Editor's Note: While this article is written for artists, its wisdom applies to all of us, whether we see ourselves as artists and creative, or not.
"Charity begins at home" is not a bromide. It is a direction. It means start with being nice to yourself, your authentic self, then try being nice to everyone else. When we place ourselves too low in the pecking order, we feel henpecked and, yes, we feel peckish. We neglect our work or do it distractedly. Soon our work may develop a querulous tone, sour and dyspeptic, like ourselves. When we undervalue ourselves, we literally bury ourselves in lives not our own. Meeting the expectations of others, we may misplace our own values.
Value systems are as individual as fingerprints. Each of us has a set of priorities that may be baffling to others but absolutely necessary to ourselves. Violating our true selves, we soon feel worthless and undeserving. This in turn prevents our acting on our own behalf, and so we suffer further.
Putting Your Dreams on the Back Burner Just Ignites Your Anger
When I was a young single mother, I felt guilty because I craved time away from my daughter. I wanted silence. I needed to hear my own thoughts. I also needed to take my own soul by the hand occasionally and not have to worry about keeping my daughter's tiny hand clutched. Whatever dreams I harbored had better take the back burner, I lectured myself -- although I never stopped writing -- and so I tried putting my dreams on the back burner, where they proceeded to boil -- and so did my temper.
Domenica was a delightful child. I began to find her not so delightful. I was snappish, irritable, and guilty. Yearning for more writing time, a luxury of my premotherhood years, I felt cornered and trapped. Wasn't my child more important than my brainchildren? I lectured myself. I could see no way out.
"Take a night off," an older woman friend, an actress, advised me. "Take care of your artist. That will make you a much better mother. You need to get in reality here. Society tells you motherhood comes first, but -- with you -- it doesn't. If you're honest about that and put your artist first, you might be quite a good mother. Lie to yourself about it -- and did you know most child abuse comes from too much togetherness?"
Too Much "Nice" Causes Resentment
I had not known that too much "nice" caused child abuse, but I could believe it. Taking my friend's radical advice, I began getting up an hour earlier to write Morning Pages while my daughter slept. I also began a practice of taking Artist's Dates, getting me and my creative consciousness a few of the sort of festive adventures that I had been devising -- and resenting -- for my daughter. I was rewarded with this self-care by a movie idea -- I wrote a script and sold it to Paramount.
What was even more "paramount" was this: I found that my mother had been quite right to post over her kitchen sink a small poem I had always dismissed as doggerel. It read:
If your nose is held to the grindstone rough
and you hold it down there long enough
soon you'll say there's no such thing
as brooks that babble and birds that sing.
Three things will all your world compose --
just you, the grindstone, and your darned old nose.
I've taught for twenty-five years. I've had a great many students worry that they were selfish. It is my considered opinion that most creative people are actually too selfless. Instead of asking "Julia, am I selfish" they should ask, "Julia, am I selfish enough?" "Selfish enough" gives us the self for self-expression.
As artists, when we are too nice for too long, we stop being nice at all. "I just need to get to the goddamn piano," we say correctly, or "I haven't written in days and it's driving me crazy," correctly, or "If I don't get to the easel, these kids are gonna walk the plank." Our slowly stoked fires of resentment -- caused by too many yesses where a timely no would have been more honest and given us time and space to work -- being to set our tempers to a simmer and then to a boil.
If we persist in still being nice, we get to cook ourselves an ulcer or develop high blood pressure. For an artist, being too virtuous is no virtue at all. It is destructive and counterproductive. Have I mentioned that it is no fun?
Being Nice vs. Being Authentic
Being nice is not nearly as important as being authentic. When we are what we truly are and say what we truly mean, we stop shouldering the responsibility for everyone else's shortfalls and become accountable to ourselves. When we do, astonishing shifts occur. We become aligned with our true higher power, and creative grace flows freely.
When we stop playing God, God can play through us. When I stopped rescuing my blocked writer-boyfriend, I moved from writing articles and short stories to writing books. That's how much energy he had consumed. When a composer dropped his high-maintenance girlfriend, he finally finished an album that had simmered a decade. An officially "burned-out" woman painter stopped volunteering her time to the all-consuming neighborhood environmental group and found she suddenly had time to both paint and teach, solidly increasing both her productivity and her income. Her volunteerism had long felt involuntary. Willing to seem less saintly, she felt herself far more free.
Remembering Our Priorities
Teaching those around us what our priorities are -- and remembering them ourselves -- makes for harmonious relationships. Clarifying ourselves to others brings honest connections that are grounded in mutual respect. Honesty starts with us. Identifying those who habitually abuse our time and energies is pivotal, but identifying them is only step one. Avoiding them is step two, and this is where a lot of us stumble. It is as if we doubt we have a right to tranquility, respect, and good humor. Shouldn't we really suffer? Shouldn't we find it more spiritual not to upset the status quo?
