The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity
by Julie Cameron (Tarcher/Putnam, 1992)
Creativity and Spirituality
by Michael Phillips
Painters like to say that if you want to make a good painting, first go out and make 300 bad ones. Then you might be ready. The writer Malcolm Gladwell says that if you want to be really good at anything, practice it for 10,000 hours. So why would spiritual growth be any different?
From the pre-Socratics to Einstein and beyond, artists, thinkers, philosophers, and scientists have testified to a connection between creativity and spirituality—mostly in pithy letter fragments, notes, and journal entries. Books on the subject—good books, that is—are scarce. But more than a decade ago, when my job description included finding and encouraging promising young writers, several of my mentees taught their mentor a valuable lesson: They told me about a book of Julia Cameron’s that was helping them find creative strength and confidence through a series of spiritual exercises. “You’ll like it,” they said. And I did.
Cameron published The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity in 1992. It has sold more than a million copies in dozens of languages, and creative people around the world swear by it. Her fundamental idea is that creative growth and spiritual growth happen together because, in fact, they are the same thing. Our Creator’s spiritual energy lives within each of us, she says, and by developing that God-given energy, we develop our connection with God.
Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist when he grows up.” If you agree, then you must also consider that a grown-up seeking creative and spiritual growth is seeking a form of recovery.
If you don’t practice a traditional art form like painting, music, or writing, don’t think Cameron’s book is for somebody else. After all, the Augustinian prayer book isn’t just for priests, is it? Many artists struggle at times with blocks, negativity, fear, and self-doubt. But who doesn’t?
Cameron’s exercises didn’t spring from writer’s block. They emerged as she worked her way to sobriety from an out-of-control drinking problem while script-writing assignments were piling up on her desk. She learned to take care of her soul, accepting the wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” She accepted the spiritual surrender of Giacomo Puccini, who said his opera Madame Butterfly “was dictated to me by God. I was merely instrumental in putting it on paper.” And she embraced the daring of the playwright Sophocles, who said, “Look and you will find it. What is unsought will go undetected.”
I won’t give away her daily and weekly exercises—just that some are so easy they seem silly until you do them, and some are so challenging, they at first seem impossible. Over a week, they take ten hours or so.
If Malcolm Gladwell is right about the time it takes to be really good at anything, Cameron isn’t offering a 90-day wonder. She’s saying a spiritual path is a lifetime path, and she’s right. Ask any artist.
for Michael Phillips
Madre by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent
Peace-Burial at Sea by Joseph Mallord William Turner
Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing
edited by Robert Inchausti (New Seeds, 2007)
Sharing in the Creative Work of God
by Rob Rhodes
“I am trying to be a monk. I am not writing and I do not think of writing anything whatsoever. True, I still have two or three manuscripts that are going to be published, but after that the name of Thomas Merton can be forgotten. So much the better.”
Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote the above passages on February 7, 1957, to Dom Gabriel Sortais, a superior of Merton’s in the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, and one of Merton’s censors.
Part of that mid-twentieth century renaissance of Catholic writers such as Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Pearcy, Merton wrote poetry, fiction, and memoir. He wrote about spirituality and theology. He wrote thousands and thousands of pages of journals. He was a writer who cared deeply about writing.
But Merton was also a monk seeking holiness—even sainthood.
The two didn’t always go together, according both to his superiors and to himself. The potential conflict between writing and holiness forms the central struggle of the book Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing, a collection of excerpts on writing and writers from across the spectrum of Thomas Merton’s writings edited by Robert Inchausti.
The success of Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and the books that followed fed the self-centered ego that he was trying to overcome by entering the monastery in the first place. But his abbot saw the potential spiritual benefit of his writing for his readers and so directed him to continue and even increase his writing. The struggle continued, however, both for him and for his superiors. At one point, he was even forbidden from writing for a time, and he actually welcomed this censorship as an escape—a “deliverance” from being a writer.
The excerpts in the book are arranged in six sections: “Writing as a Spiritual Calling,” “The Christian Writer in the Modern World,” “On Poetry,” “On Other Writers,” “On His Own Writing,” and “Advice to Writers,” which means that the arc of his struggle about his own writing is revisited more than once from different angles. But there is much more than the struggle in this book. Merton’s writing is full of insights into writing (and by extension, all of the arts), and its relationship to a life of holiness.
According to Merton, to be a Christian (and so the Christian writer and artist) is to see the world differently. Though some Christians are called explicitly to the vocation of artist, all Christians share in the creative work of God. The artist’s life and work, as well as the Christian’s, is set in the context of the whole world groaning in labor pains as it births the New Creation in which God is engaged.
Merton makes clear early in the book that writers or artists can’t stoop to making art that is merely political or moral. Yet through the section called “War and the Crisis of Language,” he shows devastatingly how language is always and necessarily political or moral—or both. Language in advertising is intimately connected to language used to justify war, that is, it is propaganda, but also its own kind of dark anti-poetry. For Merton, writing reduced to the obviously political is dead, but poetry that is truth—deep, experiential truth—is more powerfully political or moral just by being true.
Merton says that modern literature is a literature of alienation and it is so (at least, in part) because we’re living through the collapse of a civilization. Poetic language is largely lost on us—we’ve become too prosaic in our use of language—and yet we still need to give voice to an experience that transcends, or goes deeper, than the prosaic. The problem is that words no longer carry the meaning, the charge, that they used to, because we’ve become disconnected from the beauty and power underneath reality’s surface.
I love what he wrote about the lie of the “artist-as-hero.” I love his take on writers as varied as Boris Pasternak, Simone Weil, Norman Mailer, and Pablo Neruda (to name just a few). And I’m sad that he didn’t live long enough to make much more than a few remarks toward a theology of creativity as it relates to God as creator and human beings made in the image of God.
I was familiar with much of the work from which the excerpts were taken (though the excerpts from The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton were a revelation to me). But I was grateful for a chance to dig back into those works and imagine that it would serve as a good introduction to Thomas Merton for those who haven’t read much of his writing.
Mostly I’m grateful that Merton never could stop writing. Over time, he came to embrace his vocation as writer—even to see it as a means of growing in holiness—as he writes, “ … this business of writing has become intimately tied up with the whole process of my sanctification.”
That is wisdom for anyone exercising creative gifts.
for Rob Rhodes
Breaking of the Vessels by Anselm Kiefer
Couple in Bed by Philip Guston
“Welcome Morning” by Anne Sexton