Reflections on The Artist's Way — Week 5: Recovering a Sense of Possibility

This is the fifth post in a series on The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, a book and a self-study program developed by Julia Cameron in the 1990s. Each week of the program is focused on a theme. In this post, I’ll be looking back on Week 5: Recovering a Sense of Possibility.

‘Possibility seems essential to the artist. To create means to make something that wasn’t there before, which is the realisation of possibility. Without possibility, there would be no art.’

— Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way, Week 5

As I write this, I am seated at a co-working space in Canggu, Bali. I’ve been on the road for 44 days now.

Last week I worked out of art studio in Berawa, a hip little town at the edge of Canggu along the southern coast of the island. I would wake up each morning at my hotel (a tired, but well-located complex on the beach, with a room overlooking the Indian Ocean), walk up the road to grab breakfast, then settle into long days of painting and drawing in the studio.

The space was filled with natural light, its glass sliding doors exposing rows of young palms, no taller than me. It was a treat to base myself there after weeks of working from hotel rooms, on friend’s desks, and in cafes.

Last Friday, my final day in the studio, I put in a 10-hour day of improvised painting, attempting and nearly succeeding to use up the sheets of canvas and watercolour paper I had carried with me from New York. Earlier in the week, I had been sketching, imagining that by the end of the week, I would refer to the hundreds of three by four-inch thumbnail sketches and translate them into larger works. But once I got into the studio, I had a strong desire to jump in and allow each sheet of canvas to tell me what it wanted to be, to let the image flow through me. I didn’t want to plan each painting, I wanted the image to arrive and show itself.

I started putting down colour and landscapes, palm trees, and bouquets of wildflowers began appearing, the scale shifting from otherworldly to what I could imagine neatly holding in my hands.

Limits

‘You will examine the cost of settling for appearing good instead of being authentic. You may find yourself thinking about radical changes, no longer ruling our your growth by making others the cause of your constriction.’

— Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way, Week 5

I’ve only gone to a one yoga class since I arrived in Bali. Instead of spending rupiah on yoga classes, I’ve been going for massages and sound baths, picking up smoothies and purchasing entry tickets to temples. On quiet evenings, when I’m alone, I’ll open my laptop, connect to the hotel wifi, then find the yoga video on YouTube that I like to do. It’s a days-of-the-week yoga series, but I like to do the Monday class whenever, like a free-spirited child wearing my days-of-the-week underwear out of order, knowing that it’s unlikely anyone would see anyway. At the start of the video, the instructor introduces a mantra. ‘Never underestimate your ability.’

When I think about this Monday mantra, I get a flood of memories about what Mondays have meant for me over the years. I guess it started around age five, like it usually does, with the beginning of the school week, then the long journey to the beginning of the work week, which continues in its new form today, on this final Monday of June, where I’ve made myself responsible for my success and my failure. There’s no boss, no line manager, just me and my own desire to create. Who will even know if I skip out on a Monday? The universe, it seems.

I woke up this morning in a nearly ideal situation, on a far-away island, without an alarm, with the sunrise, able to step out onto my balcony and see the ocean. What about the other Mondays, the times when I dreaded what was laid out ahead of me, times when I had abandoned my sense of self for a sense of responsibility to a world that didn’t ever seem to fully meet me? Those are still there, floating around like possibilities I’ll do my best to avoid.

As I listen to the yoga instructor give me the mantra, I am reminded of week 5. Cameron discusses the limits we put on what we imagine is possible for our lives, and the ‘payoffs in remaining stuck’. The payoffs in underestimating what I'm possible of, the rewards of playing a small hand at the table of life.

What’s my payoff? Not having to deal with the challenges that come with the creative process? Hmm, I seem to be handling that one, enjoying it actually. The ups and downs that come with accepting an artist’s life? Sure, I struggle with it, but I keep going back, so I don't think it's that one. Being ashamed of having a well-lived life, of loving the work I do unashamedly? Yeah, I'm getting warmer, starting to feel a tightness in my chest. Being embarrassed to be bold enough to think I have something unique to share with the world, a creative voice worth listening to? I'm reminded of week 1 and the need for safety at the core of all of this.

Cameron ties the idea of abundance to possibility. She suggests we reflect on the limits we might set that will block our flow, our access to the universal source of abundance. She writes, ‘One reason we are miserly with ourselves is scarcity thinking. We don’t want our luck to run out.’ She continues, ‘Very often, when we cannot seem to find an adequate supply, it is because we are insisting on a particular human source of supply. We must learn to let the flow manifest itself where it will—not where we will it.’

Building an overnight bridge with the morning pages, Cameron suggests writing a list of areas where we need guidance before we fall asleep at night. In the morning, write again on the same topics. ‘Experiment with this two-step process: ask for answers in the evening; listen for answers in the morning. Be open to all help.’ Over the past few weeks, when I’ve felt unsure, uncertain of my next step (what to do tomorrow, what to work on, how long to stay in a particular place), I’ve used this tool and ended up feeling surprisingly confident with my decisions.

Finding the River

‘The shift to spiritual dependency is a gradual one. We have been making this shift slowly and surely. With each day we become more true to ourselves, more open to the positive.’

— Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way, Week 5

When we talk about creative flow, we often talk about the moment of creation — the musician lost in the moment of performance, the painter fully immersed in splashing colour on the canvas, the writer pounding away on the keyboard — their physical worlds recede as their creations push forward to become realised.

These romanticised moments are real, and they are happening right now for someone somewhere. They are worthy of seeking out. If you haven’t had a moment immersed in creative flow, I suggest you keep showing up with an open heart. If you’ve experienced it, free yourself to get there again and again.

For me, these moments arrive like visiting spirits. When I’m painting, I can sense the subtle waves wash over me, soft, then all at once rising up to embrace me. They gently whisper beside me, and I hesitate to call them out, fearful I’ll send them away. As soon as I notice the sensation, I know I can lose it again. ‘Don’t think,’ I tell myself. ‘Don’t name it.’ I leave my body for a bit and can see myself working.

‘Recovery is the process of finding the river and saying yes to its flow, rapids and all.’

— Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way, Week 5

But it’s the flow of life, the macro version, the zoomed out view that I’m really seeking. The version that doesn’t happen in the studio, isn’t made with paint, but made with life, with emotion, with flesh, with words, looks, gestures, breath, laughter. I practice it in the studio with paint, so I can be ready for it with life. I can take it back to the studio to play with again and again.

Last week, I painted flowers and landscapes, conjuring romance and imagination, connecting with the many men and women who painted flowers before me.

The Virtue Trap

Cameron closes the week talking about risk and virtue, and the importance of making space for alone time to nurture creativity.

She goes on to describe how finding this alone time can sometimes be difficult to maintain and challenging to explain to the people closest to us. Cameron provides examples of people who did not make time for themselves and the resentment that slowly grew. She warns, ‘Many recovering creatives sabotage themselves most frequently by making nice.’

‘As we begin to pry ourselves loose from our old self-concepts, we find that our new, emerging self may enjoy all sorts of bizarre adventures.’

— Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way, Week 5

She doesn't spend too much time talking about risk, the dangerous shadow of possibility. She quotes Peter Drucker, ‘There is the risk you cannot afford to take, then there is the risk you cannot afford not to take.’

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