If you’re anything like me, you’re not sure whether to cringe, roll your eyes, or take comfort and believe in the seemingly overused and abundant exchange of platitudes during turbulent times. We’ve all been on both sides of giving and receiving these bromides between friends and family: “it is what it is,” “it’s always darkest before the dawn,” “it could be worse,” “it builds character,” and all of the ways to explain “things.” Things “happen for a reason,” will “turn out how they’re meant to be,” and they “somehow always seem to turn out for the best.”
These sayings rolled through my mind as I read the introduction to week eleven of Walking in This World, Julia Cameron. She introduced the chapter with the concept that “our personal resiliency is a key to our creative longevity. Defeat is transformed into experience by our willingness to start anew.” I once again wondered if the author had been reading my journal or eavesdropping on my conversations which have contained all of these sayings and more as I’ve written, talked, laughed, and cried my way through a myriad of challenges over the past year.
It struck me that the clichés that were tumbling around in my brain were in many ways tied to just that, “a willingness to start anew,” and we have more control than we think when it comes to things turning out for the best. As always she explained the challenge and focus for the week: “The readings and tasks of this week ask us to practice a beginner’s mind, opening ourselves to renewed endeavors despite setbacks.” In order begin anew in spite of adversity we need to rely on and believe in the reservoir of strength and courage that runs through each of us and we must have faith.
It turns out that part of having faith is the fact that we need to trust, believe in, and listen to our inner voice and to our instincts. I think it’s also important to understand what fuels and depletes our inner well and what we can do to keep it as full as possible. This week I learned that word courage ”comes from the root coer, heart,” and “[w]hen we are discouraged, we are literally divorced from our hearts.” It occurred to me that encouragement and discouragement are the actions that fill and deplete the place from which we draw courage, hope, and energy.
As adults we sometimes feel embarrassed to admit that we need praise and comfort and that it hurts when our creative contributions are ignored or undervalued. We feel like we should ‘buck up’ and not be so sensitive, that ‘grown ups’ shouldn’t need a pat on the back for a job well done. The truth is we all do, maybe some of us more than others, but we all need at least an occasional compliment or a small round of applause. I think the mistake we make is that we rely too heavily on others as the only source of encouragement and we don’t assume enough responsibility for cheering ourselves on even if no one else is. We undervalue our own voice when it tries to tell us we’re doing well, instead we replace it with negative self-talk that screams “woe is me” and “I should be doing better.” Julia’s words hit home: “[o]ptimism about ourselves and our chances is an elected attitude.”
As much as we wish we could, we can’t control our environment and we are bound to have interactions that discourage and dishearten us and deplete optimism and strength from the well. However as Julia points out “the antidote to depression is laughter” and whether we want to admit it or not there is always something positive we can do. When we’re feeling blue instead of taking to our beds we can and we should do something; we can call a friend, watch a comedy, organize the craft room, clean the office space, we can make a list of twenty-five things we are proud of, and we can always create something.
A recurring theme throughout the book is the notion that we are all creative and that each of us makes ‘art’ in a different way. Unfortunately we live in a culture that undermines the creative process, the making of art because there is so much emphasis on fame and ”making it big.” The standards to which artists compare themselves have become muddied by what sells and convince us that we shouldn’t create if it’s not going to sell. We persuade ourselves that we will never “make it,” so we stop trying or we allow ourselves to fall into a trap of creating distractions that appear to be contributions toward achieving our dreams.
I recently found myself guilty of just that. I had convinced myself that attending an upcoming writer’s conference was an important thing for me to do so that I could “really” write. After reading and re-reading the section on Integrity I came to the realization that I was fooling myself. I have yet to really put my money where my mouth is and follow the basic principles that I’ve learned through numerous classes and books. I couldn’t look myself in the mirror and say that I have been treating my dream as real; I’ve created diversions, made excuses, and nearly drowned myself in drama. I decided not to attend the conference and I made a commitment to myself that when the time is right, when I have made enough concrete progress toward my dream I will attend a conference as a reward and not as a detour.
The final section is entitled Getting Back on the Horse and opens with some food for thought. “We are intended to make something of ourselves. When we feel supported by others, this is a festive feeling…surrounded by support, making something – and something of ourselves – is easy…Sometimes, support fails us. Instead of help, we meet hindrance.”
Sometimes that hindrance comes in the form of what Julia refers to as a “creative injury.” I think it’s fair to say that the injury could also be a spiritual one. I had to smile to myself when she said “Art is made from talent and character. Adversity strengthens our character and can strengthen our art as well.” How did she know that my one of my dad’s favorite things to say to me when I’m lamenting about something is: “you’re building character.”
Prayers are heard and answered, we just have to ask and we need to understand that in order to recover from an injury whether it be creative or spiritual it’s important to ask for and accept help. The answer often arrives in the form of a ‘coincidence’ or a ‘chance meeting’ and happens when and how we least expect it. I believe Julia when she says “[s]ometimes, remarkably often, creative angels show up externally.”
I’ve learned a lot in the past few years about the importance of setting boundaries and to the degree that I can control the situation I surround myself with people of integrity, humor, talent, and compassion. I’m still working on holding others accountable for their negative actions and not counting myself as the reason for them. One step at a time I’m accepting that it’s a sign of strength not weakness when I ask for help.
Although the focus of the book is on the artist within us, I can’t help but think about how so many things that I am learning apply in all aspects of my life not just to my art. We allow negative experiences and injuries from one area of our life to spill over into our creative world. We convince ourselves that it’s not worth trying and we pretend that we have lost interest or that we don’t have time when deep down we’re afraid of failing.
We allow discouragement to exhaust us and we forget to take control of our world and replenish the reservoir of strength through creativity, laughter, and camaraderie. While in many ways it’s true when we say “it is what it is” it is also true that we have the power to make “things turn out for the best” by reaching for help, having faith, being open to change and the risk that may accompany it.