses to age-appropriate prompts. For the birth to age six section, the questions asked me to recall my favorite toy and a smell I remembered. For ages 55-60, the prompts asked me to describe a source of joy and recall health issues I’d encountered, mine or someone else’s.

The memoir activity quickly became my favorite because it provided inspiration for the other tools. I remembered how much I loved chocolate covered ice cream bars as a child and turned it into my artist date for the week. I sought out a lilac bush on my next solo walk and inhaled the scent of my grandmother’s perfume, a treasured gift from her when I turned 13. And recollections of my teenage years have found their way into my morning pages.

The popularity of the Artist’s Way books and programs have relied on word of mouth and celebrity accolades, among them the author Elizabeth Gilbert and musicians Pete Townsend and Alicia Keys. But Cameron also has her critics. She admits she comes off as too woo-woo for some, and too conventionally spiritual for others. And she acknowledges the 12 steps of AA influenced her strongly—her books are designed as 12-week experiences. She’s been accused of rehashing material and language from her 1992 bestseller for each new book or video she produces, without regard to the social and cultural changes that have taken place in the last three decades.

For me, the Artist’s Way tools have provided opportunities to engage in solo observation, fun, and reflection as an elder. I’m not going to be writing the next bestseller, but I am better at bird identification and have taken up nature journaling. I’ve created a list of artist date destinations I’m excited to try. My recollections generated by the memoir activity have been fodder for family gatherings. I suspect that’s the kind of creativity Cameron is suggesting.

An Internet search will turn up plenty of excerpts, videos of Cameron’s tutorials and free book downloads should you want to try out the Artist’s Way tools. Even ex-husband Martin Scorsese has found value in the activities, writing in a blurb for one of her book covers, “This is a book that addresses a delicate and complex subject. For those who will use it, it is a valuable tool to get in touch with your own creativity.”

Ann Randall is a freelance writer, organizational consultant, and independent traveler who loves venturing to out-of-the-way locales, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. Retired from a career as a teacher and union organizer in public education, she now observes international elections, does volunteer work in India, and writes regularly for 3rd Act, Northwest Travel & Life, West Sound Home & Garden, Fibre Focus, and Dutch the Magazine.

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