Artificial acceptance of people and circumstances we resent makes us ill tempered. A little honest self-love does wonders for our personality, and for our art. "But, Julia," I've heard people wail, "are you saying we should be selfish?"
Personally, I prefer selfish to simmering, cranky, hostile, and long-suffering. And is it really selfish to take time to have a self? You need a self for self-expression -- and you need a self for a lot of other things as well. If the unexamined life is not worth living, the unlived life is not worth examining, or painting, or sculpting, or acting.
A man at the very top of his art form professionally found himself so overbooked and so overburdened with advising others and lending his prestigious name to worthy causes that his life was no longer his own. The prestigious institutions with which he had aligned himself seemed to possess omnivorous appetites. Each request was "reasonable," each cause was "worthy." What he was was exhausted, burned-out, and baffled. "I'm at the top," he told me, "where I was always supposed to get, but I don't like it very much." Of course not. He had no time for his personal art, the beloved vehicle that had taken him to the top.
Saying Yes to Ourselves Sometimes Requires Saying No to Others
It is impossible to say yes to ourselves and our art until we learn to say no to others. People do not mean us harm, but they do harm us when they ask for more than we can give. When we go ahead and give it to them, we are harming ourselves as well.
"I knew I should have said no," we wail -- until we start to actually do it. No, we cannot take on the one extra student. No, we cannot take on the one more committee. No, we cannot allow ourselves to be used or we stop being useful.
Virtue -- and the false virtue of being too virtuous -- is very tempting. The problem with worthy causes is that they are worthy.
"You cannot be healthy and popular all at the same time," an accomplished older actress once warned me. "People want what they want and if you don't give it to them, they will get angry."
True enough, but our artist also wants what it wants and if we don't give it to our artist, our very core gets angry. If we think of the part of our self that creates as being like a vibrant and gifted inner youngster, we begin to imagine how dispirited a series of "Not now, be nice, just be a good sport and wait until later" dismissiveness on our part can make it feel.
Again, think of the artist as being quite young. What does a child do if disciplined too rigidly? It sulks. It lapses into silence. It acts out -- our artist can be fairly depended upon to do some or all of these behaviors when we insist on being "nice" instead of honest.
It's Never Too Late to Start Over
It is never too late to start over. It is never past the point of no return for our artist to recover. We can heap years, decades, a lifetime of insult upon our artist and it is so resilient, so powerful, and so stubborn that it will come back to life when we give it the smallest opportunity.
Instead of being coaxed into one more overextension of our energies in the name of helping others, we can help ourselves by coaxing our artist out with the promise of some protected time to be listened to, talked with, and interacted with.
If we actively love our artist, our artist will love us in return. Lovers tell secrets and share dreams. Lovers meet no matter how adverse the circumstances, sneaking off for a rendezvous. As we woo our artist with our focused attention and private time, it will reward us with art.
(Editor's Note -- Print out the rest of the article so you can write down your answers in the following section.)
Be Nice to Yourself
Many of us work too hard on being selfless. We forget that we actually need a self for self-expression. Take pen in hand and do a little archaeology -- dig through your "shoulds" until you arrive at some "coulds." Complete the following sentences with 5 wishes. Write rapidly to evade your inner censor.
If it weren't so selfish, I'd love to try ...
If it weren't so expensive, I'd love to try ...
If it weren't so frivolous, I'd love to own ...
If it weren't so scary, I'd love to tell ...
If I had five other lives, I'd love to be ...
These lists are powerful dreams. They may manifest in your life rapidly and unexpectedly. For this reason, you may want to put these lists into your God jar for safekeeping. Do not be surprised if "parts" of your "other" lives begin to show up in the life you've actually got.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Tarcher/Putnam Publishing. ©2002. www.penguinputnam.com
Walking in This World: The Practical Art of Creativity
by Julia Cameron.
In this long-awaited sequel to the international bestseller The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron presents the next step in her course of discovering and recovering the creative self. Walking In This World picks up where The Artist's Way left off to present readers with a second course--Part Two in an amazing journey toward discovering our human potential. Julia Cameron shows readers how to inhabit this world with a sense of wonder, a childlike inquisitiveness that each of us was born with. Full of valuable new strategies and techniques for breaking difficult creative ground, this is the "intermediate level" of the Artist's Way program.
Info/Order this paperback book and/or download the Kindle edition.
About the Author
JULIA CAMERON has been an active artist for more than thirty years. She is the author of numerous books of fiction and nonfiction, among them The Artist's Way, The Vein of Gold, and The Right to Write, her bestselling works on the creative process. A novelist, playwright, songwriter, and poet, she has multiple credits in theater, film, and television. Julia divides her time between Manhattan and the high desert of New Mexico.